Proto-Puritan William Tyndale (3)

His Translation Work

In my last post, we looked at William Tyndale’s life and work in “exile” in Europe to the time of his betrayal and death. As we noted earlier, he went there to carry on his translation work, because in England such was not only forbidden, but also found no willing printer.

Evidence existed for English Bible translation already before but especially during the 14thcentury.  John Wycliffe provided at least the inspiration though probably not the translation (his students did that), of the first whole Bible in English in 1382 (the wooden-awkward version) with a revision by 1395 (the more-natural-reading version) though from Latin and with handwritten copies only (no movable-type printing press until 1454). By 1408, unsanctioned English translations were forbidden, and by 1415, the Wycliffe Bible was condemned for burning. In the Lord’s gracious providence, many copies or portions escaped the flames as part of a grass-roots Wycliffite and “Lollard” (more eclectic) movement in different pockets across England and its various social classes. With this in mind, a Bible-grounded, anti-Romish, reform-minded, and straightforward approach (albeit with diversity) to the Christian faith likely impacted a young Tyndale and the burden he possessed for translation.  

Likewise, Tyndale mentions in The Obedience of a Christian Man(1528) his boyhood reading of  the “English chronicle,” denoting John Trevisa’s 1387 English translation of Ranulf Higden’s Latin Polychronicon(c.1326). Most important for Tyndale was Trevisa’s preface, which, among other things, justified the skillful translation of the Bible (with connections to preaching!) into English. Such reading no doubt sowed seeds in Tyndale’s heart for his future work. 

As mentioned in earlier posts, Tyndale learned Latin and Greek at Oxford, possibly furthered his Greek at Cambridge, and studied Hebrew while on the continent, possibly while in Worms (1526-27).  His expertise with these languages, for a man of his time, is nothing short of amazing. As Tyndale expert David Daniell observes, he “was a most remarkable scholar and linguist, whose eight languages included skill in Greek and Hebrew far above the ordinary for an Englishman of the time—indeed, Hebrew was virtually unknown in England”  (William Tyndale: A Biography, Yale, 1994, Kindle edition).

Tyndale’s translation skill was manifested in other works before his expertise in the Bible became known. Around 1522 (not for publication), he translated from Latin Erasmus’s Enchiridion militis Christiani(1503), ‘Handbook of a Christian Knight’, into English for John and Ann Walsh, as he sought to convince them of the corruption of the Roman church that withheld God’s truth from the people. Erasmus’s book, which leads the reader to Christ and into the Christian life according to the Scriptures and not the church who often twisted them, must have appealed to Tyndale, even if the work did so in a moralistic manner. Tyndale also translated into English around this time one of the orations of the Greek rhetorician (one setting forth the principles of persuasion), Isocrates (436–338 BC), to show Cuthbert Tunstall (himself skilled in Greek) his capabilities with the Greek language. Neither the Erasmus nor the Isocrates translations have survived.

By the time of Tyndale’s famous 1523 papal defiance and determined claim to provide Scripture to the plough boy (see our first post), he was already entrenched in New Testament translation work using Erasmus’s 3rdedition of the Greek New Testament (1522). Indeed, if God spared his then-threatened life, before “many years” the plough boy would know more of the Bible than the learned yet scornful opponent with whom he debated at the time.  

Tyndale’s goal as a translator was to be both faithful to the original languages and yet readable in common English. For him a good translation meant conveying the ancient meaning of the text to the modern reader/hearer. This demanded a balance between word-for-word formal equivalence and thought-for-thought functional equivalence. Again observes Daniell, “There are times when the original Greek, and for good reason even more the Hebrew, are baffling. A weak translator goes for paraphrase, or worse, for philological purity, and hang the sense . . . Tyndale is clear. With a difficult word or phrase, he understands the alternatives presented by technical semantics, or changes of tone or feeling, and goes for what makes sense.” He knew that translation involved interpretation, and that the latter demanded grasping the literal sense of the text without being literalistic. From such an approach, he saw the spiritualizing excesses of the fourfold method of exegesis so prominent in the medieval church but without becoming inflexible in his own interpretation of Scripture.  His balanced translation philosophy continues to inform us today.

Tyndale’s legacy as a translator is somewhat of a sleeping giant, more and more realized the more he is studied. Most importantly, the English Bible owes its greatest debt to him. For example, Daniell observes that the “Authorised Version of 1611, . . . took over Tyndale's work” with 90% of the New Testament dependent on him. This figure also holds true for “the first half of the Old Testament, which is as far as he was able to get before he was executed outside Brussels in 1536.” Indirectly, through his translation work, Tyndale also greatly impacted the development of the English language, a fact that has been little appreciated close to 500 years after his death. Daniell provides a helpful summary (and for us, a fitting conclusion to this post) of these two areas:

“His unsurpassed ability was to work as a translator with the sounds and rhythms as well as the senses of English, to create unforgettable words, phrases, paragraphs and chapters, and to do so in a way that, again unusually for the time, is still, even today, direct and living: newspaper headlines still quote Tyndale, though unknowingly, and he has reached more people than even Shakespeare.”

Previous Posts:

1. Life in England

2. Life in Exile

Bob McKelvey (@mckelvrj) is program coordinator of the Puritan Studies Program in connection with the Jonathan Edwards Center Africa at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He is also lecturer in Historical Theology at John Wycliffe Theological College in Johannesburg, South Africa, and extraordinary senior lecturer at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. He is the author of Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize: The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan’s Holy War and a contributor to Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism.

Bob McKelvey