April 28, 2004

Lost in Translation

At lunch today, I swung by the Borders that's just a few blocks from the office, and picked up a copy of God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson. Picked up, but did not buy (although I'll probably end up buying it sooner or later). What bothered me, I suppose, was Nicolson's treatment of William Tyndale, the man on whose translations of the New Testament (1526, revised in 1534) and portions of the Old Testament (1530 and 1537) (regrettably, Tyndale was martyred before he could finish the work) formed the basis of the 1611 King James translation (David Daniell, the Tyndale scholar par excellence, reports that 83 percent of King James is lifted straight from Tyndale). Nicolson suggests that the Tyndale influence on the King James translators is overstated, which is odd, since they lifted passages verbatim from him, and since the King James translators left no written records of their work.

Tyndale, in preparing his translations, relied on Erasmus' Latin translation with parallel Greek text, and, most likely, Luther's German translation. It is not unreasonable to suppose that, like Tyndale, the King James translators had before them earlier translations to assist with their work. More than that, however, the English language into which they were translating the Hebrew and Greek Bibles had itself been influenced by Tyndale, who in turn had been heavily influenced by Hebrew syntax. To give one example, we use phrases like the dead of night or bureau of labor statistics rather than night's dead or labor statistics bureau because that's the Hebrew word order, which Tyndale preserved in his English translation.

Consider the clarity of Tyndale's opening of the Book of Genesis, reproduced in William Tyndale: Selected Works. It reads as well as most modern translations:

In the beginning God created the heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water.

Then God said: let there be light and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good: and divided the light from the darkness, and called the light day, and the darkness night: and so of the evening and morning was made the first day.

And God said: let there be a firmament between the waters, and let it divide the waters asunder. Then God made the firmament and parted the waters which were under the firmament, from the waters that were above the firmament: And it was so. And God called the firmament heaven. And so of the evening and morning was made the second day.

And God said, let the waters that are under heaven gather themselves unto one place, that the dry land may appear: And it came so to pass. And God called the dry land the earth and the gathering together of waters called he the sea. And God saw that it was good.

Nicolson derides those who think Tyndale's contribution to Biblical translation is forgotten; I think the contribution of the fortuitous combination of some Hebrew texts and a religious reformer to the English language -- upon which not only the King James Bible but much of English literature depended -- is, on the contrary, something to be remembered and celebrated.

Posted by Ideofact at April 28, 2004 11:51 PM

Enlightening details about the origin of certain English phrases.

I also agree--Tyndale's work should not be forgotten, or slighted.

Posted by: steve h at May 1, 2004 12:19 PM

I think you are right. There is a recent book on Tyndale called "If God Spare My Life" by Brian Moynahan that tells his story - with particular emphasis on Thomas More's obsession with hunting him down (successfully, as it turns out). Many (if not most) people are now ignorant of his name, which is a great shame because, with Shakespeare, his prose moulded our language.

Posted by: Alastair Sherringham at May 3, 2004 08:18 AM