Second Thoughts

Revising the Translations of early English Printed Bibles 1525-40

Here is the opening of the Te Deum in the second Edwardine Prayer Book of 1552.

We prayse thee, 0 God, we knowledge thee to be the Lord. All the earth doeth worship thee, the father everlasting. To thee all Aungels cry aloud, the heavens and al the powers therein. To thee Cherubin, and Seraphin continually do cry, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are ful of the Majestie of thy glorye.

It sounds so familiar. We might have been reciting the very same thing this morning if we went to an Anglican old style Matins or used the Prayer Book in our own devotions. But you wouldn’t have recited exactly that; not unless you were a fanatic for the 1552.

There are changes. I don’t just mean the regularising of spelling, such as in my copy here which has two different spellings for ‘all’ in the very same line. Yes, there are changes like this that time has made to tidy things up a bit.

There are also changes of fashion. I don’t know exactly when people stopped saying, and writing, ‘doeth’ and started to say and write ‘doth’. Or for that matter when we universally came around to saying ‘acknowledge’ instead of ‘knowledge’. But we do say those things now, which wasn’t quite the case then., and the fact that the changes occurred in the Prayer Book might itself be part of the answer why we don’t. In any case, we now say, and write, ‘does’.

But there are other problematical changes. ‘Aungel’ seems archaic on our ears, and that too has been altered. I don’t suppose anyone will want to insist that we go on pronouncing the word like that in our devotions. Especially as the first Prayer Book of 1549 has our modern spelling of the word, so that the 1552 ‘aungel’ looks to us like some sort of regression. Presumably there were both angels and aungels flying round the ecclesiastical synods at the time, and you could take your pick. Yet it’s worth while noting that not all changes in the Prayer Book are in line with the favour of posterity.

So far, the changes I have mentioned have been cosmetic. Tidying up the text, I’ve called it. The next example, though, goes further. It’s an entire change of word. The 1549 Prayer Book concludes our passage thus. Heaven and earth are replenyshed with the maiestie of thy glory.

We can imagine the moment of this change. Cranmer, alone in his study or perhaps with a friend, perhaps with a few, perhaps with a whole committee, is trying out the line. There’s something not quite happy about it. After long debate, three things finally emerge, and are to do with that phrase ‘replenyshed with’. For one thing, are we saying that heaven and earth are in some way leaking so that they need constantly to be refilled? And isn’t replenished a bit of an inkhorn term, and thus unlike to be understonden of the folk: what’s wrong with plain ‘full of’? And thirdly, it’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? The net result is a change, a change on the grounds of 1) accuracy, 2) plainness or clarity, and 3) elegance of expression.

And that change has met with universal approval. At least there’s so far been little clamour on the part of higher than high traditionalists to return to the 1549 usage. And even the ASB has seen fit to let it alone, while changing almost everything else around it. In fact the puzzle seems to be why Cranmer ever considered anything else in the first place. The Latin is uncomplicated enough. Plena sunt coeli et terra maiestatis Glorix Tux. The simple, most natural translation of plena is ‘full of’-, nothing could be plainer. So where has all this ‘replenishment’ come from? Unless he cunningly put it in so he might change it at someone else’s suggestion, as a political move. Who knows what goes on in the minds of high ecclesiastics when monarchs themselves turn radical?

That, then, is my contribution in a nutshell. Translators do their business, then they do it again, as revisionists. And their changes are made, as I’ve outlined, for greater accuracy, for plainer understanding, and for more easy or elegant manner. And that goes not only for liturgical texts like the ancient canticle Te Deum, but for the text of Holy Scripture itself. So I now wish to turn our attention to the revisings of the earliest translators of the mass-produced Scriptures in English.

William Tyndale was so dissatisfied with his 1525 New Testament that he sold the whole edition - or what he had left of it - through an intermediary to Bishop Gardner, and used the proceeds to bring out his 1534 revised New Testament.

George Joye brought out the first printed English translation of the Psalter, based on Bucer’s Latin text, in 1530. In 1534 he brought out a second Psalter based on Zwingli’s text. In 1542 he published a revised Psalter, this time from Edward Whitchurch’s London press, which later produced the English Prayer Books., and this revised version was of that first 1530 Psalter, not its 1534 replacement. Myles Coverdale brought out the first printed complete English Bible in 1535. Then the Great Bible in 1539. Then the revised Great Bible in 1540. And then he helped to shape the successive Geneva Bibles.

