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

§ 5. Old English Versions

The influences which moulded the English language into a proper vehicle for so stupendous a literary creation as the Bible must next be briefly considered. Early in the eighth century, Bede was making a translation into Old English of the Gospel of John, and, about the year 800 A.D., the language was already capable of such poetry as this from the Christ of Cynewulf:

  • Thereupon from the four corners of the world, from the utter-most regions of earth, angels all-shining shall with one accord blow their crashing trumpets; the earth shall tremble under men. Glorious and steadfast they shall sound together over against the course of the stars, chanting in harmony and making melody from south and from north, from east and from west, throughout the whole creation. All mankind shall they wake from the dead unto the Last Judgment; they shall rouse the sons of men all aghast from the ancient earth, bidding them straightway arise from their deep sleep.
  • Throughout the Old English period, most of the literature produced was strongly coloured by Biblical diction. Even a work like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People was under this influence. By about the year 1000, the language was able to render the Latin of Jerome, as given above, in the following form (Exod. xix, 16, 18, 19):

  • p cm se prydda dæg, and lgetta and punor and [char]icce genip oferwrh [char]one munt, and bman swg wæs gehred, and eall [char]æt folc him ondrd [char]e wæs on [char]m fyrdwcon.… And eall Sinai munt smac, for[char]am[char]e Drihten wæs uppan him on fre; and se smc rs of him, and eall se munt wæs egeslic. And [char]&aemacr;re bman swg wox sw leng sw sw[char]or.
  • Before we leave this part of the subject, it may be added that, according to the computations of Marsh, about 93 per cent. of the words of the Authorised Version, counting repetitions of the same word, are native English.

    Ormulum and Piers Plowman will suggest the influence exerted by the Bible on English diction during the period between A.D. 1000 and 1400—roughly speaking, between the age of Aelfric and that of Wyclif. The poetry near the end of this period is better able than prose to cope with the difficulties of translation. Thus, Chaucer has:

  • Castle alle awey the werkes of derknesse,
  • And armeth you in armure of brightnesse;
  • where the second Wyclifite version reads:
  • Rom. xiii, 12: Therfor caste we awei the werkis of derknessis, and be we clothid in the armeris of li[char]t.
  • Though this second version, that of Purvey (1388), is, in general, much less pedantically literal than the first, made some eight or nine years earlier, yet such words as derknessis and armeris, for the Latin plurals tenebrae and arma, illustrate the chief defect of both the Wyclifite translations, namely, a failure to attain perfect English idiom.

    Purvey seems to have been quite conscious of the excessive literalness of the earlier version (1380), and of the awkwardness due to the close following of Latin idiom. In his prologue, after describing how he had toiled, in association with others, to obtain a true Latin text, and to elucidate its difficulties, he proceeds to lay down important principles of Biblical translation, which have never been superseded. Among them are:

    First, to translate as clearly as possible according to the sense, and not merely according to the words.

    Secondly, to make the sentence at least as “open” in English as in Latin, that is, to have due regard to English idiom.