“Still small voice”: KJV Idioms and the Book of Mormon

If you go to the Church’s online edition of the scriptures you’ll notice a prominent link to a 3-part documentary called “Fires of Faith: The Coming Forth of the King James Bible,” produced by BTUTV. What an interesting subtitle. “Coming forth” is a phrase we typically reserve for discussions about the Book of Mormon. The phrase connotes divine direction, implicitly asserting the KJV’s prominence for LDS scripture study in the English speaking church.

I’ve recently been using a New Revised Standard Version for my scripture study. I’ve also used a free Kindle copy of the English Standard Version to follow along with recent Sunday School lessons on those ever-so-difficult Pauline epistles. Using different Bible versions has brought the text to life in a new way for me; I wish more members would make use of a variety of translations. Too often we say “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a KJV Bible and there cannot be any more Bible.”

That being said, there’s a peculiar devotional quality I personally experience in the KJV that I can’t easily escape. I figure it has something to do with the KJV’s prominence in my early memories of the reading or hearing scriptures, including its familiar cadence in the Book of Mormon.

Speaking of which…

It’s unquestionable that the KJV text had direct influence on the translation of the Book of Mormon. Scholars both critical and apologetic have always recognized the presence of KJV idioms there, a fact which makes a strong case that the Book of Mormon text we have can’t be a strictly literal translation of an ancient text. The most obvious examples of KJV influence are the notorious Isaiah parts through 2 Nephi, the presence of which led B.H. Roberts to suggest that Joseph Smith actually referred to a Bible while translating the Book of Mormon.1 This isn’t the only possible explanation, but I thought I’d throw it in here because reasonable folks have believed such things.

Here I’m focusing specifically on “idioms”—short expressions like “fly in the ointment”—because of linguist/scholar David Crystal. In the book Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (OUP, 2011), Crystal identifies idiomatic expressions as evidence for the KJV’s continued influence on English. Crystal acknowledges that tracing a book’s influence on language in terms of grammar, spelling, vocabulary, syntax and so forth is always difficult and never precise. So in Begat he focuses directly on idioms, which originated in the KJV, or seem to have gained their popularity through that medium, which can be found floating around in contemporary culture. Throughout Begat he traces 257 such expressions (258). He even gives a shout-out to the Church’s use of “pearl of great price” as the title of “a collection of its doctrinal materials” (190). What if KJV had gone with Wycliffe’s “margarite”?2

One particular phrase from 1 Kings 19:12 stuck out to me: “And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. Crystal notes that “still small voice” has “captured the imagination” of practically all subsequent English translations (77). Wycliffe has “the issuing of thin wind,” Douai-Rheims says “a whistling of a gentler air,” and Geneva has “a still and soft voice.” Crystal speculates that “still small voice” reigns because “its gradual lengthening of the vowels (short i, longer a, diphthong oi) is more euphonious” than the other attempts (78). Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon, in good KJV fashion, retains the euphonious KJV rendering:

“Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words…” (1 Nephi 17:45).3

What most interests me is that the KJV’s phrase is not found in a quotation of 1 Kings, but rather it appears in its own context, through a different prophet’s voice, translated into KJV idiom by Joseph Smith. The phrase “still small voice” has a heavy devotional purchase in LDS culture today. But it might have been otherwise, were it not for the translators of the King James Version—a book whose voice is neither still nor small in current English-speaking LDS parlance.

________________________________________

Footnotes:

1. Roberts explained: “When Joseph Smith saw that the Nephite record was quoting the prophecies of Isaiah, of Malachi, or the words of the Savior, he took the English Bible and compared these passages as far as they paralleled each other, and finding that in substance, in thought, they were alike, he adopted our English translation,” B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907), 1:272, cited in Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 303. Emma Smith insisted that she never saw Joseph use a book during the translation. This was a late reminiscence and Emma was not always present while Joseph was translating. See Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” Saints’ Advocate 2/4 (October 1879): 50-52. Other LDS scholars including Kent P. Jackson and Grant Hardy have likewise suggested Joseph’s direct usage of the KJV during the translation, see Gardner, 303.

