'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

"The Bible in English" is the product of 15 years' work by David Daniell, an emeritus professor of English at University College, London. Daunting as its 774 pages appear, the book is engagingly opinionated, frank and informative--as was Dr. Daniell in a recent interview about how translating the Bible changed more than just religious history


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.

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