Drinker of the Devil’s Dregs: Tyndale as a Translator

Hertford Tyndale Lecture, University of Oxford, 22 October 1998
Professor Jean Aitchison

1. Introduction
I am honoured to have been asked to give the 1998 Hertford Tyndale lecture, and I am grateful to Sir Edward Pickering for telling me of the existence of the society, now some years ago.

But I am a Tyndale admirer, not a Tyndale scholar. Indeed, David Daniell has packed so much information into his biography of Tyndale (1994), that it is hard for any outsider to say more!

So why am I here? I agreed to give this lecture primarily in memory of my father, the Reverend John Aitchison, who died last year. He was a Church of England clergyman and a Tyndale admirer. He admired Tyndale long before the Tyndale Society existed. Membership of the Society was part of my annual Christmas present to him in the last few years of his life. He enjoyed reading the Society’s literature, and I accompanied him to one of the very good lectures given by David Daniell in the early days of the society, one at Lambeth Palace.

I myself first learned Greek at school because as a child I was fascinated by the Greek New Testament which I found on my father’s bookshelves. Consequently, my first degree was in classics (Greek and Latin). I was always surprised by how well the Greek version of the New Testament and its translation corresponded. I now know that this close link was due to Tyndale.

But to return to my talk. My title comes from Sir Thomas More’s dialogue concerning Tyndale (1529). Bizarrely, More referred to Tyndale as a ‘drowsy drudge’ who had ‘drunken ... deep in the devil’s dregs’.

My talk is divided into three parts. First, I shall briefly summarise the work of Bible translators before Tyndale. Second, I shall outline why Tyndale was such a good translator. Third, I will look at broader issues, specifically at linguistic intolerance.

2. Bible Translation: Tyndale’s Forerunners
From the beginning of the fifth century AD, one Bible was recognized in England, the Latin version now known as the Vulgate (though the label Vulgate came somewhat later, in the 16th century).

The first report of Biblical passages conveyed in English comes in the 8th century, in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Bede (c.673-735 AD) explains how at festive gatherings in the great hall of the monastery at Whitby, it had been the custom to pass around the harp, and everyone present played and sang. Caedmon, an illiterate farm labourer, would slip out of the hall before his turn.

One night, he had escaped to the stable as usual, and fell asleep. Then he heard a voice saying: ‘Caedmon, sing some song to me’. He replied that he could not sing. But the voice insisted. Caedmon said: ‘What shall I sing?’ And the voice said ‘Sing to me the first beginning of created things’. So in his dreams, he sang.

The next day he astonished himself and the monks by singing melodiously of the creation of the world. The abbess Hilda persuaded him to join the brotherhood. And after that:

Whatever was interpreted to him out of [Latin] Scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of such sweetness and humility in English, which was his native tongue ... . Thus Caedmon, keeping in mind all he heard, as it were chewing the cud, converted the same into most harmonious verse (Bede Ecclesiastical History ch.24).

The phrase ‘chewing the cud’ suggests that Caedmon provided a para-phrase, rather than a translation. Yet his story has its place in the history of Bible translations, in that no hint of blame is attached to the idea of the Bible in English. Indeed, the Venerable Bede himself translated part of the Gospel of St. John into English.

In the late 9th century, Alfred the Great may have translated parts of Exodus, Psalms and Acts into English. Alfred claimed he learned, from his archbishop, bishop and mass-priests, how to translate from Latin into English ‘sometimes word by word, sometimes meaning by meaning’. This passage (from a letter now in Oxford’s Bodleian library) is famous, because ‘meaning by meaning’ suggests that Alfred and his teachers supported idiomatic translation.

In the 10th century, Aelfric (‘the Grammarian’) translated the Heptateuch (the first seven books of the Old Testament) into English, again from the Latin. He is interesting not only for his stylistic excellence, but also for local interest: he became Abbot of Eynsham (five miles from Oxford).

