- Making God Speak English
Towards the end of the preface that he wrote on behalf of the translators of the King James Bible in 1611, Miles Smith (d. 1624) stated that ‘we desire that the Scripture may speake like it selfe, as in the language of Canaan, that it may bee vnderstood euen of the very vulgar’.1 This assessment of the aims of the translators is more complex than it might seem at first sight. In the spirit of medieval and early modern biblical commentary, one might offer a fourfold interpretation of its meaning.
First, in a literal sense, Smith made a familiar Protestant statement about the perspicacity of Scripture, especially in vernacular translation. He wished to distinguish native (and Protestant) terminology as preferable to the Latinate vocabulary used by the exiled Roman Catholic translators of a rival English Bible (Douai-Rheims). The activities and choices of these Roman Catholic translators had been the subject of extended printed controversy over a thirty-year period prior to the publication of the King James Bible in 1611.2 In a moral sense, Smith also made direct reference to a long-standing claim of English translators of the Bible to be working for the common reader or hearer rather than for the clergy. William Tyndale (1494–1536), whose translation of the New Testament into English was the first to be printed in 1526, is famously supposed to have expressed this in terms of allowing ‘a boy that driueth the plough’ to know more of Scripture than a learned divine. The idea that the Bible contained honest and consistent truths that might communicate themselves simply to ordinary people, however, was older than Tyndale. In the late fourteenth century, it was already one of the themes of Wycliffite writings and biblical translations, some of which were familiar to the heterodox yeomen of the cloth-working district of the Vale of Berkeley (Gloucestershire), among whom Tyndale grew up.3 In addition to this, Smith alluded allegorically to another tradition to which Tyndale had helped give life. This was the belief that the original tongue of humanity had more in common with other mother tongues than it did with later Latin, a dead language that had been resuscitated by lying priests. As Tyndale put it, ‘the propirties of the hebrue tonge agreth a thousande tymes moare with the english then with the latyne’.4 The Antwerp humanist, Johannes Goropius Becanus (1519–73), had something similar in [End Page 265] mind when he suggested that the simplicity of the ancient Brabantic dialect meant that it corresponded to the original tongue, from which other more complex languages (including biblical Hebrew) were later derived.5 Lastly, in the anagogical sense, Smith called to his reader’s mind the prophecy of Isaiah (19: 18–20), according to which ‘five cities in the land of Egypt [shall] speak the language of Canaan, and swear to the Lord of hosts . . . and he shall send them a saviour, and a great one, and he shall deliver them’. To speak ‘the language of Canaan’ was thus to recognize the word of God and participate spiritually in the salvation offered by Christ, which made no social distinction.
Early modern English biblical translation, therefore, drew on a tradition of vernacular rendering of Scripture, based on both theological and broader intellectual assumptions about the nature of language and communication. It sought to make the Bible more accessible because of the reach of the Christian message, and in order to reform society, so that it might recognize God’s intentions and escape the punishment that had been foretold for those who ignored them. The linguistic aspects of the work of early modern English translators of the Bible have been explored from many angles. These include studies of the development of the English text, in which successive versions (each shaped by political circumstance) built on and copied from one another in the years between 1526 and 1611.6 They have involved an analysis of the places in...