It is a fact of life that a workman will see blemishes in his own work that a layman will probably not notice, or if it’s brought to his attention he’ll think it a mere trifle. But that little blemish is a plank in the eye to the man who made it, and he will not rest till he has put it to rights. So much so that when he looks at his finished work, it’s only the blemishes he sees; and the better the workman is, the sounder the shame will be.

We’ve all had this experience, both in the trades we are supposed to be masters of, and in those we attempt supposing them easy. It’s the same with translation, indeed especially translation, because art and scholarship demand a perfect rendering, and a perfect rendering is normally impossible. Only in this way can we explain the relentless tinkering with Holy Writ that the great translators spent their lives on, and would have spent longer on had they been permitted. I believe I can guarantee that Tyndale would have made a further revision of his New Testament; that had he completed his Old Testament, he would have revised that as well; and that Coverdale and Joye would have further diversified their Psalters. In fact they all had to leave the revising to others; indeed whole committees of others.

Let’s start with Tyndale. From the way he speaks of the need for revising his New Testament text, you’d expect many and major revisions, and something resulting that would be recognisably new. In fact the amazing thing is, considering the labour involved, and the expense, how few the changes are, and how slight. For example, in tidying the sense, he changes the sum for which the ointment might be sold from two hundred to three hundred pence; the wheat measures of increase go from fifty to sixtyfold., the four thousand miraculously fed become five thousand; and the coin taken from the fish to pay taxes goes up from twelve to twenty pence in value. All of which, it seems, are simply in line with inflation. Likewise 1026 days in Revelation become 1260, and 1080 furlongs go up to 1400. Conversely the request for loaves in the friend’s late night importunity is reduced from four to three in the later text.

Elsewhere Zaccheus climbed a sycomore tree in 1525, a wild fig tree in 1534, but the AV prefers Tyndale’s first choice. On the other hand, the AV accepts Tyndale’s change of Demetrius’ trade in Acts from goldsmithing to silversmithing.

A much more significant alteration occurs in the passage that the Ethiopian eunuch is reading, Isaiah 53. In 1525 we have ‘In that he submitted himself, his judgement was exalted.’ When he came to revising this, Tyndale was clearly unsatisfied with his own understanding, and offered the more consistent and sensible ‘because of his humbleness, he was not esteemed.’ The AV rejected both of these in favour of ‘In his humiliation his judgement was taken away’, which strikes me as a collective vote for nonsense, and that in spite of the AV’s own version of the Isaiah passage which reads ‘He was taken from prison and from judgement’. Indeed, who shall declare the ways of the Lord’s translators, and who shall discern the footways where they err?’ Tyndale, we note, was aiming for sense, even where the passage was doubtful, and consistency with what was being said. His second attempt was clearer., it fits the situation, and though it misses the prophecy of the prison and trial, it characterises the reason for the failure to recognise the Christ - he was not expected to be humble, but more like themselves. And don’t we all make the same mistake?

In the parable of the shepherd, the 1525 text has ‘I am a good shepherd, a good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep’., which is a good gnomic verse, it defines a true from a false shepherd. The 1534 revision changes the article to what we are now used to, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep’. The definite article moves the idea from typical to unique. Jesus is more than a good shepherd; he is the one and only antitype of the typical good worker.

Another significant change of the article comes in the famous opening of John’s Gospel. The 1525 edition has ‘In the beginning was that word, and that word was with god: and god was that word.’ We all know that Tyndale changed the ‘that’ to ‘the’, and how much better it reads for the change. What is less well known is the fact that we owe the change to the great opponent of Tyndale’s work, Saint or Sir, depending on your churchmanship, Thomas More. In his long, vitriolic attack on Tyndale’s translation, More chides Tyndale on this very article, and comments that if we can’t teach him Latin and Greek at least we can teach him good English. And Tyndale was an honest enough workman to see the good of the change, and kept it in the revision.

