The Four Gospels and the Revelation
The abundance, in our time, of singlehanded noninstitutional translations of the Bible, and especially of the New Testament—Richmond Lattimore’s is the most recent—is a phenomenon worth a moment’s thought. The earliest versions were made in defiance of the religious establishment, but the Church eventually took them over and established a fairly effective monopoly. Some sort of doctrinal position-taking was inevitable; King James’s translators used the older Protestant versions, but did not endorse them. The Catholic (Douai) translation was primarily meant for priests who would need to be able to confute, in the vulgar tongue, the heresies of Protestants with the vernacular Bible at their fingertips.
James’s version turned out to be good enough to satisfy most of the requirements of the English-speaking world for a very long time; when people spoke of the Bible it was mostly that version they meant, rather than a collection of documents in Hebrew and Greek. And it was the work of good scholars. When it was mooted, the prelates had their doubts: why another version? “If every man’s humour should be followed,” said Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, “there would be no end of translating.” But the royal plan went ahead; during the reign of Elizabeth the Geneva Bible had established itself as the popular translation; its tone was too puritan, it must be supplanted. And so we got the familiar text, owing much to its predecessors, archaic in language even at the time of publication. It was more “numinous” than any other, but responsible for a misleading association between the language of the New Testament and a vague, old-fashioned grandeur.
The new version was a success, but soon caused a certain amount of learned discontent. On the one hand it was felt that the so-called Authorized Version (never technically authorized) did not match the original, especially the brisk, clumsy, colloquial, and in its time very modern, Greek of the New Testament; on the other, the gap between the language of the AV and good modern English also seemed troublesome. In 1653 the great scholar John Lightfoot urged the Commonwealth Parliament to commission “an exact, vigorous and lively translation”; it would need to be officially sponsored because individual translators might otherwise take it on without learned and devout supervision—“a precedent of dangerous consequence, emboldening others to do the like.” No such version appeared; and the individuals moved in.
The Cambridge History of the Bible gives samples of the “pert and colloquial” Daniel Mace (1729) who clearly believed in the propriety of rendering the Greek into the language of his moment, e.g., “When ye fast, don’t put on a dismal air as hypocrites do (“Be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance,” AV; “Do not scowl like the hypocrites,” Richmond Lattimore). But Edward Harwood, in 1768, objected not to a lack of modern colloquialism in the AV, but to the contrast between its “bald and barbarous language” and “the elegance of modern English.” His Magnificat begins thus: “My soul with reverence adores my…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.