These early pioneers were followed by major translators. In the 14th century, John Wyclif or Wycliffe (c.1330-1384), Master of Balliol College, arranged for the translation of the Bible from Latin into English, and with his itinerant poor preachers, known as the Lollards (from lollaert ‘to mutter’), he took the gospels to the people - much to the fury of some church dignitaries. Luckily for him, perhaps, he died in 1384. In 1401, Archbishop Arundel denounced Wyclif as heretical, and claimed: ‘The pearl of the Gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine’. Arundel was still ranting against Wycliffe 20 years later, and in 1424 Wyclif’s bones were dug up, burned, and the ashes thrown into the River Swift.

Then came Tyndale’s hero, the Dutch scholar Erasmus (c.1467-1536). Erasmus produced a Latin translation of the Greek New Testament (1516), so challenging the version in the Vulgate.

In his Preface to the New Testament, Erasmus notes the importance in translation of keeping the overall sense:

Language consists of two parts, namely, words and meaning, which are like body and soul. If both of them can be rendered I do not object to word for word translation. If they cannot, it would be preposterous for a translation to keep the words and deviate from the meaning.

His aim, he claimed, was ‘to lead the way back to the original source of God’s word instead of drawing it from conduits of stale water’.

In his Exhortations to the diligent study of scripture, Erasmus commented:

I would desire that all women should reade the gospell and Paules episteles and I wold to God they were translated in to the tonges of all men so that they might not only be read and knowne of the scotes and yrishmen. But also of the Turkes and the Sarracenes ... . I wold to God the plowman wold singe a text of the scripture at his plow-beme. And that the wever at his lowme with this wold drive away the tediousnes of tyme. I wold the wayfaringeman with this pastyme wold expelle the weriness of his iorney.

This work was translated by Tyndale (1529), and may have inspired his famous comment, supposedly said to a learned man:

If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou does.

3. Tyndale as a Translator
Tyndale knew eight languages, English and seven others. These included of course Greek, the language of the New Testament, and Hebrew, the language of the old. (My remarks in this section will relate to Greek, the language I know).

Tyndale was a masterly translator. Translation requires special skills, and bad translations are easy to find. When I lectured in ancient Greek, I used to keep notes on really bad Greek ones. My blackest black mark went to the translator of a Greek play, who talked of ‘teeming offspring of the womb’. The Greek said simply paidia ‘children’.

So what is so marvellous about Tyndale’s translation? Two things stand out: first, faithfulness to the Greek; second, the balance and rhythm of his English.

Tyndale went back to the Greek, as we all know, and he translated it as nearly as he could. Greek goes into English more easily than Latin, and Tyndale knew this. So what is it about Greek (rather than Latin) that suits English so well? Two main things: flexible word order, and a preference for verbs over abstract nouns.

Latin liked to put its verbs at the end of sentences: literary Latin was a subject-object-verb (SOV) language. But Greek was flexible. It put its verbs wherever it wanted, at the beginning, the middle or the end. Quite often, it preferred to place verbs in the middle (SVO), as in English: if nouns were split by a verb, the resulting sentence was better balanced. This makes Greek easier for English speakers.

In addition, Latin writers tended to use more nouns than Greek writers, who preferred verbs. Suppose, as an undergraduate in classics, you had to write prose about a skilled orator. In Latin, you might produce the equivalent of: ‘Great praise was heaped upon him for his eloquence’. In Greek, you would simply say: ‘They praised him greatly because he spoke well’. This preference for verbs makes Greek simpler, more direct, and also more like colloquial English.

The New Testament is also easier than classical Greek, because it is written in the so-called koine ‘the common language’, the widespread Greek which developed after the classical period, and which was spread around the ancient world largely by Alexander the Great.

The balance and rhythm of Tyndale’s translation was a further important factor. Tyndale, like Erasmus, was trained in rhetoric. Tyndale was dismissive of his Oxford education, but it is fairly certain that he was exposed to basic ideas in rhetoric, ‘the art of speaking or writing effectively’. This benefitted him enormously. So although he was disillusioned by Oxford, he absorbed more than he realised: his understanding of rhetoric showed up in his rhythmic translation.

