Pith and Marrow

For similitudes have more virtue and power with them than bare words
and lead men's wits farther into the pith and marrow
and spiritual understanding of the thing.

—Tyndale's introduction to the Book of Leviticus.

It is a great pleasure to be here at Hertford college and to have listened to the many expert papers presented on or about William Tyndale. Like religion itself, each of us has a personal viewpoint and an inner reaction to this remarkable man.

I come to you with some background to the translating industry as I happen to be the President of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. This doesn't make me an expert but does allow me plenty of contact with those who do it, think about it, theorise about it and write about it. Nothing that I have read or heard shakes me from the conviction that William Tyndale, Our Tyndale, was one of the most remarkable translators of all time.

Now I am aware that I am talking to a mixed audience. Some, many of you, are very knowledgeable others, perhaps, less so. As Cardinal Hume once said in addressing an audience - 'It is like prospecting, if you don't strike oil in ten minutes stop boring'. Let us hope that I strike oil reasonably quickly.

Either way I intend to approach today's subject in three stages. Simply put:

• without translation-no Tyndale

• without language- no translation

• language - translation -- Tyndale.

And Tyndale getting to the pith and marrow of the thing ...

Perhaps I might share with you one or two thoughts about language itself

In the first place it strikes me, and I am sure all of you, that human kind with its aeons of refined Darwinian evolution has emerged, in all parts of the globe. pretty much the same looking, the same functioning animal. Clearly one general pattern has suited the hunter gatherers, the farmers and cultivators, thy social and the nomadic tribes, the equatorial and the arctic peoples. Our physical structure hardly varies despite the tasks to which we put our bodies. Not so the animal kingdom where variety helps fill every ecological niche thousands of species of insect, for instance, have adapted their bodies to minute variations of environment. in only sixty years a completely new species of mosquito has evolved in the London Underground. So different that it cannot breed with the ones upstairs. The scientists arc rightly astonished.

But here's the odd thing. We have about 10,000 distinct languages in the world and maybe once had many more. Papua New Guinea even today has over one thousand separate languages most of them unintelligible between even near neighbours. Humans are distinct in having language as a means of communicating abstract notions. We share with animals the ability to convey basic needs or requirements by noises. We, like animals, use body language for silent communication. But our claim to be 'in charge' is the ability to share our views of the past, present and future amongst ourselves.

Why then this huge variety of tongues? Would not evolution have been better served if it had tended to a universal language? Frankly I do not think that anyone can say for sure why this has not come about.

In Western Europe we have 40 languages which have developed over a period of between six and eight thousand years. Papua New Guinea's thousand languages took about 40,000 years to develop. In Europe we have dozens of modified alphabets with dots and hooks and wiggles on the letters to suit the particular sounds of a particular country. This very day the Germans are 'rationalising' their spelling and the French have done away with certain accents.

However, look at China. A huge and ancient civilisation of 1.2 billion people. But 800 million of these speak and write Mandarin. A further 00 million speak seven other languages related to Mandarin. Language is monolithic in China both spoken and written.

These are puzzling matters. I have seen no explanation that fits. I suppose it is nice to have an Institute of Translation & Interpreting to sort the whole thing out!

After variety comes change and development. Few, if any, languages stay still for long. A translator, once he has mastered the ten thousand languages, still has to accept changes of meaning, new words and phrases, new spelling. And, of course, the ability to cope with languages which have died out. Remember Biblical Hebrew is not a language in use today and we shall later admire Tyndale's skill.

Language swaps are familiar to our technological age though staunchly resisted in some countries. Iceland with only 250,000 inhabitants and, incidentally the highest literacy rate in the world, still insists that all new words be put into Icelandic or words that sound Icelandic. France is twitchy about these matters though I suspect that the nostrils of the Dragon at the Academic Francaise are smoking less these days. And if we talk about smoking we remember that Marcel Proust wrote about 'Le Smoking' and nobody complained.

