Translating the Bible: From the Seventh to the Seventeenth Century

Article excerpt

Translating the Bible. From the Seventh to the Seventeenth Century. By Lynne Long. Ashgate New Critical Thinking in Theology and Biblical Studies. Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate, 2001. 231 pp. £42.50/$74.95 (cloth).

Despite its general title, this book foeuses on translations of the Bible into only one language, English. The author, who teaches the history of translation at the University of Warwick, expects her audience to be surprised by her premise: rendering the Bible into English is a complicated task. It requires a reconstruction of the original text. It is influenced by both the theological bias of the translator and the agenda of the translators sponsor. Because the source and target languages are different in vocabulary, syntax, and grammar, it involves compromises. This much will be old news to readers of this journal.

The author takes principal aim at the Victorian Protestant historiography which represented the medieval laity as unhappily ignorant of Scripture and then showed the Wycliffites and early Protestants distributing accessible and popular new translations, like forerunners of the Bible societies. (She does not name anyone who sees things this way now.) Sed contra, vernacular Scripture passages circulated widely, embedded in sermons, devotional and instructional works, popular narratives, and other English religious literature. The Wycliffite Bible built on those translations. Far from being popular, however, it was very expensive and frequently unintelligible.

Nor did the church leaders who opposed Wycliffe and Tyndale seek to keep the laity ignorant. Rather, they were anxious about heretical or erroneous readings, worried that the gold of Scripture would become leaden in a low-status language, and eager to preserve the power and status of the clergy. Still, humanists such as Thomas More did recognize the benefits that a sound vernacular Bible translation could offer, if one could be written. …