Cover, Douay–Rheims Bible, 1582

A 1582 Catholic translation of the Bible into English (note #3 from the Levine library)

Many people seem to believe that the medieval Church forbade translating the Bible into modern languages–in order to monopolize access to scripture–until a technological innovation (moveable type) and/or the Reformation liberated people to read the Bible in their own tongues.

This story is false: translations were regularly made during the Middle Ages. It also neglects a real obstacle to translating, which is the need to coin many new words and turns-of-phrase to render an ancient book into a new language–a task that often lags behind the emergence of the language itself.

I think it’s worth correcting this history because too many people are in the grip of technological determinism and don’t appreciate the cultural work involved in a task like translation.

I have inherited from my father a 1582 English Bible that was published in Rheims and Douai by exiled English Catholics, including St. Edmund Campion, who was later hanged, drawn, and quartered for his faith. They published this Bible to be smuggled into Protestant England for the secret and illegal use of Catholic recusants. (This is almost the opposite of the idea that Catholics were against translation.)

In the preface, the translators explicitly note that the Catholic Church had, “neither of old nor of late, ever wholly condemned all vulgar versions of Scripture, nor have at any time generally forbidden the faithful to read the same.” They promise to translate more accurately than the Protestants, who have worked out of “pride and disobedience.” They seek the “preservation of this divine worke from abuse and profanation” by rendering it better in English.

The title page says “cum privilegio.” Usually, the permission of the Church is designated with the phrases imprimatur and nihil obstat (“let it be printed” and “nothing stands in the way”). As far as I can tell–and I could easily be wrong about this–cum privilegio generally refers to the permission of a sovereign. France encompassed Rheims, and Douai was a Spanish Habsburg possession, so I wonder whether one of those governments authorized this Bible. Or does the phrase “cum privilegio” imply–falsely–that the book will be legal in Elizabeth’s realm?

For a flavor of the translation, consider Luke 2:8-10:

8 And there were in the same countrie shepheards watching, and keeping the night watches over their flocke.

And behold, an Angel of our Lord stood by them, and the brightnes of God did shine round about them; and they feared with a great feare.

10 And the Angel said to them: Feare not; for, behold, I evangelize to you great joy, that shal be to all the people…

The King James Version of this passage (1611) may be more familiar from Christmas celebrations:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

In the KJV, the Angel “bring[s] good tidings.” The Catholic 1582 version renders this phrase as “evangelize.” Perhaps the Douay–Rheims translators noticed that when St. Jerome had translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin, he left the Greek word evangelizo in his Latin text. They may have decided that they should import this word into their English Bible as well, for maximum accuracy. (And the English verb “evangelize” was already available in 1582.) In contrast, the proto-Protestant John Wykliffe had translated the Greek verb as “preach to you.” He saw the Angel in Luke as a preacher. The KJV’s “I bring good tidings” is more poetic than either alternative, in my opinion; and it’s justifiable, since the Greek verb means to bear a good message.

Here is Tintoretto’s painting of the shepherds, completed the same year:

Tintoretto, Adoration of the Shepherds (1578-1581)

See also: Coryat’s Crudities (note #1 from the Levine library); Reformation propaganda (note #2 from the Levine library); innovation in technology and the humanitiestwenty-five thousand books to Bosnia.