In English we owe Taboo and Tattoo to the Polynesians, Amok, Batik and Orangutan to the Malaysians, Bungalow to Hindi and, if you are a motorist the word Buggy to the Indians. Juggurnaut, too, come to think of it. A trawl through Yule and Burnell's 1886 greatest-ever dictionary Hobson-Jobson will show how much Indian has come to us.

And language is a two way traffic. Nowhere in the world, thanks to our Victorian heritage, are people more 'esteemed' than in India. An Indian Plain Language committee has just been set up to try and stop all this grovelling. Invitations still get sent out 'soliciting your valuable presence to grace the occasion'...

Where is all this pointing? Probably the most satisfying explanation comes from John Naisbett in his book The Global Paradox. In essence he says that 'the more global we become the more tribal we behave'. The rise in food and clothing and, not least, in language is mirrored by strong tendencies to tribal, local culture.

The USSR has split into ethnic states as has the former Yugoslavia. Slovakia and the Czech Republic likewise. Britain itself has movements of separation as the Welsh and Scots here today will acknowledge. In 1945 the UN covered 51 countries, today 184 of which 25 were added in the past few years.

I believe that during the next century we shall see English solidly established as the world language and the tribal languages preserved and proliferating about it.

As it stands today one billion people speak English either as a mother tongue, or as a second or foreign language. 60% of the world's broadcasts are in English, 70% of the mail is addressed in English. And 85% of international telephone calls and 80% of all data on the world's 100 million computers are in universal English. German boardrooms have now to conduct business, in English.

I tell you these things because a talk on Tyndale and translation must, of necessity, make us think. about the incredible variety of language itself and its elusive qualities of meaning and culture. Languages are like dappled fallow deer in a sunlit forest.


From language now to translation. Here in Oxford and surrounded Oxford men I am reminded that 'You can always tell an Oxford man - you can't tell him much'. Then the Oxford Dictionary defines 'Translation' as 'to express in another language' and that certainly doesn't tell us much. Remember that 'another language' could well be 'sign' language, a language as legitimate and precise as any language on this earth. Or it could be Pidgin English which is used for important and, probably the only, communication between many peoples. Within the walls of this ancient college I can tell you that an intellectual in Pidgin is 'Think Fella Too Much'! Obviously we have to examine carefully the meaning of translation before we can begin to understand the task that William Tyndale set himself in the early 1500s.

Throughout the ages translation and interpreting have marched alongside trade, religion, politics, conquest and learning. We have to command, instruct, inform or entertain between different cultures. We have to learn and understand things that are relevant to other people and places and, often, at other times.

One of the most remarkable conquests this world has ever seen was made by the Spaniard, Pizarro, with 168 ragtag men, an ocean away from home, when he took Peru from Atahualpa with its thousands of soldiers and huge population. We can, of course, explain such conquests by the superiority of steel and gunpowder but translation, interpreting and the ability through literacy to communicate experience and instruction were crucial. Pizarro could both talk to Atahualpa and gauge his thinking and at the same time draw on the accumulated written knowledge of others for his strategies. The Peruvians had no writing.

However at this point we need to look deeply at translation. Sounds, words, letter forms and phrases do not, most emphatically not, have exact equivalents across the language borders. I would venture to say that no two words in different languages are exactly equivalent. There is cultural baggage involved. By this I mean not only the elusive connection that links the minds of two people about an object or an abstraction but the very sounds in the ear and the look on the page that cannot cross the boundary between them. Chinese poetry is enhanced by the style of the character chosen by the calligrapher for a particular poem.

The poet Ezra Pound said this:

The translation of a poem having any depth ends by being one of two things; either it is the expression of the translator and virtually a new poem, or it is, as it were, a photograph, as exact as possible, of one side of a statue.

Think about this ...

Word sounds

Dr William French has made a list of the most beautiful words in the English language. Asphodel, chalice, tranquil, halcyon, thrush, melody, tendril, gossamer, murmuring. How many of these translate to beautiful words in other languages. Writers know well these things. You remember Charlotte Bronte contrasts Wuthering Heights on the bleak hillside with Thrushcross Grange in the quiet comfortable valley.

What about ugly words in English. Well, what about Pudding? James Joyce, when asked about the most beautiful sounding word in English said, without hesitation, 'Cuspidor'. There you are ...

