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date: 03 June 2020

(p. 17) Translations (p. 18)

(p. 19) Introduction to Part I

In 1526 William Tyndale’s Lutheran-inspired translation of the New Testament, printed at Worms, sparked a revolution. Tyndale’s interventions in spreading the word shed light on the contradictory responses to vernacular translations. As Susan Wabuda demonstrates here, six years before Tyndale was denounced, mutilated, and burned, the doctrinally conservative Henry VIII mooted the idea of an English Bible. English evangelicals and senior clerics alike opposed the idea, bringing into focus the ways in which scripture was both disseminated (and forbidden) to the laity. Despite the major biblical translations of the 1530s, in the immediate aftermath of the Reformation, vernacular translations did not so much burst forth as sputter into being.

Tyndale advocated a vernacular Bible on a number of grounds. He was particularly concerned that St Jerome’s Vulgate Latin Bible—the Bible of the medieval church—was not widely comprehended by either the laity or members of the priesthood:

But alas the curates them selves (for the most parte) wote no moare what the newe or olde testamente meaneth then do the turkes. Nether know they of any moare then that they reade at masse matens and evensonge which yet they understonde not … but synge & saye and patter all daye with the lyppes only that which the herte understondeth not.1

Jerome’s translation had been intended to provide a single, authoritative text in the vernacular language to replace the numerous different Latin translations that had been transcribed (and mistranscribed) after Latin replaced Greek as the common language in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet the manuscript circulation of the Vulgate meant that it too was transmitted in varying forms. Over a thousand years after it had been translated, Tyndale (p. 20) contended that the Vulgate Bible was no longer universal and neither priest nor layperson had the ability to comprehend the scriptures.

Officially, the Catholic Church did not disapprove of translating the word into the vernacular and there were numerous translations in other European languages. Yet, in England, translation and Reformation went hand in glove.2 As noted in the general introduction, the main English Bible before Tyndale’s was John Wycliffe’s 1380s translation, which (before the Reformation) became synonymous with heresy and effectively led to an outright ban on translations into English. For Thomas More, translation begat heresy and, in 1532, he applauded Henry VIII’s (public) decision to

prohybyte the scrypture of god to be sufferd in englyshe tonge amonge the peoples hands leste evyll folke by false drawyng of every good thynge they rede in to the colour and mayntenauns of theyr owne fonde fantasyes, and turnynge all hony in to posyn, myght both dedly do hurte vnto theym selfe, and sprede also that infeccyone farther a brode.3

Whereas Tyndale argued that the inability to comprehend scripture led uneducated members of the laity and the priesthood to become alienated from God, More retorted that the English were not ready to receive the word in their own language and false biblical translation would infect the populace with heresy.

More’s distrust of biblical translation was not shared by Miles Coverdale; in 1535, he dedicated the first full printed English Bible to King Henry who was now publicly supportive of vernacular translation. For Coverdale, far from corrupting the populace, through their very diversity, vernacular translations enhance the unity of faith.4 Both Catholics and Protestants looked to tradition to assert the veracity of their doctrinal differences and this led to unlikely collaborations across confessional divides. Nicholas Udall’s edition of Erasmus’s biblical paraphrases (1548) comprised translations from notable Protestants such as Katherine Parr and Coverdale, but even the Catholic Mary Tudor contributed to the volume.5 Although this would seem to imply that translation could be a way of crossing confessional divides, Catholics frequently emphasized the fragmentary nature of translation and how it could be a way to corrupt the Word.6 Protestants also expressed anxieties about the ‘correct’ way to interpret scripture, yet Coverdale reinforced the idea that the various translations enrich scripture. The different translations were not incompatible with sola scriptura and become a way to connect the English Reformation with the Reformation in continental Europe.

The transnational quality of translation is examined in Femke Molekamp’s chapter, which addresses the most ubiquitous of all sixteenth-century English Bibles. This is the Geneva Bible, first published in 1560 though not published in England until 1576. Molekamp observes the collaborative quality of the Geneva Bible, which was translated by Marian exiles, and traces how it was produced and transmitted from interactions between European Calvinism and English (p. 21) Protestantism. The Geneva Bible contained numerous marginal glosses, demonstrating that translating and interpreting the word were two closely related ventures. In tandem with these glosses, prefatory materials directly address the issues of translation and interpretation.

While the Geneva Bible was a collaborative act and earlier Bibles such as the Matthew Bible and the Great Bible drew from various translations, perhaps the most famous of collaborative Bibles was the King James Bible, first published in 1611. Katrin Ettenhuber attends to the way in which Miles Smith’s prefatory materials to the KJB justify doctrinal and linguistic principles and how authorization of the word took shape partly as a response to the Catholic Douai-Rheims translations. Gregory Martin, in his preface to The New Testament Faithfully Translated into English (1582) uses his translation to reclaim the vernacular for the Catholic Church. Following the lead of German, Flemish, French and Polish ‘learned Catholics’ who translated the Bible into vernacular tongues as a response to Protestant bibles, Martin translates the Bible ‘for the more speedy abolishing of a number of false and impious translations put forth by sundry sectes, and for the better preservation or reclaime of many good soules endangered thereby’.7 While both Catholics and Protestants claimed doctrinal authority through a connection to the early church, Catholics asserted this authority through the tradition of the church and Protestants through the scriptures. Ettenhuber demonstrates how the King James Bible’s assertion of philological meticulousness is presented as a way to negotiate Catholic and Puritan differences.

Yet, unlike the Geneva or the Douai-Rheims Bible, the King James Bible presented largely unannotated scripture. Whereas early Bibles—whether Catholic or Protestant— drew attention to the difficulties of reading scripture through marginal glosses, the King James Bible presents annotation as unnecessary. Individuals are able to understand the word of God without the intervention of (partisan) marginal glosses. Taking the representation of God’s vengeance and desolation in Isaiah as a starting point, Karen Edwards reads the minimal glosses of the KJB as themselves politically inflected. Edwards shows how the slender interpretive machinery of the King James Bible became a means to endorse the established church and downplay the strangeness of the Bible. It is to this strangeness that Jamie Ferguson attends when he takes issues of translation and the language of the English Bible as the starting point for defining biblical authority and questioning its relationship to national autonomy and religious identity. Language proved a contentious issue and the Latinate English of the King James Bible was not wholly endorsed.

Finally in this section, Nigel Smith takes Robert Gell’s An Essay Toward the Amendment of the Last English Translation of the Bible (1659) and its recommendation for close to 500 revisions to the King James Bible as a case study for how people responded to biblical translation in the mid-seventeenth century. Arguing that Gell represents the end of one hermeneutic impulse whilst pre-empting eighteenth-century pietist literalism, Smith shows how translation continued to be contentious throughout the period under discussion. The chapters in this section demonstrate that English vernacular translation was a fraught undertaking. Translating the word of God might attempt to create common understanding through allowing individuals to read scripture in their own language, but debates regarding the appropriateness of biblical translation continued throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (p. 22)


(1) William Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christen Man and How Christen Rulers Ought to Governe (1528), B5r–v.

(2) Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

(3) Thomas More, The Confutacyon of Tyndales Answere Made by Syr Thomas More Knyght Lorde Chauncellour of Englonde (1532), C1r.

(4) Biblia the Bible, That Is, the Holy Scrypture of the Olde and New Testament, Faithfully Translated in to Englyshe, tr. Miles Coverdale (1535).

(6) Tina Krontiris, Oppositional Voices: Women as Writers and Translators of Literature in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge, 1992).