Translation and Production - Articles about the Bible - Bible Society

Translation and Production

Translating, producing and distributing Scripture is a core activity for us. Why? Because we believe that when people engage with the Bible in their heart language, lives can change – for good.

But it’s not an activity that started with us. People have been translating the Bible for hundreds of years. Here’s how the English translation of the Bible, which we can easily take for granted today, came about.

The earliest translations

The translation of the Bible into English began in Anglo-Saxon times. In the seventh century, a poet named Caedmon translated a series of biblical stories into ‘Old English’ (Anglo-Saxon) verse. There were copies of parts of the Bible in Old English, the language of the common people, from as early as the eighth century AD.

The monk and scholar Bede translated the gospel of John into Old English in 735, allegedly on his deathbed. In the tenth century, a stand-alone edition of the gospels was translated into West-Saxon. Then, at the turn of the eleventh century a priest named Aelfric translated the Pentateuch and other parts of the Old Testament into Old English.

After the arrival of the Normans in 1066, new forms of the English language developed. A scribe called Eadwine translated the book of Psalms into ‘Anglo-Norman’, the language of the upper classes, in 1160. The hermit and writer Richard Rolle translated the Psalms into ‘Middle English’, the language of the common people, around 1340. His writings were very popular and were widely circulated.

This has led a number of scholars to argue that English people knew the Bible very well during the Middle Ages. One of the reasons for this is that illustrated Bible storybooks in English (which usually included other stories too) sold like hot cakes across medieval England. It wasn’t until the late fourteenth century AD, however, that the entire Bible was translated into English.

John Wycliffe

Many regard John Wycliffe (1320–1384) as the first to translate the entire Bible into English. In fact, he probably only translated some of it. It is likely that, under Wycliffe’s oversight, the scholars Nicholas Hereford and John Trevisa translated the rest.

Wycliffe was a priest and noted scholar from Oxford University. He wanted radical reform of the Church and believed it should stay out of politics. He gathered a group of followers who were nicknamed the ‘Lollards’ (which in Dutch means ‘babblers of nonsense’). Wycliffe’s outspoken views about Church corruption and his claim that some of its teachings were unbiblical got him into hot water.

Wycliffe believed that people should consult the Bible for guidance - rather than Church leaders. For this, they would need a copy of the Bible in their own language. The Bible he inspired came out between 1380 and 1390 and was a literal translation of the Latin Vulgate. Shortly after his death, his secretary John Purvey produced a revision of Wycliffe’s translation.

The Lollards were sent out across England to read these Bibles to people. Wycliffe hoped that his lay preachers would use them to sweep away what he saw as superstition in the Church. This did not go down well among the Church leaders. They had no time for his religious or political agenda. In 1381, a Lollard preacher named John Ball stirred up the common people by referencing the Bible during the ‘Peasant’s Revolt’ (medieval poll-tax riots).

From then on, owning and reading the Bible in English became associated with religious and political unrest. This led to a clampdown by the King and the Church. Between 1407 and 1409, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, forbade people to read or own any Bible text that had not been vetted by a local bishop. Lollard Bibles, where found, were confiscated and burned.

However, by then people had become used to seeing and reading the Bible in English. So the issue was to resurface during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Tyndale

The English reformer William Tyndale (1494-1536) was the first person to translate the New Testament directly from Greek to English. Tyndale was a priest and distinguished Oxford scholar who strongly believed that everyone should be able to read the Bible. In 1523, he asked the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, for permission to translate and print a new English Bible. But the bishop viewed Tyndale as a troublemaker, and said no.

However, Tyndale pressed ahead anyway, with the support of some merchant friends. He moved to Worms in Germany where in 1525, he produced a translation of the New Testament. Six thousand copies of this translation were printed and smuggled into England hidden inside bales of wool and wine casks with false bottoms.

His version of the New Testament angered Cuthbert Tunstall and the then Lord Chancellor of England, Thomas More. They disagreed with the way he had translated certain biblical words and were unhappy with his footnotes, which criticised the Catholic Church. So smuggled copies of Tyndale’s translation were systematically collected and then publicly burned.

His card was also marked by the reigning king, Henry VIII, who at the time was opposed to Bibles in English. Tyndale began to translate the Old Testament, but never managed to finish it. In 1536, he was arrested and executed for heresy. But the story didn’t end there. His priest friend Miles Coverdale picked up the baton and continued his work.

Coverdale

Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) joined William Tyndale in what is now Belgium to help him in his translation work. After his death, Coverdale finished off Tyndale’s project by producing a new English translation in 1535. He based it largely on Tyndale’s version, but also on Latin and German translations. Coverdale cleverly dedicated it to King Henry VIII, who by this time had warmed to the idea of the Bible in English. Henry therefore gave his permission for Coverdale’s translation to be circulated across England.

This made it the first complete Bible to be printed in English with official approval. It was also the first English Bible to separate the Old Testament apocrypha by placing them in an appendix. Coverdale’s Bible contained certain controversial teachings in its notes and chapter headings. Some church leaders had issues with these. So in 1538, Coverdale edited and printed a new translation, minus the controversial notes. This version, which was widely used in parish churches, became known as the Great Bible.

Bible translation at a rate of knots

Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, translation and production of the Bible really took off. There were three main reasons for this:

The invention of the printing press

The first important factor was the invention of the printing press. Copying the Bible out by hand onto vellum was a long job. It made mass production slow and expensive. However, the invention of the printing press meant that the Bible could be produced quickly and cheaply. Translated Bible texts could now be read by many more people.

The first printed Bible was in Latin. It became available between 1450 and 1456 in Germany. It was printed by Johannes Gutenberg, who invented a process for printing from movable type. The first printed copy of the Bible in English was William Tyndale’s New Testament, published in 1526. The first complete printed Bible in English (with Old and New Testament) was Miles Coverdale's Bible of 1535.

The Protestant Reformation

The religious revolution known as the Protestant Reformation was the second major factor. It took place during the sixteenth century. In the run-up to this revolution the medieval Catholic Church had adopted a multimedia approach towards the Bible.

The Catholic Church encouraged ordinary people to learn about the Bible, but insisted on holding their hand to guide them. As such, it encouraged people to read ‘edited’ versions of the Bible. The Church also brought biblical stories to life through theatre, music, stained glass and art. However, the Church was far less keen on giving absolutely everyone direct access to the unedited text in their own languages.

The Protestant Reformation, spearheaded by a monk called Martin Luther, changed all of this. The reformers strongly believed that everyone should be able to own a text of the whole Bible, in their own language. They disagreed with the idea that church leaders should spoon-feed the Bible to people. So in the following centuries, the Bible was translated into many languages. They included: Catalan, Czech, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Icelandic, Slovenian, Welsh, Hungarian, Finnish, Irish, Romanian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Portuguese, Slovak, Norwegian, Modern Greek, Bulgarian and Russian.

Picture Bibles

Bible picture books hit the market from the thirteenth century onwards. They contained the biblical text in Latin and were illustrated with relevant scenes (for example the garden of Eden, Jonah and the whale or the last judgment). However, they were expensive, so were only really bought by the wealthy and educated.

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