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The Features Of Bible Translation

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As time went by, and the world moved on from the Classical Age into the Roman Age, fewer Christians understood Greek, and so the Church had to find a way to cater for its audience. The solution was for the Bible to be translated into Latin. St Jerome, known as the father of translation, was the one to translate the Bible into Latin, his version being known as the Vulgate. His view on translating literally or translating the meaning of the text varied. He believed in sense for sense translation of a papal letter, but also voiced his belief in a literal translation of Scripture, as he claimed that “the very order of the words is a mystery.”

In spite of this, he acknowledged how the Gospels offered free renderings of the Hebrew Bible which differed from the Septuagint, and so concluded that “in Scripture, one must consider not the words but the sense.” His slogan, so to speak, became “non verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu” (Derrida 370). Venuti goes on to point out that Jerome’s favouring of a free translation also implies a certain over-translation at times. He gives the contrasting example of Matthew’s verse with prophetic undertones, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” which refers to the holy family’s flight from Herod, and the same verse in the Hebrew text: “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” According to Venuti, Jerome’s Vulgate applies some Christianity to Judaic themes (“Foundational Statements” 15). His views and favouring of the free translation were strongly respected throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

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The first translation of the complete Bible into English was done by theologian John Wycliffe in the 14th century. He believed in dominion by grace, which for him meant that each man should be granted direct access to the Bible, hence his mission to translate it fully between 1380 and 1384, and into the vernacular, the language spoken by the people. Wycliffe followed Jerome’s beliefs and in the prologue to the 1395 Bible translation said that the best translation is from Latin straight into English, about which Venuti said that “the avoidance of word-for-word translation was a proselytizing move designed to increase access to the sacred text” (“Foundational Statements” 16). Biblical translation also played a part in popularising vernaculars, and at times, just like language is, the Bible was ironically used as a divide. There was a time when the Church did not allow for the Bible to be translated into European vernaculars, as a means of holding the power. This helped to divide further the Protestants and the Catholics, as the Protestants were against priests and the clergy and believed in direct communication with God. Nonetheless, Wycliffe and his circle of followers were considered heretical for advocating for translations into the vernacular.

The Wycliffite was revised by John Purvey in 1408, at which point 150 copies in manuscript form existed. In the 16th century, William Tyndale did the first translation in print, and translated parts of the Old Testament from Hebrew and the New Testament from Greek. He was considered as a heretic in a time when people who were found in the unlicensed possession of an English Bible were given the death penalty, and so, he was eventually burned at the stake. Steiner claims that he was “the greatest of English Bible translators” (365). In the early 16th century, vernacular translations of the Bible were prohibited in England, about which Alister McGrath commented, “What would happen if an English translation of the Bible were to be produced abroad, and smuggled into England?” He said that the English shut this translation down as they were threatened by the development of the printing technology in Europe, and saw this production of the Bible as a business venture (22-23). By 1611, there were more than 50 English Bibles, of which Steiner recounts that in art, the text most successfully domesticated is the King James Bible in English (365). Martin Luther was a protagonist in vernacular version of the Bible ordeal, as in the 1500s, he chose to translate the Bible into High German, the dialect he was most familiar with, spoken “by the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace” (Luther 189). This was in line with Erasmus’ plea for Christian people to read the Bible in their vernacular (François “Erasmus’s Revision” 72).

Erasmus’ major contribution to the advancement of the Reformation was his publication in 1516 of a Greek-Latin parallel New Testament which became foundational to much of the translation work of the reformers. The status of the Bible in Germany, following Luther’s translation, changed the status of the dialect by elevating it to the standard form of the German language. In doing this, he also applied Jerome’s sense for sense strategy, subtly revising the Biblical text. According to Antoine Berman, “Luther attempted to do two things: translate into German that a priori can only be local, his own German, Hochdeutsch, but at the same time elevate, by the very process of translation, this local German to the status of a common German, a lingua franca” (46-7).

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