Home > 88. The Quaggas of Creativity, C. The Thinker As Hero, D. Religion: Received and Interpreted > Translation, the English Bible, and William Tyndale

Translation, the English Bible, and William Tyndale

File:King James Bible 1772 - Title page.jpg

Translation is a collaborative enterprise. As much as each translator brings to the work–poetic sensibility, grammatical aptitude, knowledge of the original work and the era that produced it–he or she still relies on the work of others. Previous translations, dictionaries, thesauruses, and histories all help the translator enter into the spirit of the original document(s).


But, as always, there are exceptions. And the one that RT is thinking of is William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English. Far from being derivative, this translation, more than any other work except the quartos of Shakespeare, helped shape the sound and structure of Modern English. And, as with Shakespeare, Tyndale’s Bible is the achievement of a single mind.


English was in flux during Tyndale’s lifetime (c. 1494-1536). Middle English was dying out, replaced by Chancery Standard, which was being disseminated via the new printing presses. The politics of the time were also unstable: the War of Roses had ended in 1485 with the establishment of the Tudor Dynasty; Martin Luther issued his 95 Theses in 1517 and published his translation of the Bible into German vernacular in 1522; and Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1534. Medieval Europe was disintegrating, and one sign of this was the appearance of translations of the Bible into vernacular languages.


Neutrality in such circumstances was difficult to achieve. Tyndale was born into a family with aristocratic connections and soon proved to be linguistically gifted (over the course of his life, he learned French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish). He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oxford in 1512 and was made Master of Arts in 1515. He began to study theology but was appalled by Oxford’s approach to scriptural study, claiming that it led students away from the Bible’s spirit. He asked for help in translating the bible, applying to Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall, but was politely turned down. In 1524, Tyndale traveled to Europe and began to translate the New Testament into English. His translation was published in 1526, and copies began to circulate in England, where they were banned and burnt. In January 1529, Tyndale was condemned as a heretic.

The following year, Tyndale’s English translation of the Pentateuch was published. Also in 1530, Tyndale published an argument condemning Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife, concluding that it violated the Scripture.

In 1539, Tyndale was betrayed to the authorities and a year later convicted of heresy; tied to a stake, he was strangled and his body burnt, though it seems he survived the strangulation and was conscious during the burning, which he endured stoically.

Within four years of Tyndale’s execution, Henry VIII had authorized and published four translations of the Bible into English. All were based on Tyndale’s version.


Though Tyndale was not the first to translate the Bible into English (John Wycliffe had translated it into Middle English in the mid-1300’s), Tyndale’s version was the first to work directly from the original languages (as opposed to the Latin Vulgate) and the first to be principally the work of a single man (scholars now recognize that Wycliffe’s Bible is the work of several translators).

But what is really important with Tyndale is the quality of the text. Here is his version of the opening of Genesis:


In the begynnynge God created heaven and erth. The erth was voyde and

emptie/ ãd darcknesse was vpon the depe/ and the spirite of god moved

vpon the water.


It’s easy to dismiss this as proto-KJV, in need of the tweaking that that honorable and gifted body of translators gave it. So let’s take a look at the passage’s strengths:

1) The opening of Genesis is famously difficult to translate. For starters, it contains the single original instance of a term in classical Hebrew: tohu-bohu, which in KJV is translated “void and without form.” What characterizes Tyndale’s version is its simplicity and its emphasis on God’s power–he created the world out of nothing.

2) More than that though, Tyndale emphasizes the mystery of the process–the spirit of God “moved upon” the waters–already God is transforming the abyss, before he has created a single thing.

3) Tyndale was the first to use the word create in this passage. Create offers a wide spectrum of connotations, from founding an institution to laying a foundation to finding something, expanding significantly on made, Wycliffe’s word choice in the passage.


RT will close by noting the enormous influence of Tyndale’s Bible on the King James Version; vernacular English and the advent of the printing press, which made TB the first bible to be broadly distributed, guaranteed a large audience and very likely made the KJV committee’s reliance on it inevitable. Ninety percent of the KJV’s words come from Tyndale (though it should also be noted that poetic effect, tone, and overall meaning do not necessarily depend on word choice). More than any other man except Shakespeare, Tyndale has influenced the language we use. Here are some examples: twinkling of an eye (this apparently from Luther’s translation); the powers that be; eat, drink, and be merry; and fight the good fight. What a legacy!   RT


Photo: King James Bible, Title Page (1772); WikiCmns; Public Domain.


  1. July 16, 2013 at 3:31 am

    Amazing amazing! I love it! Your insights continue to blow my mind. I would love to see his original translation in full. You bring a great depth to this story especially with your perspective as a translator.

  2. July 17, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    ci: thanks for your many kind words & for your wonderful blog! RT

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