Tyndale, then, went back to the Greek and translated it almost, but not quite, word for word. His motto was (presumably): keep to the Greek order and provide a literal translation, unless the result is unclear, stilted, or unrhythmic. In some cases, Greek and English coincide well. But Greek word order is freer than English, so Tyndale had to decide whether to always translate in the Greek order, or slightly alter it. His choices were brilliant. The Authorized version of the Bible is very largely based on Tyndale’s translation. Where discrepancies exist, Tyndale is often better.

Take 1 Peter 1.23:

      διὰ λόγου ζῶντος θεοῦ καὶ μένοντος εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα
...  dia  logou dzōntos theou kai menontos eis ton aiōna
through word living of-God and remaining to the eternity

This is a well-known ‘crux’, because it is unclear from the Greek whether it is God, or the word which lives for ever. Most translations prefer the word. But their versions vary. Consider the English of the authorised version (AUTH) and that of the New English Bible (NEB):

AUTH: The word of God which liveth and abideth for ever.
NEB: The living and enduring word of God.

Both of these are adequate, but unrhythmic. Tyndale’s version (TYN) with its alliteration and balanced phrasing is undoubtedly superior:

TYN: The word of God, which liveth and lasteth for ever.

Or take Matthew 6.34:

μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε εἰς τὴν αὕριον. me oun merimnēsete es tēn aurion.
ἡ γὰρ αὕριον. μεριμνήσει τὰ ἑαυτῆς. hē gar aurion merimnēsei ta heautēs.
ἀρκετὸν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ἡ κακία αὑτῆς. arketon tēi hemerāi he kakia autēs.

The literal translation is as follows:

Do not therefore worry about tomorrow.
For tomorrow will worry about its own things.
Enough for the day is the badness/evil of it.

The baffling last sentence is even more baffling in the Authorised Version:

AUTH: Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

The New English Bible is clear but clumsy:

NEB: Each day has troubles enough of its own.

But Tyndale’s version is both lucid and rhythmic:

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

Interestingly, the Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea Pidgin) version is also clear and accurate (Tok Pisin i is an untranslatable particle):

Olsem na yupela i no ken tingting tumas long tumora. 
So and you [i] not will think too-much about tomorrow.
De tumora em i ken tingting long samting bilong em yet. 
Day tomorrow it [i] will think about things of it still.
Hevi bilong wanpela de em inap long dispela de tasol.
Trouble of one day it enough for this day only.

Let me give one final Tyndale version, the parable of the sower (Luke 8). For a start, Tyndale uses the better word similitude for ‘parable’. (The Greek parabole means a ‘casting beside’, a ‘comparison’, a ‘similitude’):

He spake by a similitude. A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way-side, and the fowls of the air devoured it up. And some fell on stone, and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moistness. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.

I will quote in Greek only the last sentence, which shows clearly the elegance, simplicity and accuracy of Tyndale's translation:

καὶ ἓτερον ἒπεσεν ἐπὶ τὴν γὴν τὴν ἀγαθὴν, καὶ φυὲν ἒποίησε καρπὸν ἑκατονταπλασίονα.
kai heteron epesen epi tēn gēn tēn agathēn, kai phuen epoiēse karpon, hekatontaplasiona. (Luke 8.8).
And some fell on good ground, and sprang up and bare fruit, an hundredfold.

Such lucid, simple, rhythmic prose, has been left to advertisements in the modern age, one sometimes fears:

With Nutrasome, your hair will look thicker, feel thicker, be thicker. If you don't have as much hair as you want, you can now make the most of the hair you have thanks to Nutrasome Shampoo and Supplement. Nutrasome is a breakthrough in the treatment of thinning hair ... (Ad in Sunday Times).

The accuracy and rhythm of Tyndale’s prose are the main features I have commented on. But Tyndale had other points of excellence. Noteworthy also was his choice of vocabulary: as David Daniell points out, Tyndale preferred short words: high (not elevated), gift (not donation), many (not multitudinous). And many of his phrases have become almost proverbial: ‘the salt of the earth’, ‘let there be light’, ‘the signs of the times’, ‘a law unto themselves’.

