Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
Critical Introduction by James Miller Dodds
Myles Coverdale (c. 1488–1569) and the Early Translations of the Bible
[The Hebrew Bible had been published in Italy before the end of the 15th century: it was accessible to Luther and Tyndale in fairly good texts. The Greek New Testament was first published by Erasmus in 1516, with a Latin translation. Luther’s New Testament in German appeared in 1522, and his Old Testament by instalments between 1523 and 1532. Another German Bible, known as the Zurich version, was issued by Zwingli and others between 1524 and 1529. Tyndale printed his first English New Testament in 1525 at Cologne and Worms, using the text of Erasmus and the translation of Luther. In 1530 his English Pentateuch, translated from the Hebrew, was published at Marburg and before his death in 1536 he seems to have placed in safe hands an English version of the historical books of the Old Testament down to the end of Second Chronicles. Coverdale’s version of the whole Bible, “faithfully and truly translated out of Douche [German] and Latin into English,” was printed, probably at Zurich, in 1535. It was based upon the current Latin versions, the Zurich German version, and Tyndale, and made no claim to be a translation from the original. In 1537 was issued “Matthew’s” Bible, “set forthwith the king’s most gracious licence” and possibly printed at Antwerp. This Bible was compiled by John Rogers, the Old Testament down to Second Chronicles, and the New Testament, being Tyndale’s version, and the rest Coverdale’s. In April 1539 appeared the first edition of the “Great” Bible, a large folio printed in Paris and London. The “Great” Bible was edited by Coverdale, and was a revision of Matthew’s Bible collated with Munster’s Latin version of the Old Testament (1535) and with Erasmus’ Latin New Testament. A second edition, also prepared by Coverdale, followed in April 1540, with a prologue by Cranmer; and before the end of 1541 seven editions had been called for. Tyndale’s New Testament had been publicly burned in 1530. The “Great” Bible was ordered to be used in all Churches. The change was due to Thomas Cromwell, after whose fall in 1540 a period of reaction began. No more Bibles were printed in the reign of Henry VIII. Under Edward VI. thirty-five editions of the New Testament and thirteen of the whole Bible were issued. From August 1553 to the end of Queen Mary’s reign public Bible reading was prohibited and no Bible was printed in England. But a cluster of learned English exiles in Geneva, inspired by the example of Beza, who translated the New Testament into Latin in 1556, by Calvin’s efforts to improve the French versions, and by the single-handed labours of one of themselves, William Whittingham, who had produced an English New Testament at Geneva in 1557, undertook a new revision of the whole Bible, which was published, with a dedication to Queen Elizabeth, in April 1560. This book, which was based upon the “Great” Bible, with constant reference to the original texts and to the latest Continental renderings, had the advantage of appearing in quarto size, in Roman letters, and with the division into verses. It was also furnished with excellent notes. It speedily became popular, and in numerous editions remained the favourite English Bible throughout the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. But it never received any official sanction. This was reserved for the “Bishops’” Bible, published under the auspices of Archbishop Parker in 1568 after four years’ labour by divines of the Church of England. It was based upon the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the original texts. Until 1611 it was the official translation; but it was not printed as a whole after 1606, whereas the Geneva translation appeared in fresh editions down to 1644.  1
  Miles Coverdale was a Yorkshireman, born about 1488 and brought up at the Augustinian convent in Cambridge. The Prior of the convent, Robert Barnes, became a reformer, and Coverdale seems to have followed his example. In 1527 he is found in correspondence with Cromwell. He subsequently left his convent, and after some time spent in preaching took refuge in 1528 on the Continent, and possibly met Tyndale. Little is known of his movements till 1535, when his English version of the whole Bible was issued; and it is not until 1538 that he is clearly seen at work in Paris, preparing a diglott New Testament (Vulgate and English) and the “Great” Bible. From 1540 until the accession of Edward VI. he was again abroad, supporting himself in Germany by teaching. In 1551 he was made Bishop of Exeter; but after Mary’s accession he was deprived and imprisoned. He remained in prison till 1555, and from that year till 1558 he was once more in exile. He lived in poverty, preaching and writing, until 1563, when he received a living in London. He died in 1569. His original writings are few in number, and of little note; but he translated several German works of practical divinity and led the way in attempting a metrical English version of some of the Psalms.]  2
IT is very rarely that a translation is so well done as to acquire a separate literary value of its own. If the English Bible possesses this merit in a pre-eminent degree, it is only justice to give their meed of credit to the two men whose workmanship is most largely traceable in its pages.  3
