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Translating the Bible

In response to:

A New Story of Stories from the October 20, 2005 issue

To the Editors:

The opening paragraphs of Frank Kermode’s review of Robert Alter’s recent translation of The Five Books of Moses [“A New Story of Stories,” NYR, October 20] unfortunately perpetuate the mistaken idea that English translations of the Bible “date back to the first stirrings of the Reformation in the fourteenth century.” Even if we ignore the earliest piecemeal efforts in the eighth century, the translation of the four gospels in the tenth century and the Old English prose Heptateuch around the year 1000 deserve a prominent place in any history of translations of the Bible. The scholar who led the team translating Genesis, Ælfric, is one of the great prose stylists of English from any period. King Alfred translated the first fifty Psalms into prose, and the remaining one hundred were translated (anonymously) into verse, as were parts of Genesis, Exodus, and other books of the Bible. The record is too extensive to ignore, and it won’t do to dismiss the language from this period as being somehow less English than that of Wyclif, Tyndale, and Cranmer. If this longer history is more difficult to bring into line with the grand metanarrative of the Reformation, so be it.

Daniel Donoghue

Department of English

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Frank Kermode replies:

I might have been very exact and said “translations into English of the whole Bible, for the use of the common people.” These versions were, of course, prompted and produced by men who preferred the authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura) to that of the pope. The pre-Reformation instances cited by Mr. Donoghue were not intended for the common people, and in most cases the language they use is normally, and properly, described as Old English (formerly “Anglo-Saxon”). As with the work of the seventh-century Caedmon, it needs to be translated into English, so it can hardly be said to be in that language already.

Translation can reasonably be said to begin as a consequence of the break with Rome, which from 1408 prohibited the faithful from making or reading the Bible in the vernacular. Roman Catholics could therefore play no significant part in the history of Bible translation—which I suppose is another part of the “grand metanarrative of the Reformation.”

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