The poet T.S. Eliot once said: ‘The music of poetry then must be a music latent in the common speech of its time’. Similarly, successful translation must be a music latent in the common speech of its time. Translation is of course more difficult, it has to marry accuracy and the music of the original, with the music of the translation language. Tyndale did this magnificently.

So why was Tyndale not acclaimed in his lifetime? He did of course have his supporters: John Frith, who was himself burned, said of Tyndale: ‘For his learning and judgement in scripture, he were more worthy to be promoted than all the bishops in England’.

Sir Thomas More was Tyndale’s most intemperate critic: his extraordinary invective against Tyndale makes one wonder about his mental health. The reference to Tyndale as a ‘drowsy drudge’ who ‘hath drunken ... deep in the devil’s dregs’ (already noted, as the title of this lecture) was only one of a series of similar outbursts in The dialogue concerning Tyndale (1529):

He is a beast who teaches vice, a forewalker of antichrist, a devil’s limb.
He sheweth himself so puffed up with the poison of pride, malice and evil, that it is more than marvel that the skin can hold together.
... a hell-hound in the kennel of the devil.
... discharging a filthy foam of blasphemies out of his brutish beastly mouth.

Perhaps only one of More’s comments needs to be explored:

Tyndale has wilfully mistranslated the scripture, and deceived blind unlearned people by teaching what he knows to be false.

How could More claim ‘mistranslation’, and does he give any evidence? The mistranslation turns out to be of four words only, in each of which Tyndale, not More, was right. David Daniell summarises the situation clearly:

At bottom, Tyndale’s offence has been to offer the people Paul in English, and translate four key New Testament words (presbuteros, ekklesia, agape, metanoeo) in their correct Greek meanings (senior, congregation, love, repent) instead of priest, church, charity and do penance (Daniell 1994: 269).

The real, underlying quarrel was about people empowerment. More believed that it was impossible to understand the Bible without the guidance of the infallible Church. Scripture, More claimed, belonged to the Pope and the hierarchy of the church. Scripture, Tyndale argued, belonged to the whole body of Christian people guided by the Holy Spirit in their congregation, and not to a few men or a line of men. History has judged Tyndale to be right.

4. Linguistic Intolerance
Luckily, we no longer burn anyone. But language usage still causes anger. Linguistic intolerance after Tyndale will be my final topic, especially as it has often been connected to prominent churchmen. (Such linguistic intolerance is well documented in, for example, Crowley 1989, Bailey 1992).

In the 18th century, language worries spiralled. Around 1700, English spelling and usage were in a fairly fluid state, and this caused anxiety. Fears for English contrasted with an admiration for Latin, which was admired partly because it was the language of the church, and partly because it seemed to be so splendidly fixed. English should be similarly stabilized, it was assumed.

In 1710, Dean Swift launched an attack on the condition of English, and he followed this up with a letter to the Lord Treasurer urging the formation of an academy to regulate language usage, since in his opinion, even the best authors of the age committed ‘many gross improprieties which ... ought to be discarded’.

Half a century later, Robert Lowth, Bishop of London, wrote A short introduction to English grammar (1762) in which he attempted to lay down usage rules. He complained that:

the English language hath been much cultivated during the last 200 years ... but ... it hath made no advances in Grammatical accuracy: our best Authors for want of some rudiments of this type have sometimes fallen into mistakes and been guilty of palpable error in point of Grammar.

Lowth was a prominent theologian. His strong views on language were mainly personal preferences: he disliked double negatives and prepositions at the end of sentences, for example.

Linguistic intolerance increased in the 19th century. At this time, British empire building led to a false assumption that Britain and its language were superior to others. Two views were widespread, one stressing progress, the other decay.

A mistaken ‘progress’ view presumed that English had clambered further up the the ladder of development than other languages, which remained primitive. For example, (Dean) F.W. Farrar (1865) assumed that some languages had never developed:

What shall we say ... of the Yamparico, who speaks a sort of gibberish like the growling of a dog? ... Of the Fuegians, whose language is an inarticulate clucking? ... Of the wild Veddahs of Ceylon, who have gutturals and grimaces instead of language? ...