How beautifully do these words sound in other languages?

Sometimes, though, these things do go well. A phrase by the Italian writer Cavalcanti comes over even, dare I say, more beautifully in English. 'Ma similiavan sol la sua ombria' is translated 'Who were like nothing save her shadow cast' - lovely. William Tyndale was a translator of this calibre.


Most languages have words whose sound echoes that of the object it describes. But not always. For instance take our word Cuckoo. The word comes straight from the throat of the bird and can only describe that one bird. If we said CooCuck it would sound distinctly odd. But translate that into Norwegian and the word is Gjok or Gauk, No onomatopoeia here at all. From Cuckoo comes our word Cuckold and we all know what we are talking about. French the same.

A translator cannot ever be sure that he is rendering the full meaning.


In every language there occur words with the same sound and different meanings. This is not a problem of translation but clearly the extra, if unrelated, meanings have an effect on the target word itself. Equally there are words that are spelt the same but sound different. We make our bows from the boughs of trees so that our enemies 'Vaill', bow before us. Often, and especially in English, they are a rich source of comedy and satire. And, of course. Jesus called Peter the Rock upon which he would build his church. It doesn't go into English though it works in French.

I recall hearing of an exasperated Oxford don in a difficult committee meeting crying out 'but we are all in the same boat.' 'Yes', came the reply, 'but with different skulls!'. How witty would that be in Nepalese, l wonder? Or, indeed, in American.


This is the most elusive of all language forms and the most difficult to pin down. A translator of the Bible will not necessarily have to cope with slang as such from the source language but he will have to be well aware of words and phrases which could be appropriate in the target language. Tyndale's use of certain words, dialect words, that were in use in the Gloucestershire countryside, his use of 'mizzling', for instance, which the AV turns to 'light rain', could have been deemed 'slang' by the authorities who would have had different and proper others. Slang so finely shades into the mainstream ane; can so quickly disappear from it that modem Bible translators have to beware.

How many of you here today would be 'browned off when you 'pranged' your car and had to till in 'wodges of bumf' for the insurance? And that was common usage only forty or fifty years ago ...

Missing words

Here we have one of the greatest obstacles to translation. There is a certain island tribe in the South Pacific who have no sheep nor any knowledge of what a sheep is. They keep pigs. How is the translator of the Old and the New Testaments to present one of the most enduring and poignant images if the Bible? With great difficulty. A half of the similitudes would lose their point.

When we come to the translator of Hebrew we encounter problems on a major scale. The text of the Hebrew Bible is virtually the only available example of the language. It is as if we only had Shakespeare for our knowledge of English. For example four out of every five words occur fewer than twenty times in the Hebrew Old Testament. About a thousand words occur only once. We do not have the ability to cross reference words from other contexts to arrive at their true usage and meaning.

Scholarly research in recent times has opened up much mere of Hebrew but remember that Tyndale, five hundred years ago, had no such help. He was, probably, alone in England in his knowledge of the Hebrew language. We can only step back and admire the skill, and indeed, fortitude, that he showed.

When we try to puzzle out the tangled story of Jacob and his complicated love life first with Lea, then her sister Rachel, and then with their two maidservants Bilhah and Silpha, we sigh with relief when we hear Lea saying 'Good Luck and she called his name Gad'. The Authorised Version, incidentally, erased the word Luck from the entire Tyndale Bible on the idea that God could never be subject to chance. In Lea's case, instead of 'Good Luck', she is made to say 'A Troop cometh' which sounds very odd indeed.

Tyndale deals with the unknown words in a very practical way. The Ark is made from the Gopher Tree in Hebrew but no one knows for sure what this tree might be. Tyndale, with his ploughboy in mind, renders it as Pine so that the meaning is clear. The AV reverts to Gopher.

Place names are often treated with Gloucestershire aplomb. Oakdale, Saltdale and Morgrove sound very familiar. What Tyndale calls a Hedgehog becomes a Rat in the Geneva Bible and a Ferret in the King James version. We have no idea who the missing animal is but I would settle for the Hedgehog myself.

