Language focus | 02.09.2009

Early translations into English

The first translations into English are credited to Geoffrey Chaucer, who in the 14th century translated two of Giovanni Boccaccio’s works from Italian. The Knight’s Tale is the first of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and is in fact a loosely translated and abridged version of one of Bocaccio’s epic poems. Like many modern translators, Chaucer was competent in more than one foreign language and also translated literature from French and Latin. Troilus and Criseyde, thought to have been completed in the mid 1380s, draws its influences not only from another of Bocaccio’s tales, but also from a French poem by Benoît de Sainte-Maure.

Towards the end of the 14th century, John Wycliffe initiated the translation of the Bible into Middle English. It was originally thought that Wycliffe completed the entire translation himself, but it is more likely that a number of scholars worked on the text. Previously, most people would have only heard oral renditions of the Bible, as only the educated and wealthy were able to read Latin. Wycliffe’s Bible gave ordinary people the chance to read the Bible for themselves rather than only hearing the church’s interpretation. The translation was heavily criticised by the Roman Catholic Church, which made various attempts to have the text banned, although the manuscripts continued to circulate.

A century later, the Tyndale Bible stirred up new controversy in the Catholic Church. William Tyndale was inspired by Martin Luther, who completed a Bible translation into German that was worded so as to be accessible to the average citizen. Like Luther, Tyndale replaced traditional words with more modern ones, defying the ban enforced by the clergy to prevent ‘Lutheranism’. This translation is thought to be the first from Hebrew and Greek and was also the first to be mass produced, thanks to advances in printing. Tyndale’s translations make up much of the King James Version of the Bible, which remains one of the most popular and widely read versions in the world.

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