2. Crystal has written a ton of pretty cool stuff, but to be honest, I thought his execution in Begat was boring. Each chapter tackles one or several biblical phrases by tracing their use amongst English speakers, frequently via google searches. There is next-to-no analysis about the interaction between language and culture. He merely gives a litany of examples of phrases which people still use, the origins of which being traceable to the KJV.

3. “Still small voice” also shows up in Doctrine and Covenants 85:6Helaman 5:30-31 uses “still voice of perfect mildness,” but as with the verse in 1 Kings and 1 Nephi, the element of “thunder” is interestingly also present.

Comments

  1. Steve Evans says:

    I’m sorry, Blair — what were you saying? I was off playing saxophone there and didn’t hear you. Perhaps you were issuing a gentle wind?

  2. I love the idea that Joseph, when confronted with Nephi’s wholesale quotation of Isaiah, simply decided to “cut and paste” from the KJV. It makes him seem much more a part of our modern culture because, come on, it’s what any of us would do in that situation, especially given our modern tools. In a way, Joseph was the first word processor.

  3. “a strong case that the Book of Mormon text we have can’t be a strictly literal translation of an ancient text.”
    I don’t think that’s true, actually.
    Interesting review, I’d had this on my reading list.

  4. Ben S,

    Why doesn’t the presence of English idioms (KJV, or otherwise, for that matter) make for a strong case that the BoM is not a strictly literal translation?

  5. Almost all translations are the best attempts of the translators to express the meaning of what is being translated in words that will be understood by those who read the translations. In that light, I would be very surprised if such an attempt wasn’g going on with the Book of Mormon (to use words that were common to the future readers) – either consciously or through divine direction. Thus, no matter why, the KJV language doesn’t dother me in the slightest.

    What gives me pause and makes me wonder is the existence of so many uncommon idiomatic words and phrases – and so many verses that are not word-for-word translations in the Isaiah passages. If Joseph’s memory was good enough to produce so many word-for-word passages, it’s difficult to believe he would have written so many verses that weren’t word-for-word – unless he quoted verbatim some times and worked off of memory other times. That absolutely is plausible, but it still doesn’t explain the idiomatic oddities – at least relative to the KJV and the language of his time.

    I have no problem with that, if it was the case – since “most correct” certainly doesn’t have to mean “translated most literally” or “most inerrant”.

  6. StillConfused says:

    I have no idea what this post is about because I have not read it… instead I must go over to youtube and listen to careless whisper. I suspect it will be stuck in my head all day!

  7. It depends what Blair means by “literal”- formal equivalence? Something else?

    Some English idioms have come from the KJV, which tended to formal equivalence and even calques at times. What that means is, depending on the English or KJV idiom in question, the fact that it *is* an idiom may make it a *very* literal translation, not a dynamic or formal-equivalence translation.

    So it depends on what Blair intends by “literal” and the idiom in question.

    Joseph was not an experienced, elegant translator who set out with a particular translation strategy to adhere to. I suspect the translation is eclectic.

  8. And of course, sometimes a “literal” translation is the most inaccurate, because it fails to communicate well.

  9. No translation is ‘strictly literal’–that is an illusion. I studied translation and linguistcs and have worked as a translator, and I can tell you that there are books and books worth of linguists and scholars trying to define translation and what it means. I think most people assume that there is some sort of ideal translation that would replicate a source language exactly in a target language, but it is impossible to do that (see the failure of machine translation). Most translations can be considered a ‘third language’ or a liminal space in between the source and target.

    I can imagine that Joseph Smith, being someone familiar with the specific language of the KJV, occasionally chose phrases from the KJV in English to translate similar phrases from the BOM. That doesn’t bother me at all–as a translator I would do (and have done) similar things. I also imagine that much of his language choices were a deliberate choice to situate the BOM as scripture by choosing words and phrases similar to that of the biblical language with which he was most familiar.

  10. Andy Hardwick Houston TX says:

    Before I joined the Church I used the catholic version of the Bible and later the Jerusalem Bible. The KJV has always been tough to read. I hate it! I am a SS teacher of the adults and although I use the KJV in class, i prepare my lesson reading multiple versions so i can understand what the heck Paul is talking about. Why do I have to read the Bible in a language i neither speak nor understand that has a million footnotes. For personal study I prefer Reina De Valera. It renders the tetragrammaton JHVH as Jehovah not LORD and it is much clearer to me.