As for changes of clarity, I trust there will be no disagreement regarding these three specimens:

'Care not therefore for the day following. For the day following shall care for itself. Each day’s trouble is sufficient for the same self day’ becomes in 1534

'Care not then for the morrow, but let the morrow care for itself; for the day present hath ever enough of his own trouble.’

'For they said, He is too fervent’ is revised to 'For they thought he had been beside himself.’ And 'Even so perform your own health’ is changed to 'Even so work out your own salvation.’

Though we should note that many a clumsy or strange expression would not have been so to contemporaries; and equally so archaisms have a now exotic appeal to us that was not available to those who used them daily. Because of that, the textual alterations made for improved elegance should prove much more controversial.

Take for example: ‘And in thy name have we not cast out devils? And in thy name have we not done many miracles?’ This is rendered in 1534 ‘And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name have done many miracles.’ Omitting the pronoun ‘we’ makes for a smoother and more concise line, but is it a genuine improvement?

Again ‘Behold my son whom I have chosen, my darling, in whom my soul hath had delight’ is altered in 1534 to ‘Behold my child, whom I have chosen, my beloved, in whom my soul delighteth’, though without, I believe, any quantifiable gain.’ child, for example, rings nicely with chosen, but equally so does darling with delight.

And our ears are so well adjusted to ‘He was in the world, and the world by him was made; and the world knew him not’ that the amended form ‘He was in the world, and the world was made by him; and yet the world knew him not’, that despite the extra clarity the ‘yet’ provides, and the more modern avoidance of the inversion ‘by him was made’ we still prefer the first cadence, - as did the AV committee.

But if changes for expression’s sake are arguable, there are those in the revised Tyndale which are surely for the worse. ‘Sir’ for example is often changed to the less colloquial ‘Lord’ and so runs the risk of bibletalk. Pontius Pilate’s ‘What is truth?’ loses much in the revised form ‘What thing is truth?’ We can hear the one being spoken, but not the other. And the man we have met before as the Ethiopian eunuch in AV first appears in Tyndale as ‘the gelded man’, only to be euphemised in 1534 to ‘the chamberlain’. Though of course it may well be urged that Tyndale was right to draw more attention to his status than his disability.

At the end of the Epistle to the Romans the 1525 trio ‘Hermas, Patrobas, Mercurius’ are vindicated in the AV’s ‘Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas’ as against the 1534 group ‘Herman, Patrobas, Hermen’. And in the same passage ‘For your obedience extendeth to all men’ is a doubtful improvement on the earlier ‘Your obedience is spoken of among all men.’

Equally, if we put ‘whether thou shalt save that man or no’ against ‘whether thou shalt save thy husband or not’ we might well believe the latter an improvement on the former, but Tyndale in fact has them the other way round.

A very odd change in 1534 is that from ‘contrary to the ordinations of Caesar’ to ,contrary to the elders of Caesar’. I can only guess that Tyndale must have been dictating the passage, and his amanuensis thought he had said ‘elders’ when the word was in fact ‘orders’. It’s easily done, and every proofreader misses something. The AV opts for ‘decrees’. Incidentally, if my conjecture is right, it’s one of the misprints not picked up by the Hardy Willis edition, the text of which I’ve used in looking at the Tyndale variants.

In the 1525 text of Matthew ‘the first day of unleavened bread’ becomes in 1534 ‘the first day of sweet bread’ in all the Synoptic accounts; that brought it into line with the 1525 version in Mark and Luke. The AV ignored this revision and reverted to the earlier phrase, now so familiar to us. Elsewhere his literal rendering ‘that they might eat Pascha’ is altered to ‘eat the paschal lamb’.

In the same passage we have ‘easter lamb’ becoming ‘paschal lamb’ in Matthew, ‘paschal lamb’ remaining ‘paschal lamb’ in Mark, and ‘easter lamb’ remaining ‘easter lamb’ in Luke. We might well ask, when he retains ‘easter lamb’ in one account, and ‘paschal lamb’ in another, why he preferred in the third to change from ‘easter’ to ‘paschal’. I think there is no answer to this. It is certainly not for clarity. Not can it be for accuracy. And it’s hardly for elegance. It is, I believe, nothing more nor less than fiddling. We should by no means be surprised that translators do such things. With the burden of responsibility for every word, for every jot and tittle of punctuation, for every cadence and flourish, one might easily expect an almost neurotic fussiness to creep into the work.