The Translators Invisibility

I have discussed some of the problems that attend the transfer of language. The special sounds of words, their double meanings, their absence and their mutability and their redundancies. The cultural baggage that they try to carry across the borders. All of these things must have occurred to Tyndale.

The difference is that we now have, today, is a huge body of philological, philosophical, psychological research into linguistics. The wordsmiths are at it as never before.

Lawrence Venuti, one of the worlds leading experts on translation has posed the question 'can or should a translator be invisible?' This question directly affects our view of William Tyndale and I would like to ponder this with you. Does the translator leave the author in peace, as much as possible and move the reader towards him'? Or does he leave the reader in peace and move the author towards him'? In other words how much, if at all, do you foreignise the text.

If you think about this both positions are tenable. A text which is seamless gives no 'cultural feel' to the reader. He feels that he 'hasn't been there'. On the other hand the text which is too foreign in feeling often strikes the reader as 'quaint' and unreal.

Translators know this. Tyndale knew it. The Bible is a vast repository of authors and styles. They range from the majestic to the mundane. From the cataclysmic events of Genesis to the listings of temple decorations in Exodus or dynastic catalogues of Numbers. From the poetry of the Song of Solomon to bloody descriptions of battles. From the letters of St Paul to the parables, the similitudes, of Jesus. Tyndale's use of English varies beautifully with the mood of the text.

Goethe was clear about translation. He said, 'The translator who attach; himself too closely to his original snore or less abandons the originality of h nation, and so a third comes into existence, and the taste of the muititudes must be shaped towards it.' Friedrich Schleiertnacher, in 1813, was ever more succinct. The genuine translator was a writer 'who wants to bring those two completely separated persons, his author and his reader, truly together, and would like to bring the latter to an understanding and an enjoyment of the former as correct and complete as possible without inviting him to leave the sphere of his mother tongue.' Schleiermacher was all for leaving the author in peace. But remember that he was writing for a select German public, educated people for whom Greek and Latin was familiar. They could make the cultural jump. Anyway with the French on his doorstep he wanted to bolster the German language which he felt was capable of 'huge flexibility'.

The French then, and most of us today, are all for domesticating ow translated texts. Remember that when Scott Moncrieff produced his version of Proust's novel it was heralded as a 'new piece of English literature'. Many of our modern Bibles take domestication a long way. People realise this. Somehow the Bible lacks its original authority though the supporters say it gains clarity. What surprises me is that all, I would say without exception, modern Bibles still retain the word 'Manger' In a country where a minute proportion of the people live outside the cities and where no child has seen a manger, let alone knows what one is, why should this word still be retained? The other day I wrote to my local Gloucestershire newspaper on this very point. Regrettably they printed 'manager' instead of 'manger' and blamed it on WordSpell in the computer. I murmured 'GodSpell' and felt that the point had been rather nicely made after all.

Unusual words are no barrier to children. They love them, they absorb them and they use them. To make the point a group of Oxford undergraduates rewrote Psalm 23 in modern 'sociological speak'. Titled 'David Lyric Two Three' it began thus. 'The Lord and I are in a Shepherd/sheep situation and I am in a position of negative need'. It went on to say. 'You design and produce a nutriment-bearing, furniture type structure in the context of non-cooperative elements -- you act out a head-related folk ritual employing vegetable extract, my beverage utensil experiences a volume crisis'! You laugh, of course, but I have seen in an American Bible the text 'you arrange before me a table in front of those showing hostility to me -- with oil you have greased my head'. What is wrong with 'enemies' and why the 'haircare' bit. We do not need to go any farther down that path.

I will leave the translators' invisibility to you to consider.

Language is not only what we think -- It is also how we think and what we think with.

Great works like Homer are constantly being translated. Francis Newman, brother of the Cardinal, tried his hand at it and embellished his text with Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon and Latin to the point where he had to issue a glossary of terms. William Morris, undoubted great man that he was, stayed firmly in the medieval mould and was mocked. If you can, do read Robert Fagles brilliant translations of Homer. Here is a man, such as Tyndale, who gets the balance right. It is still seventh century BC Greece but the meanings are crystal clear. And it is poetry ...