  11. Andy Hardwick Houston TX says:

    Let me clarify in my last comment that Reina De Valera is in Spanish and now comes in the edition published by the Church with LDS footnotes

  12. In the OP I remarked:

    Scholars both critical and apologetic have always recognized the presence of KJV idioms there, a fact which makes a strong case that the Book of Mormon text we have can’t be a strictly literal translation of an ancient text.

    Ben S, I suspect you and I are largely in agreement on this. As far as “literal translation” of the specific idiom which I refer to, “still small voice,” I’m thinking in terms of what Gardner calls a “literalist equivalent” (66). Would you guess that there is a literalist equivalence in the original plate language for this phrase, a word for “still,” a word for “small,” and a word for “voice”? Most likely not, right? That’s really all I’m trying to say. I know “literal translation” can be understood in different ways, and that sometimes a “literal translation” can actually be more misleading to a reception audience than a looser translation. My intent is just to point out that there are phrases in the Book of Mormon which bear a distinct KJV fingerprint, in addition to the more obvious quotations of Isaiah, Malachi, etc.

    FoxyJ: No translation is ‘strictly literal’–that is an illusion. I studied translation and linguistcs and have worked as a translator, and I can tell you that there are books and books worth of linguists and scholars trying to define translation and what it means.

    I agree. I don’t know how many members of the church have thought very deeply about “translation” and our scriptures, so this blog post is intended to reach people on different levels and spur some thought via an idiom that I’m fond of. I know KJV and BoM discussions have often revolved around polemics, the evidence for ancient authenticity or 19th century plagiarism, but rather than talking about whether or not I’m bothered by it I thought I’d just share one interesting example.

    It’s also a cheap way to get out of writing a full review for a book I was pretty disappointed with. ;)

  13. Andy, can you check out the Spanish version of the phrase “still small voice” and give me a literalist translation to English? In 1 Kings does it say “still small voice” pretty much on the nose, or does it differ? How about in the BoM 1 Nephi?

  14. Researcher says:

    How about German? In the EÜ, the translation used by the church, it says “ein sanftes, leises Säuseln.” Google Translate translates that as “a still, small voice,” but if you look at each word, it’s more like “a soft, soft sigh of the wind or rustle of leaves.”

  15. Andy Hardwick Houston TX says:

    B Hodges

    The phrase in in 1 Kings Spanish is”un silbo apacible y delicado” which literally means a gentle and delicate whistle (or whistling sound) In Helaman5:30 it talks about “a gentle voice of perfect smoothness as though it were a whisper”

  16. A friend of mine recently sent me a link to that KJV documentary. He lives in a ward which stoned their Sunday School teacher for referring to another translation in his lesson. So much for reading the Bible in one’s own tongue.

  17. I recently gently tried to suggest to my SS class that it might be a good idea to supplement their reading of the KJV with reading in other translations. They stoned me, too.

  18. Kevin: My wife uses the NRSV Harpr-Collins study bible occasionally to teach her Sunday School Class, but she rarely quotes from it, and if she does, she will do so along side the KJV. No stonings yet. I am actually surprised people pay attention enough or care enough to make an issue of it.

  19. I quoted from a unnamed “modern translation” teaching the other day; no noticeable response.
    On the other hand, back when we did OT, I handed out a recommended list of supplemental books, including translations, and a few weeks later, the Stake Pres. prefaced a comment with, “I was reading one of the translations Bro. S. recommended, and it said blah blah blah, which was very interesting.”
    I know my Dad, a SP in Florida, has recommended other translations before, but not over the pulpit, to my knowledge.
    Obviously, geography and attitudes of local leadership play a role.

  20. “Obviously, geography and attitudes of local leadership play a role.”

    I’d like to nominate that line as BCC understatement of the week.

  21. #5 “I have no problem with that, if it was the case – since “most correct” certainly doesn’t have to mean “translated most literally” or “most inerrant”.”
    Actually it could mean both of those things. As long as you leave in the “Most” “I told the bretheren that the BOM was the most correct…” does allow room for some of the mistakes of a mortal man

  22. I’ve gotten stoned in Sunday School, too, but that was from sniffing the “magic marker” for too long. But I can also attest that the KJV is far more interesting when your high.