  These two men are Tyndale and Coverdale. To appreciate their task, it is necessary to point to the reasons which made the Roman Church of their day hostile to the promulgation of the Scriptures in the vulgar tongues. The undue conservatism of ignorance, the pride of an esoteric priesthood, the dread that abuses would be exposed, and above all the sense that the Church would cease to arbitrate in matters of faith if the foundations of the faith were disclosed—all these forces were combined against the translation of the Bible. The Reformers, on the other hand, saw clearly that their success depended upon the degree in which the individual Christian obtained free access to the sources of his creed. Erasmus longed that the Gospels and the Epistles of St. Paul might be read, in their own languages, “not only by the Scotch and Irish, but by the Turks and Saracens,” and, in prophetic words which became a Protestant commonplace, he uttered a hope that in time to come the husbandman at his plough, the weaver at his loom, and the traveller on his journey, would beguile their occupation with songs taken from the Scriptures. Tyndale’s reply to an ignorant doctor was in the same strain: “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do.”  4
  Setting about their work in this spirit, it is not surprising to find that the Protestant translators, with Luther at their head, aimed at producing a version which should give, in simple language intelligible to all, as near a reproduction of the original texts as the genius of modern tongues and their own scholarship and natural gifts would allow. The current Latin version known as the Vulgate, excellent in many respects, partook too much of the nature of a paraphrase. The Reformers, with stricter notions of a translator’s duty, held themselves for the most part bound to reproduce even the obscurity of the original, justly conceiving that the task of explanation or paraphrase is one that should fall upon the commentator. In this they were generally agreed, though some allowed themselves greater license than others. On another score more room was left for difference. There were many vernacular terms, which had originally reproduced with sufficient accuracy the meaning of words used in the sacred writings, but which in the course of time had become overlaid with an artificial significance derived from the special use made of them in the practice of the Church. Thus had been constituted a theological vocabulary, pregnant with the germs of controversy, and it was a matter of difficulty for a translator to steer between innovations sure to be branded as pedantic, and current terms burdened with a world of meaning beyond the simple idea of the original. When the Church began to realise the impracticability of absolutely prohibiting translations, it endeavoured to appropriate the newly-opened ground by sprinkling it with words coined in its own rich mint. Sir Thomas More proceeded on this line in his attack on Tyndale. Why, he asked, had the translator used the word congregation instead of church, elder for priest, love for charity, favour for grace, knowledge for confession, and repentance for penance? Bishop Gardiner was for retaining in an authorised version nearly a hundred Latin terms taken straight from the Vulgate, such as ecclesia, adorare, opera, episcopus. Between Tyndale and Gardiner there was scope for a considerable oscillation of opinion; and the final success of the version of King James was in some degree due to the inconsistency with which it admitted various renderings for the same original word. Coverdale was less uncompromising than Tyndale. “Be not thou offended, good reader,” he says, “though one call a scribe that another calleth a lawyer, or elders that another calleth father and mother, or repentance that another calleth penance or amendment.”  5
  Speaking generally, it may be said that Tyndale’s example secured for our version the qualities of strength and accuracy, while its grace is due to Coverdale. The chief literary gift of the latter was his command of a flowing and musical style. His services as a translator cannot be compared with those of Tyndale, because he did not work from the original. It is said that three of Tyndale’s renderings have survived for each one of Coverdale’s. The task which Coverdale successfully achieved was to introduce into the English Bible that sweetness and melody, never afterwards lost—“the true concord of well-tuned sounds”—to which it owes so much of its subtle and evanescent charm of style. The Prayer Book Psalter, taken from the Great Bible which he edited, has been retained in the English Church service simply because it was found “more smooth and fit for song” than other versions. It is curious to note that Coverdale’s style is less harmonious in his original writings than in his translations: his disposition was of the generous sort that delights in the embellishment of other men’s work.  6
  It was the ambition of the Bible translators to provide material which (in Coverdale’s words) would give better occupation than the singing of “hey nony nony, hey troly loly, and such like phantasies.” They succeeded even beyond their hopes. History records no more remarkable process of absorption and substitution than that by which the national heroes of our old ballads, and the multifarious folk-lore inherited from primeval Teutonic heathenism, have made way for the alien but powerfully attractive figures and mysteries of Hebrew tradition.  7

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