Peter W Coxon: Translating the Bible

The publication of Tyndale's New Testament and Old Testament, edited by David Daniell, and published by Yale University Press in 1989 and 1992, heralded a veritable renascence in Tyndale studies which found expression in the Quincentenary celebration of his birth, the founding of the William Tyndale Quincentenary Trust, and not least the inauguration of the Tyndale Society which took place this year in the British Library Galleries at the British Museum. More has followed and Society members are the happy beneficiaries of The Tyndale Society Journal which will inform them of the riches of the English Bible and the history of English Bible translation. One of the first major academic ventures of the Society took place early this summer (14 June 1995) in the form of a daylong seminar held in the Darwin Theatre, University College London, entitled Translating the Bible. Participants numbered about fifty and, in the unlikely setting of the modern Darwin Theatre, flanked by Anatomy & Engineering and not far from the stony gaze of Jeremy Bentham, were treated to a programme feast. A lively introduction to the morning session by Denis Nowlan, head of religious broadcasting, BBC North, set the tone and led in to the first lecture by Dr Michael Weitzman of the University of London: ‘Translating the Hebrew Scriptures.’ Michael is no stranger to Tyndale enthusiasts and on this occasion his brilliant incursions into the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, allied to his awareness of Tyndale's translational skills, had his audience enthralled. We were introduced to various aspects of Tyndale's achievements, his endeavours, as the first translator of the original Hebrew into modern English, to deal with a text bristling with inconsistencies, his drive for intelligibility and the tricky situations he faced in choosing the right word equivalent (a nice example given was 2 Kings 4.28 where Elisha's Shunammite enjoins the prophet not to lull her into a false sense of security; the AV “Do not deceive me” is correct but loses out to Tyndale's poetic riposte “...thou shouldest not bring into a fools' paradise”!) Questions were raised about the sources used by Tyndale in his work (the Septuagint, Luther, possible contacts with Jewish scholars etc.), the extent to which he took account of the meanings words have for the believing community etc., etc.

After coffee in the North Cloisters it was the turn of the New Testament, and in Professor Morna Hooker of Cambridge, we were well served by a scholarly presentation from one whose chief preoccupation for many years has been in the area of translating the Bible into modern English. In ‘Translating the New Testament’ there were timely remarks directed at a well-meaning but in her view misguided love of old translations for old translations' sake. We would do better to honour Tyndale's memory by endeavouring to do what he did than pay lip service to the past, to listen to the sense of words than luxuriate in their beauty. Tyndale laboured under several disadvantages in a number of respects: the Greek text he used was the new critical edition of Erasmus which itself drew on inferior 12th century manuscripts which were full of mistakes and even had pages missing. Tyndale did not have the benefits of early papyri and the great uncial manuscripts of the 4th century. Professor Hooker demarcated three areas of research for the meaning of New Testament words: the Septuagint, the context of the Jewish world, and the Greek papyri. These lines of enquiry brought us right up to date with the never ending challenge of Bible translation and the compromises that have to be made in the act of translation. In the face of so great a task we were reminded of the Italian proverb Tradutore traditore — ‘the translator is a traitor’!

After lunch in the Old Refectory the two speakers again took to the platform and in the ensuing discussion faced the music, so to speak, of a wide variety of questions, which again afforded us a display of their immense erudition and versatility. Then it was tea and the last opportunity to meet old friends and new, and exchange ideas... and encourage the Society to promote further conferences of this kind, perhaps beyond the confines of the metropolis.

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