  23. Steve Evans says:

    #17 did they stone you just like Jelly Roll?

  24. Or were they just stoned already?

  25. “A Bible! A Bible! We have got a KJV Bible and there cannot be any more Bible.”

    Priceless.

  26. As a person who speaks more than two languages, I have to say that there are sayings in each language that have NO literal translation. They are translated so that the “feeling” or “sentiment” is the same. The only way to really have this more perfect understanding of the Bible would be to read it in the language that it was originally written. This is why idioms are hard for non native speakers to grasp. Furthermore, the danger of reading multiple other versions is that some are really wrong and misleading. They don’t convey the feeling or sentiment that was originally intended at all. I personally have wondered why we even use the KJV when Joseph Smith retranslated large portions of the Bible.

  27. Wherefore, I know not why ye complain. Philistines. Heathen. Only the uncircumcised of heart speak the corrupted English of the latter days. Rise up, take heart, and rejoice in the more perfect translation.

  28. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    We Mormons have a bit of cognitive dissonance on the translation of the Book of Mormon. On the one hand, ours is a church that is heavily invested in language training, live interpretation, and translation of texts into many languages. Many of us have massive direct experience with what is required to write a translation from one language into another. Most fundamentally, it requires that the translator be able to think and express herself in BOTH the original and target languages.
    On the other hand, we know that before 1830 Joseph Smith was limited in his education and literary skills in English, let alone having any skills or experience in reading and writing, or hearing and speaking, a hybrid “spoken Hebrew/ written Egyptian hieratic or demotic script” that appears to be the language Mormon, Nephi and Moroni wrote onto the metal plates. We try to conceptualize how Joseph did the translation, but we absoluteluly know he was not translating the way we modern Mormons translate the Book of Mormon into Japanese (which is a language that writes a spoken Japanese using ideographic symbols from a completely distinct Chinese language).

  29. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    So it is illogical for us to try to explain how Joseph dictated the text as if he were a translator in the same way we translate the Liahona every month. There is no evidence that Joseph had an unserstanding of the Reformed Egyptian in his head, and then cast about for the best way to communicate that understanding in English, lighting upon a King James Bible as a source of phrases. For one thing, there is no clear evidence he even owned a bible at the time. But most fundamentally, he never claimed to actually know the origin language on the plates. And we do know he was looking at the U&T or seer stone, NOT at the plates, which were at hand but wrapped up so Oliver could not even examine the writing on them. We try to impute to Joseph the experiences WE have when WE translate, but there is no evidence that he had that kind of experience.
    Instead it makes more sense to posit that other persons did the work that we call transalation. We know specifically of at least one person who was fluent in both the language written on the plates, and the vocabulary of Joseph: Moroni, who quoted from and paraphrased the KJV when he first came to Joseph.

  30. Personally, I’m waiting for the Ebonics translation (aka, the King J@me$ Version). Wika wika testify yo.

  31. Just to add to the literal translations from other languages, the russian in Kings is “веяние тихого ветра” which is literally “winnowing/blowing/breathing of a quiet wind” and the 1st Nep is “тих[ий] и кротк[ий] голос[]” which is “quiet and mild/gentle voice.”

    Oh, and sexy sax man is the best ftw.

  32. I’m a huge fan of cross checking other translations, especially when the New Testament is quoted in church. I highly recommend Richmond Lattimore’s recent translation. Wilford Griggs (the guy who put the Greek footnotes in the LDS scriptures) strongly recommends it as a faithful rendition of the original texts. The Pauline Epistles are much easier to understand — I find many of the other translations to be derivatives of the KJV, while Lattimore makes them as easy to read as if Paul had written you the letter himself.

    I was chastised once for referencing an alternate translation in a Sunday School lesson. The KJV is the official version of the bible for church publications, (J. Reuben Clark was the impetus behind that), but we are in no way forbidden from clarifying the meaning of a passage by referring to another translator’s work.

  33. Great comments, folks. I like.

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