In the 1525 Sermon on the Mount he has ‘Behold the fowls of the air’ and ‘Behold the lilies of the field’: the 1534 revises this pattern to ‘Behold the fowls of the air’ and ‘Consider the lilies of the field:’ which to my ear is a marked improvement. But the corresponding passage from the Sermon on the Plain in Luke has, in 1525, ‘Mark well the ravens’ and ‘Consider the lilies’, which becomes in 1534 ‘Consider the ravens’ and ‘Consider the lilies’; which to my ear is no improvement at all. In fact Tyndale has not tried to regularise his translation, though that might well have been on the programme of yet another edition.

Turning to Coverdale, and firstly to his Psalter, well known to lovers of the Book of Common Prayer, we find a not unsimilar pattern. We all know that he gave us in the 23rd Psalm ‘he shall feed me in a green pasture, and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.’ What is less well known is that this replaces his first go at it in the 1535 Bible, where he has ‘he feedeth me in a green pasture, and leadeth me to a fresh water.’ Now I am conscious that among the doves assembled here I have just unleashed a most wanton cat. There must be those who prefer the elegant rounded rhythm of ‘beside the waters of comfort’ - di-dum, di-dum, di-di-dum-dum -to the bleak and flat-foot ‘to a fresh water.’ And there must be those who prefer the frank commonsense ‘fresh water’, which is good for drinking and life itself to a man dying of thirst, to the rather vague advertisement language of ‘waters of comfort’, the warm springs for rheumatics at a Spa, or some chemist’s quack preparation for bunions. It would be nice if we could have the best of both, but the alternative texts demand we choose.

And not just in one line. The matter of fact 1535 gives us ‘I can want nothing’, the Great Bible puts in a ‘therefore’. The blunt ‘He quickeneth my soul’ is transformed to the almost operatic ‘He shall convert my soul’. The comfort of rod and staff we know so well started life as ‘thy staff and thy sheephook’. We have a choice between the earthy Coverdale, plain as a pikestaff, who calls a digging implement a spade, and a lyrical Coverdale who hones his words and shapes his cadences for song. And since both are no doubt features of the ancient psalms, it’s hard for us to know what we should prefer.

I am perhaps accentuating the difference in order to establish its presence. But as with Tyndale the amazement should be in response to how little needs changing. Line after line of the Psalms is untouched in the revision. Sometimes only one line or phrase in a psalm, such as ‘O praise the Lord in his Sanctuary’ becoming ‘O praise God in his holiness’, and ‘let my right hand be forgotten’ turning into the most sublime ‘let my right hand forget her cunning’.

Sometimes the smallest changes produce musical marvels: ‘The very heavens declare the glory of God, and the very firmament showeth his handiwork’ is pruned of its intensifiers, and by this means rendered more intense. ‘O Lord, my helper and my redeemer’ is rhythmically redeemed by a strong monosyllabic noun balancing the trisyllable - ‘O Lord, my strength and my redeemer’.

One interesting case where there is an odd disimprovement in the later text occurs in Psalm 137, where ‘As for our harps we hanged them up upon the willow trees, that are therein’, which became in Matthew’s Bible and the Great Bible, and the BCP to this day ‘As for our harps, we hanged them up upon the trees, that are therein’. Both sound and sense are lop-sided here. The explanation lies in the signature of the 1535 Bible that ends with the Song of Songs. In the space after the colophon is a small list of errata, including ‘willye’ that should have been printed in front of the trees. The compositors and readers missed this in subsequent editions of Coverdale’s text, and so presumably did Coverdale himself, and the omission has been perpetuated down to our own time by a somewhat perverse tradition.

If we turn to Salomon’s Balletes, as Coverdale calls what we know as the Song of Songs, we find a similar pattern. ‘Thy cheeks are like a piece of a pomegranate, besides that which lieth hid within’ (1535) alluding to the veil, this becomes in 1539-40 ‘Thy cheeks are like a piece of a pomegranate, within thy volupers’ and it’s an exception. So is ‘kerchief’ for the earlier more general and although vaguer no doubt more accurate ‘garment’.

