Translation is a vital element in the Bible's long history; indeed, translation has seemed literally unavoidable. Ever since the third century b.c., when a Greek translation, known as the Septuagint, of the original Hebrew text of the Scriptures was produced for the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, the Bible has rarely been imagined as an original text. Later, when the Biblical books that became known as the New Testament were composed in Greek, the Bible, now a bilingual book, became, as a whole, accessible in its original form only to readers who knew both Hebrew and Greek. Moreover, while Greek was spoken in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire, the Latin-speaking West had to wait for St. Jerome's fourth-century a.d. translation of the entire Bible into Latin. This monumental work is known as the Vulgate, which was the Bible of the Latin Middle Ages, until the advent of vernacular Bibles. The Latin Bible became a source of tremendous power for the clergy, for they became the guardians of the Scriptures, a totally inaccessible text to a vast majority of Europe's population. For ordinary Christians who lacked a Latin education the Bible was literally a closed book.
The first translations into the vernacular, such as that of John Wyclif and his followers in the fourteenth century, were based on the Vulgate, as Greek was not part of the medieval scholar's curriculum. In the sixteenth century, however, William Tyndale worked in a profoundly different intellectual climate, benefitting from the Greek and Hebrew scholarship that Christian humanists of the Renaissance bequeathed to European culture. It is important to point out that in sixteenth-century Europe, Biblical translation was a dangerous activity, for the idea that the Scriptures should be accessible to the average person was viewed as profoundly subversive because it diminished the power of the Church. In fact, the question about direct access to the word of God was one of the key issues of the Reformation, and the Reformation, as a religious and political movement, drew much of its strength from the accomplishments of Biblical translators. Unlike Martin Luther, who had powerful political allies, Tyndale died a martyr. In fact, the most powerful religious and political figures in England, including Sir Thomas More, ferociously opposed Tyndale's work. Although a great humanist destined to be a martyr himself, More could not comprehend Tyndale's desire to translate the Bible into English. Realizing that his enemies in England were determined to thwart his project, Tyndale went to the Continent, where he published his translation of the New Testament in 1525. In addition to the New Testament, Tyndale published translations from the Hebrew of the Pentateuch and the Book of Jonah. In 1535 Tyndale was arrested by Emperor Charles V's agents; he was accused of heresy and executed the following year.
The greatest English Bible, Authorized Version, widely known as the King James Bible, resulted from a joint scholarly effort that King James I initiated in 1604. Based on Tyndale's translation, and incorporating fragments of Wyclif's work, the Authorized Version, as the French historian of English literature Emile Legouis pointed out, employs as basic material “a real biblical dialect which had been wrought by Wyclif, Tindale and Coverdale.” Legouis, along with earlier critics such as George Philip Krapp, identified this translation as the fountainhead of modern English prose. Indeed, unlike Luther's Bible, which is monument of German literature, and unlike the many European vernacular Bibles of the sixteenth century, which figure as important literary milestones, the Authorized Version has been, in fact, a living force, as well as a guide for writers desiring to master English prose. In this respect the Authorized Version is unique. While other vernacular Bibles played a specific role in the histories of their respective target languages, the Authorized Version informed the essence of the English language. Appearing at a critical juncture of Western history, at time when the spirit of Rationalism, embodied by Francis Bacon, fought a battle against the mystical-poetical spirit of the waning Renaissance, the Authorized Version allowed the English language, as Legouis observed, to successfully incorporate both orientations without succumbing to extremes. The result of this synthesis, Legouis concluded, “was a literature which had a double inspiration and double aspect, the two being complementary rather than antagonistic to each other. … The Bible was the great force which perpetuated in English, even in English prose, elements of poetry and of quaintness and a certain chiaroscuro, and which also maintained in thought a mysticism and an imaginative ferment increasingly threatened by strict rationalism.”
While the Authorized Version was the culmination of an extended effort, bridging generations of translators, the German Bible, published in 1534, was the creation of one man, Martin Luther. Luther's version is actually more than a translation, for he created a book that appealed to people regardless of education and social background. Naturally, Luther's work as a translator was driven by his theological views, but the decisive element of his brilliant creation is his insight that language, at its most profound levels, contains a numinous power which, albeit briefly, transcends the social and political divisions of a particular speech community. “The translation of the Bible,” wrote the nineteenth-century German literary historian Wilhelm Scherer, “is Luther's greatest literary achievement, and at the same time the greatest literary event of the sixteenth century, or even of the whole period from 1348 to 1648. It laid the foundation of a common culture for all ranks of society, and opened a whole intellectual world to the people.” Furthermore, as Jaroslav Pelikan observed, the German Bible exerted a profound influence on music, particularly on the Baroque masterpieces by J. S. Bach, whose sacred music, exemplified by the great Passion according to St. Matthew, in numerous subtle and profound ways embodies the spirit of Luther's Biblical text.
A translation is never a finished project, and critics, including some of the translators of the Bible, have defined Bible translation as the creation of what the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco would call “an open work.” In other words, just as Bible commentary is infinite, translation is a never-ending process. Both Tyndale and Luther knew this, and this knowledge is reflected in the effort that both translators made to create a text which would, in the hearts and minds of all readers, reverberate with the hypnotic power of a sermon. Commenting on Luther's translation, the eminent Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl remarked that, for Luther, the word of God was indeed the sermon of God, bearing in mind the connotations of the Latin word sermo: “conversation, talk, discussion, discourse, common talk, rumor, gossip, language, diction, prose, everyday language”—in other words, the totality of human speech. Ultimately, a translator's battle with a tremendous text such as the Bible, a struggle that can easily be compared to Jacob's encounter with God in Genesis 32, ends, not in victory over God, but in the kind of shattering illumination described by St. Paul in II Corinthians 12. According to the Authorized Version, Paul hears, as Northrop Frye pointed out, “unspeakable words” (arreta rhemata). Knowing that the word of God is beyond speech, Bible translators nevertheless struggle to convey, in intelligible prose and poetry, this language beyond speech to their readers.