'The Powerhouse of Creative Thought'
David Daniell's study of the Bible in English examines the Holy Book as an engine of history and art
BY: Interview by Paul O'Donnell
You say the Bible has been translated into English more than any other language. Why English?
It's an accident of history in a way. After the Bible was released into English by William Tyndale, English rapidly became the language of the world, and there was this rush to get the Bible into English. Tyndale's was just the first of ten completely different translations or revisions in the next hundred years.
It's also important to remember that the New Testament, which is in Greek, goes very well into English--far better than it goes into Latin. It's partly a question of grammar and syntax, but chiefly it's that Latin prefers nouns and Greek prefers verbs. A Latin sentence has the weight on the nouns, and the Greek sentence has the weight on the verbs. In the first two chapters of Mark's gospel, the verbs are alive and kicking. The writer knows the power of the Greek verbs. Tyndale understood that, and understood that English was very appropriate for that effect.
So Bible translation became an English pursuit.
Right, and one has to remember that for 130 years, England had been the most Catholic country in Europe by far, with an extremely repressive Catholic government. When the freedom came to read the Bible, the backlash was violent--people were burned for reading the Bible and Tyndale was burned for translating it. But also it set up this acute interest in getting it into an English that everyone could read. And everyone did read it. It was the great powerhouse of creative thought in English under Elizabeth.
In fact, you say that Shakespeare's literary feats can be attributed in part to Tyndale's translation.
Tyndale used an English plain style. This was a terrific release. Anybody who had something to say could write, and they did. It was this foundation of great directness that Shakespeare took over. "To be or not to be" is a very simple sentence and "The rest is silence" is completely understandable by anybody. Of course, Shakespeare has on top of that his gigantic imaginative power, which was not Tyndale's interest. He was writing for accuracy and clarity.
Who was Tyndale's audience?
Everybody. He very famously said to a cleric he was debating, "If God spare my life many more years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of Scripture than thou doth." The ploughboys did read it, in little books they carried in their pockets. And so also, in the version that became the Geneva Bible in 1660, did the highest clerics. Everybody read it.
It's ironic that the translators of these revered texts were not cheered, but killed for their effort.
Americans find it hard to understand why translating the Bible was such a heresy. The church had the tightest grip in England than any nation in the world, from 1408 to the 1530s. It really was a stranglehold, on thought as well as writing. You weren't to disobey the church and certainly you weren't to think for yourself.
The clerics of the time feared people would use scripture for their own ends. Didn't they have a point, though, since that kind of mischiefmaking happens all the time?
This is very recent in American life. The liberty, the freedom to read the Bible made America. The freedom to think for yourself is the basis for democracy.
The King James Version is the bestselling Bible of all time. Why do we hold the King James in such thrall?
It's a total mystery to me, except that people like something they can worship like that. The King James was originally a political move. England was reclaiming world status against France and they wanted to say, "Look, the Bible was given to the English, and Shakespeare was given to the English and go away everybody else."