Ink Soup: BRAVE TYNDALE
by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
SEATTLE, Wash. -- In my French Baedeker's guide to the Low Countries (Be= lgique et Hollande, 1910) the tiny town of Vilvorde gets seven lines. But=
in my older English copy (Belgium and Holland, 1897) Vilvorde has 34 line= s, most in reduced type.
The little place on the Senne, some ten km north of Brussels, was hardly= remarkable around the turn of the century, nothing more than a flash of to= wnscape past the train windows. Why should it be so much more interesting = to Anglo-Saxon travelers than to the French?
The reason is that William Tyndale died here. "On 6th Oct., 1536, he was= chained to the stake, strangled, and finally burnt to ashes. His last wor= ds were: 'Lord, open the King of England's eyes!' He was a man of simple a= nd winning manners, indefatigable industry, and fervent piety."
This Englishman's crime was the reason for his living abroad in thefirst= place: he had translated the Bible into English, and the Church didnot wan= t ploughboys browsing its text. What is more, Tyndale turned itinto exactl= y the sort of English exemplified by those last words.
A purist would have sneered that His Majesty was King of England's tee= th and toenails, too, not just the eyes.
Educated at Oxford, Tyndale was a learned man. How else could he havekno= wn the Greek and Hebrew that he needed? But he knew what is infinitely mor= e important for a translator-- his native language. He knew English as it = lived in the mouths of the men and women to whom it belonged, not the versi= on imprisoned in books as he was in that Flemish cell..
Tyndale's English= Bible was not the first.
In 1523, the year when he completed his New Testament, there were stil= l extant copies of theso-called Wycliffe Bible, which, however, was the tra= nslation of a translation, the Latin Vulgate.
There can now be little doubt that Tyndale is the preeminent translato= r of the Bible into English. The KingJames "Authorized Version" of nearly = a century later (1611) borrows massively, and ungratefully, from his work. = The initials W.T that someone overlooked stand as his fingerprint and monum= ent.
Thanks to Yale University Press and one impassioned editor, David Da= niell, who has modernized the spelling and nothing else, Tyndale is availab= le again, literally after centuries when others were praised for his work. = Tyndale's New Testament (1989) and his Old Testament (1992) will astonish r= eaders who, like me, never realized our debt to this man.
Am I my brother's keeper? The salt of the earth. The signs of the times.= They made light of it. A law unto themselves. The powers that be. Thousand= s of such phrases, familiar to the point of tears and seemingly as old as t= he language, came first from the pen of Tyndale.
Usually, the worst that befalls a translator is to be reviewed by idiots= ("Prof. Brown's rather too correct version reads smoothly enough...") or n= ot reviewed at all. Tyndale's reward was to be strangled and burnt, which, = in its savage way, is an index of the transcendent merit of his work.
The standard answer to the question where the great English styles came = from is: the Bible and Shakespeare. Few realize the extent to which both "= the Bible" and Shakespeare himself owed their language to William Tyndale.=
He will never be Saint William, since the hands that strangled him contr= olled also the levers of beatification. One St. Jerome, who rendered Holy W= rit into Latin, the language spoken in Heaven, was enough. But every lover = of the language that you are reading now should burn a secret candle to the= memory of brave William Tyndale.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus ofCompara= tive Literature at Princeton University.