A more usual pattern shows ‘Then the charettes of the prince of my people made me suddenly afraid’ becoming ‘I knew not that my soul had made me the chariot of the people that be under tribute’, where reason in the one gives way to rhyme in the other. And again ‘What pleasure have ye more in the Sulamite, than when she danceth among the men of war?’ is much more down to earth than the wackier revised version ‘What will ye see in the Sulamite? She is like men of war singing in a company?’ Perhaps soldiers’ songs, and soldiers’ singing, was different in Coverdale’s day.

‘The hair of thy head is like the king’s purple folden up in plaits’ (spelt ‘plates’, and alternatively ‘pleats’) is no clearer in the later ‘the hair of thy head is like purple, and like a king going forth with his guard about him.’ ‘And thy jaws like the best wine’ seems an awkwarder and uglier rendering than the earlier ‘and thy throat like the best wine’. Especially when it continues ‘Which goeth straight unto my beloved and brusteth forth by the lips of the Ancient elders’, which is as near manifest nonsense as translation can come to, compared with the first version ‘This shall be pure and clear for my love, his lips and teeth shall have their pleasure.’

By contrast, the 1525 makes much less headway with the younger sister. ‘When our love is told our young sister, whose breasts are not yet grown, what shall we do unto her? If she be a wall, we shall build a silver bulwark thereupon: if she be a tower, we shall fasten her with boards of cedar tree.’ The revised text gives us ‘Our sister is but young, and hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister, when she shall be spoken for? If she be a wall, we shall build a silver bulwark thereupon: if she be an open door, we shall fasten her with boards of cedar tree.’ Coverdale has a much firmer grasp of the sense of the passage here; he has finally got the joke.

Generally, and this is flavoured with the pinch of salt proper to all generalisations, it would seem that Coverdale in his first translations was governed by the Tyndalian spirit of making sense, putting plain speech before anything else; and that in the later revisions he has been much more inclined to let the ear have its way.

When I was working on my own versions of the Psalter, having completed most of the work, I mentioned in a letter to the late Donald Davie, who was the unwitting author of the project, and my mentor and critic in its execution, the matter of revision, which was then looming before me, and which I saw as a far more daunting task than the initial drafts. After all, you can put anything into an early draft, and leave it to future work to clear up. In any case, I’m a hopeless reviser. He wrote back to advise me not to put too much weight on revision, and certainly not to overdo the job, since our first thoughts are often surer and sprightlier than our sager, more conservative revisions. I can’t say how grateful I was to be so counselled, and by so wise a counsellor. Consequently, my revision was swift and cursory., much as it usually is, in fact.

The common assumption that a translator’s revisions must necessarily serve to improve his text is, I believe, altogether too sanguine. It is based on the expectation of what ought to be, rather than what is. The second thought is by no means necessarily wiser than the first, and the afternoon’s work of removing the comma that the morning’s work put in may well prove nothing more than a waste of spirit. After all, if revising were that sure a science, the latest of all bibles and prayer books off the presses would have to be knowledged as the best.

Finally, an experiment. Place the following three passages from the second chapter of Hebrews in order of preference.

  1. Nevertheless we yet see not all things subdued but* him that was made less than the angels: we see that it was Jesus which is crowned with glory and honour for the suffering of death: that he by the grace of God, should taste of death for all men.
  2. But now we see not yet all things put under him, but we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour, that he, by the grace of God, should taste death for every man.
  3. Nevertheless we yet see not all things subdued unto him. but that Jesus which for a season was made less than the angels, we see through the punishment of death crowned with glory and honour. that he by the grace of God should taste of death for all men.

Gordon Jackson

* possibly a misprinting for unto, not noted in Hardy Wallis.

Tyndale, W. The New Testament: a Reprint of the Edition of 1534 with the Translator’s Prefaces and Notes and the Variants of the edition of 1525, edited by N. Hardy Willis, CUP 1938.

Coverdale, M: Coverdale’s Psalters: a selection of fourteen psalms from the two first Coverdale Bibles for textual comparison, ed. G.Jackson, Asgill, Lincoln 1997.

Coverdale, M. Salomons Balettes called Cantica Canticorum, Coverdale’s English versions of the Song of Songs, ed. G Jackson, Asgill, Lincoln 1998.

Valid XHTML 1.0!