The Pith and Marrow of the thing

I have dealt with language and with translation. Now let's get down to the to the man himself. Let us get down to the pith and marrow.

Tyndale could turn Greek and Hebrew into English but what made his language so formidable, so memorable and ultimately so right? Why can we so confidently say that Tyndale's Bible gave the English their English and allowed our greatest writers to fashion their work away from the shackles of Latinate prose?

Three things stand out. His choice of words, his mastery of phrases and his real understanding of the rhythms of speech.

From the first utterance of 'Tush' by the snake in the Garden of Eden to the closing words in the Epistle of St Jude, 'They are wandering stars to whom is reserved the mists of darkness forever', we feel the mastery of Tyndale.

He gave us new words. Jehovah, scapegoat, Passover, mercy seat, peacemaker. He gave us the words that the ploughboy would have used. Here in Leviticus we read, 'for none that hath any blemishes shall come near - whether he be blind, lame, snoutnosed or hath any monstrous member or broken footed or broken handed or crook backed or perleyeyed or goggle eyed or mangy or skald or hath his stones broken'. We get the picture pretty clearly.

People are flaggy, fainty, active fellows, the rain is mizzling. Cain loured, Joseph is a lucky fellow. Pharaoh's jolly captains are drowned in the Red Sea, the deep waters covered them; they sank to the bottom as a stone. He gives us a 'fools Paradise' and 'grasshoppers in multitude', people have 'botches' and 'emerods' and suffer from 'an incurable disease'. Word. across the centuries still convey their meaning.

See how he handles Jacob's flocks of sheep and cattle in Genesis 30. The text is sprinkled with neat little words -- speckled, spotted, party, partycoloured, diverse in quick succession so that we get a lucid impression of the multiplicity of animals he has to care for. These paragraphs read like the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Pled Beauty 'for skies of couple colour as a brinded cow'.

Then Tyndale gives us the abiding glory of his prose - the phrases. expressions and sayings that have entered our language to the extent that many people think that they are merely 'old English proverbs'. And if they do not think of them as proverbs they will say that they are from the original King James Bible. But we are here to say that they are not!

'Can the blind lead the blind?', 'eat drink and be merry', 'receipt of customs', 'physician heal thyself', 'no prophet is accepted in his own country', 'a crier in the wilderness', 'take up thy bed and walk', 'no man can serve two masters', 'knock and it shall he opened unto you', 'seek and ye shall find', 'new wine in old bottles', 'the fat of the land'. 'a land flowing with milk and honey', 'an incurable disease', and so it goes on.

Lastly Tyndale is remarkable for the sustained rhythm of his prose. There is pace and forward movement where often the AV or other versions are flat or even somewhat jerky. Many of his sentences are composed of monosyllables with the compound syllable falling at the end. This is comfortable. Here is an example. 'Lest they bid thee again, and make a recompense', says Tyndale.'.The AV loses all the pace. 'Lest they also bid thee again, and a recompense be made thee'. It's gone ...

Thou art my dear son in whom I delight' makes the AV's 'In whom I am well pleased' sound rather prosaic and uninteresting.

Compare the account of Jacob and the Angel. 'For thou hast wrestled with God and with men and hast prevailed'. The words 'wrestled' and 'hast', both, strong dynamic words, fit together beautifully. Compare it with the King James version.

'And all who heard it wondered at these things that were told them of the shepherds. But Mary kept all these sayings and pondered them in her heart'. As David Daniell has pointed out the placing of 'pondered' and 'wondered' shows perfect understanding of the cadences of language.

The account is endless - the examples legion. Read Tyndale. As he, himself, says 'he that can take it, let him take it'.

We are incredibly lucky, yes! lucky to have our Bible from Tyndale and our language enriched by his genius. Tyndale has truly got to the pith and marrow of the thing.

In sixteen months time we should place that modestly small, leather-bound book dated 1526, for all to see, in the centre of the new monument to Mammon, the Millennium Dome.

The least we can do for Tyndale...

Rowland Whitehead

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