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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

II. The “Authorised Version” and its Influence

§ 4. Jerome, of the Latin Vulgate

Among the qualifications of a good translator, the first, undoubtedly, is that he shall be penetrated by a sense of the surpassing value of his original, and a corresponding sense of the importance of his task. This will preserve him from flippancy and meanness, by imbuing him with earnestness and humility. It will make him ready to follow wherever he is led by the text, and will prevent him from pluming himself upon prettiness of phrase, or any fancies of his own. Such a translator will strive with all his might after fidelity to word and sense, and after the utmost clearness and simplicity of rendering, avoiding, on the one hand, the trivial, and, on the other, the ornate or pompous. He will conform to the genius of his own tongue while endeavouring to transfer to it the treasures of another; and, besides possessing naturally, he will cultivate, in every proper way, a sensitiveness to that music of the phrase, which, in the case of the Bible, is but another name for the music of the heart. Only a few translators have united these endowments in a just proportion, but among them must be counted Jerome, the first of the great translators whom we know by name, the author—though he called himself rather the reviser—of the Latin Vulgate.

Of Jerome’s fitness for his task the following illustration will serve. It is worthy of attention, moreover, as presenting the verses contained in the various English specimens which follow:

  • Exod. xix, 16, 18, 19: Jamque advenerat tertius dies, et mane inclaruerat, et ecce coeperunt audiri tonitrua, et micare fulgura, et nubes densissima operire montem, clangorque buccinae vehementius perstrepebat, et timuit populus qui erat in castris.… Totus autem mons Sinai fumabat, eo quod descendisset Dominus super eum in igne, et ascenderet fumus ex eo quasi de fornace: eratque omnis mons terribilis. Et sonitus buccinae paulatim crescebat in majus, et prolixius tendebatur.
  • The language into which the Bible can be most perfectly rendered will, in the first place, be popular, in distinction from artificial or scholastic. Its vocabulary will consist of such words as ordinary people would naturally use to describe objects or utter their emotions. It will abound in concrete expressions, and need but few learned or recondite terms. The words should, if possible, exhibit their primitive meaning on their face, or, at least, suggest immediately a single central meaning which can be accepted as radical and primary. They must, in general, while racy and vernacular, be free from degrading or belittling associations, so that they may be equally suitable for the middle or ordinary style and for passages of any degree of elevation up to the highest. A considerable proportion of them must possess sonority, or contain such admixtures of vowels and musical consonants as will ensure, according to the need, a scale of melodious effects ranging from serene and quiet harmonies to rich and rolling crescendos—but all without appearance of effort, instinctively responsive to the situation, and to the feeling which the situation evokes. If the rhythmical effects of a language are attained through the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, such a language will so far resemble the Hebrew, and serve as a natural medium for the transmission of the original effects.