More on KJV

I wrote in a recent post that I have more critical things to say about the King James Version.

What most bothers me about it – and I am talking mainly about the Old Testament – is the clumsy stiffness and uniformity of its style, altogether foreign to the great variety of styles, ranging from the sublimely poetic to the colloquially prosaic, found in the original. This feature – acknowledged even by a KJV fan like Harold Bloom – is quite understandable from the translators’ point of view: they were churchmen, and what they saw themselves as translating was not literature but the Word of God.

My pet peeve has to do with the translators’ treatment of the present participle, and even more particularly a specific case of it. To explain what I mean I have to go through a little – or perhaps not so little – discussion of grammar.

Hebrew (like Arabic, as discussed here) has, technically, no present tense; it is what is known as a zero-copula language, so that the equivalent of “me Tarzan, you Jane” (or, more literally, “I Tarzan, you Jane”) would be grammatical in it. Instead of the present tense, then, it uses the present participle, so that “I go” is אני הולך  (ăni hōlēkh – I’m using a sort of scholarly transliteration, not that of modern Hebrew), literally “I am going”. Now the present participle, in virtually all languages that have it, functions as an adjective, but in those languages in which adjectives are inflected for number (and possibly for gender) – which include Hebrew and many European languages, but not English – an adjective can be used as a noun meaning a person or thing having the attribute indicated by the adjective. For example, English nouns such as belle and blonde are borrowings from French, in which they are originally the feminine singular adjectives meaning ‘beautiful’ and ‘fair-haired’, respectively, but can be automatically turned into nouns.

In English adjectives, because they are uninflected, can be nominalized only to a limited degree. Some adjectives describing people, when preceded by the, can be used in the plural only to the note the mass of people having the given attribute: the rich, the dead, the homeless… Occasionally, in specialized jargon, an adjective may become a noun if the noun following it is omitted, such temporary (filling, in dentistry) or attending (physician, in a hospital), but that’s about all.

It so happens that attending is a present participle, but generally turning a present participle into a noun, even in the limited way discussed above, is even more problematic, because the same –ing ending that forms the present participle also forms the gerund and the verbal noun. Consider the difference in meaning between the questions “What does an undertaker do for a living?” and “What does an undertaker do for the living?”

In those languages in which adjectives readily become nouns, present participles are often used as one way of creating actor nouns, that is, nouns meaning persons or things performing the action indicated by the verb. English is full of such nouns borrowed from those languages, especially from Latin: president (praesidens ‘presiding’), regent (regens ‘ruling’), secant (secans ‘cutting’), tangent (tangens ‘touching’) and hundreds of others. There is also commandant from French (‘commanding’), phenomenon from Greek (φαινόμενον ‘appearing’). While these languages have other ways of forming actor nouns, the present-participle form sometimes is used to distinguish meanings: in French imprimeur is a printer (person) while imprimante is a printer (machine); in Spanish viajero means traveler in general while viajante means specifically a traveling salesman.

Hebrew, too, has various ways of forming actor nouns. For example, melekh ‘king’ comes from mālakh (‘to reign’), and gannābh ‘thief’ (leading via Yiddish to the English ganef or gonif) from gānabh (‘to steal’). But the present-participle way is by far the most common one, in both classical and modern Hebrew, in the same way that the suffix –er is the most common one English. For example, the usual word for ‘enemy’ is sōnē, which is the present participle of sānē ‘to hate’. In Exodus 23:5, for example, the Septuagint (compiled at a time when Hebrew was still a living language) renders sōnē as the noun ἐχθρός ‘enemy’. On the other hand the Vulgate (written long after Hebrew had died out) chooses to interpret it as the present participle odiens ‘hating’. But it is still used as a noun, and a reasonable translation into English would be hater. (A similar thing happens in Deuteronomy 7:10, though there the Septuagint has something more like ‘hater’.) This is not, however, what English translators, from Wycliffe on, choose to do. Since they cannot use hating directly, they write him that hateth.

There a great many cases like this: him that remaineth for ‘survivor’; him that smiteth (or smote) for ‘smiter’ or ‘killer’. But my favorite is the translation of maštīn baqqīr (‘pissing on the wall’) as (him, one or any) that pisseth against the wall.

Modern translations usually render this phrase as male, and that is in fact the meaning. It occurs six times, always in narratives from the time of the kingdoms and in the context of actual or threatened extermination. In my opinion it was, in all likelihood, soldier slang. It cries for a pithy, slangy translation rather than a churchy one. Shakespeare would probably have written it as wall-pisser, on a par with ratcatcher (Romeo and Juliet) or idiot-worshipper (Troilus and Cressida). Can you imagine Mercutio saying “Tybalt, thou that catchest rats”? Or Thersites “idol of them that worship idiots”? Not me.


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