But an equally false ‘decay’ view was more pernicious. An influential archbishop (of Dublin), Richard Chenevix Trench promoted his bizarre belief that the language of ‘savage tribes’ had slithered down from former excellence:

What does their language on close inspection prove? In every case what they are themselves, the remnant and ruin of a better and a nobler past. Fearful indeed is the impress of degradation which is stamped on the language of the savage.

Trench regarded language as a ‘moral barometer’, and assumed that ‘with every impoverishing or debasing of personal or national life goes hand in hand a corresponding impoverishment and debasement of language’.

As evidence of ‘degradation’, he quotes a missionary who worked in Africa, among the Bechuanas, who supposedly had lost the word for ‘a supreme Divine Being’. It survived now only in the spells and charms of rainmakers and sorcerers, who, he claimed misused it to designate a fabulous ghost:

... so there is nothing that so effectually tends to keep him in the depths to which he has fallen ... Thus ... the very terms are well nigh or wholly wanting in the dialect of the savage whereby to impart to him heavenly truths.

In English, he disliked change of meaning:

This tendency in words to lose the sharp, rigidly defined outline of meaning which they once possessed, to become of wide, vaguer, loose application instead of fixed, definite, and precise, to mean almost anything, and so really to mean nothing, is.. one of those tendencies... which are at work for the final ruin of a language, and, I do not fear to add, for the demoralization of those that speak it.

In short, Trench promoted three bizarre false views, some of which are still found today in letters to newspapers: first, that language and morals are somehow intertwined; second, that languages may disintegrate; third, that vigilance is needed to prevent linguistic collapse. Just as a lost nail is assumed to result in a lost horseshoe, then a lost horse, then a lost rider, so lost linguistic minutiae are presumed to lead to lost languages.

This Babel myth needs to be buried. In fact, language mends its own patterns and keeps itself in check: it works more like a thermostat than a nail in a horse shoe (Aitchison 1991). Fears for its safety are unnecessary.

Trench, incidentally, did not have a happy end. He sustained two fractured knees in a fall while crossing the Irish Channel, resulting in a long illness, from which he eventually died. He presumably had plenty of time to ponder his eccentric opinion that pain was some kind of punishment, on the grounds that both pain and punishment are derived from the Latin word poena ‘penalty’.

These days, we no longer automatically believe what church dignitaries tell us. But we have retained a residue of linguistic misunderstanding and linguistic intolerance. My message is this: we must care about clarity. But language structure looks after itself.

5. Summary
Let me now summarize my talk. First, I looked briefly at the history of Biblical translation. Second, I reminded people why Tyndale was such a brilliant translator. Third, I looked at other cases of linguistic intolerance. My hope is that, in the long run, such explorations can create a better understanding of language, and indirectly, of each other.

But to finish, I tried to find a quote about translation that would summarise Tyndale’s work. I found three (all in Barnstone 1993):

  1. In the end all translation is literature. (Pierre Grange 1927).
  2. A good translation is a good JOKE. Reader, you are fooled. (Willis Barnstone 1993).
  3. Real translation is transparent, it does not hide the original, it does not steal its light, but allows the pure language, as if reinforced through its own medium, to fall on the original work with greater fullness. (Harry Zohn 1969).

This last one truly summarises Tyndale’s excellence as a translator.

Jean Aitchison

Jean Aitchison is the Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford, and a Professorial Fellow at Worcester College.

Select References

Aitchison, J. (1991). Language change: Progress or decay? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. paperback

Bailey, R.W. (1992). Images of English: A cultural history of the language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. hardbackpaperback

Barnstone, W. (1993). The poetics of translation: History, theory, practice, New Haven: Yale University Press. hardbackpaperback

Crowley, T. (1989). The politics of discourse: The standard language question in British cultural debates, London: Macmillan. hardbackpaperback

Daniell, D. (1994). William Tyndale: A biography, New Haven: Yale University Press. hardbackpaperback

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