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Robert Alter shares insight about the King James Bible

By Kelsey McKinney

A page from the Book of Moses in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center
A page from the Book of Moses in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center

In conjunction with the current exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, Robert Alter speaks this Thursday about “The Question of Eloquence in the King James Version.” The event, which is co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, takes place in Jessen Auditorium and will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

Alter is a professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature, who has taught at the University of California at Berkeley since 1967. Alter’s 23rd book Pen of Iron: American Prose in the King James Bible was published in March 2010. Cultural Compass spoke with Dr. Alter about his own translations of the Hebrew bible and the influence of the King James Bible today.

In several interviews you have stated that you appreciate the King James Version. You have also created your own translations of many books of the Hebrew Bible. Are your goals in translating different from  the King James Version translators’?

For me, the power of the Hebrew Bible is inseparable from its stylistic virtuosity—its strong, compact rhythms; its expressive use of syntax; the subtlety and liveliness of its dialogue; the fine precision of its word-choices; the purposeful shifts of levels of diction. Though the King James Version often has its own stylistic beauty (though not as consistently as people tend to remember), the 1611 translators paid attention to none of these considerations and probably were unaware of most of them. Their goal was to provide as exact an equivalent as they could, according to their own understanding, of each word in the original. I share their commitment to a certain literalism but as part of a tight weave of stylistic effects in the Hebrew.

In your book Pen of Iron you examine the influence of the King James Bible on famous American writers such as William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Do you see the same influence in the work of any contemporary American writers?

Fewer American writers now, for rather obvious cultural reasons, are drawing on the King James Version, but its influence has far from disappeared. Two contemporary novelists I discuss in Pen of Iron who reflect the language of the King James Bible are Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy. Another is the late Barry Hannah.

With so many new translations available, is the King James Version still important and relevant today?

Translations that cast the Bible in up-to-the-minute American English are definitely cutting into the constituency of the King James Version because they are easier to read and seem more “accessible.” My own sense is that such translations lack any literary grace and distort the feeling and the meaning of the Bible. Though we are distanced from the 1611 version now because of its archaic language, its beauty is undiminished, and I think it will always have readers as a great literary achievement that altered the course of the English language.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Banners are installed on the lamp posts in the Ransom Center plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Banners are installed on the lamp posts in the Ransom Center plaza. Photo by Pete Smith.
Laurel Dundee, photo archivist at the Ransom Center, shelves newly cataloged negatives from the “New York Journal-American” collection in the cold-storage room. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Laurel Dundee, photo archivist at the Ransom Center, shelves newly cataloged negatives from the “New York Journal-American” collection in the cold-storage room. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Danielle Sigler and Ryan Hildebrand, co-curators of “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” speak about the exhibition at KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR affiliate. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Danielle Sigler and Ryan Hildebrand, co-curators of “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” speak about the exhibition at KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR affiliate. Photo by Jen Tisdale.
Ransom Center staffer Bob Fuentes moves a pallet of materials that recently arrived to supplement the London Review of Books collection. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Ransom Center staffer Bob Fuentes moves a pallet of materials that recently arrived to supplement the London Review of Books collection. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Book Conservator Mary Baughman teaches intern Hsiang-Shun Huang how to build a housing that will keep shelved books safe. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Book Conservator Mary Baughman teaches intern Hsiang-Shun Huang how to build a housing that will keep shelved books safe. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Sonja Reid, Registrar with the Ransom Center’s exhibition services, adjusts the humidity of the case holding the Gutenberg Bible. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Sonja Reid, Registrar with the Ransom Center’s exhibition services, adjusts the humidity of the case holding the Gutenberg Bible. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Ransom Center staff oversee the installation of vinyl text for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” which opens Tuesday. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Ransom Center staff oversee the installation of vinyl text for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” which opens Tuesday. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, installs an item on loan from the Folger for the exhibition "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, installs an item on loan from the Folger for the exhibition "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Sonja Reid, registrar with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, and Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, install a bible that belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. The item, on loan from the Folger, will be on display when "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence" opens Tuesday. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Sonja Reid, registrar with the Ransom Center's exhibition services, and Linda Hohneke, conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, install a bible that belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. The item, on loan from the Folger, will be on display when "The King James Bible: Its History and Influence" opens Tuesday. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Three Ransom Center authors announced as finalists for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award

By Kelsey McKinney

Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, and Anita Desai were selected as finalists for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, and Anita Desai were selected as finalists for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Authors Russell Banks, Don DeLillo, and Anita Desai were selected as finalists for the 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.  The Ransom Center holds the archives of Banks, Delillo, and Desai.

Banks was nominated for his twelfth novel Lost Memory of Skin, DeLillo was nominated for his collection of short stories The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, and Desai was nominated for The Artist of Disappearance, a collection of three novellas.

DeLillo was awarded the PEN/Faulkner award in 1991 for his novel Mao II (1991). Banks was previously nominated for Affliction (1990) and Cloudsplitter (1999). This is the first nomination for Desai.

The winner of the 2012 PEN/Faulkner award will be announced on May 5, 2012.

To celebrate this news, the Ransom Center will give away a signed copy of a Russell Banks book. Email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Banks” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the book. [UPDATE: The contest has closed, and the winner has been notified. Congratulations to David J., winner of a signed copy of Affliction by Russell Banks.]

Related content:

Anita Desai’s latest book now on shelves

Don DeLillo and David Mamet honored by PEN

Notes from the Undergrad: Signature Course delves into works, life of Russell Banks

In the galleries: Russell Banks adapts to a word processor