One morning in October 1536, in the Flemish town of Vilvorde, William Tyndale was led by his guards from his cell to a cross in the public square, to which he was tied at the ankles and waist with chains, and at the neck with a loose hemp cord.
Contrary to popular legend, he was not burned alive. Thieves and beggars were burned alive, women were burned alive, but Tyndale was a scholar and degraded priest: he was afforded the courtesy of being strangled first. When the procurer-general gave the signal, an executioner standing behind the cross pulled the hemp cord tight around Tyndale’s neck until he was dead. Then he lit the pile of brush and gunpowder that had been built up around the cross, and stood back.
Translation has always had its fair share of occupational hazards, but the execution of William Tyndale is one of rare examples in literary history of a translator killed for his work. It happened in an era when translation was taken extremely seriously, not just because it allowed ordinary people to read the Bible in their own languages, but because it implied those languages were as capable of containing God’s Word as Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Tyndale’s New Testament didn’t just imply this: it proved it, giving readers a Gospel that was both noble and familiar—a book of shepherds, the kitchen, the market, sons.
Like most revolutions, it was a long time coming. In the late 14th century, scholar John Wycliff had overseen the first translation of the Bible into Middle English, sparking a call for Church reform—and a subsequent royal ban on further attempts. Meanwhile, a parallel movement in continental Europe led to partial or full translations of both testaments into French, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, Dutch, and (famously, in 1522) German. By the time the young William Tyndale published his first versions of the Gospel of Matthew, Martin Luther’s Reformation was in full swing.
Tyndale’s own education was a combination of high and low influences characteristic of what we would now call the 16th-century English middle class. His family was a prosperous clan of clothiers and landowners enmeshed in the local community of Gloucester—still connected, via trade and travel, to the larger world. As Tyndale’s biographer David Daniell observes, the rich background of dialects that Tyndale must have heard in Gloucester was an excellent incubator for a translator—especially one whose particular gift would be “a knowledge of how ordinary people used language at slightly heightened moments.” It may have taught him two important stylistic lessons: first, that “a neutral word-order and English rather than Latin forms would make something widely comprehensible,” and second, that the short, highly-compressed sentences used to pass on craft-knowledge (“measure twice, cut once,” for example) could make the important moments of a literary text more powerful.
Tyndale’s attention to everyday speech was more than literary strategy: it was the logical result of his Reformative ideas about Christianity. Earlier translators had literally not seen English (at least not as a viable vehicle for literature). Constrained by a Catholic idea of language that placed Truth in few hands, scholars had concentrated on esoteric questions that could only be disputed by men of vast institutional learning.
But for Tyndale, the core truth of Christ’s teachings was the radical accessibility of the Bible—an accessibility that had been hidden by centuries of Church rule, but which translation could reawaken overnight. As for many reformers, the stories of Moses, David, and the Gospels not only had happened but were happening, here and now. As such, they deserved to be translated into today’s language—a language Tyndale could see had as much potential for elevation as the classics.
It is tempting to see Tyndale as a sort of people’s translator, whose unique background and wild talent allowed him to put Word to paper without any help along the way. But the truth is that in the early 16th century the written language of England was still Latin, and the central educational arts the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. As spoken today, these disciplines sound dusty; but at Oxford, the university from which Tyndale received his Bachelor of Arts in 1512, they were very much alive. They were revered disciplines; mental martial arts whose study rewarded the patient student with an arsenal of specifically tuned techniques. To Tyndale, who was not just patient but brilliant, they gave a sense of proportion and a richer sense of the range of effects that well-made language could have on its audience.
They also, critically, made him angry. A lot of Oxfordians were angry at the time (as are now, presumably); but their passions were spent within a larger framework of established argument. So Tyndale’s masters lectured on points so fine that their sophistication frequently devolved into absurdity—for example, in a sermon that Tyndale himself describes in his Exposition of the First Epistle of Saint John:
“I heard a great clerk in Oxford stand half an hour in a pulpit, to prove that Christ was a true prophet by the testimony of John the Baptist, and another half hour to prove John the Baptist a true prophet by the authority of Christ: as we say, Claw me, claw thee: and as every thief might lightly prove himself a true man in bearing record to another as false as he and taking record of the same again.”
Tyndale’s point here (made with characteristic humor and strategically-deployed folksiness) is that after so many generations of cultivation the language of Oxford had become its own subject: a closed-circuit of pin-heads and angels that had nothing to do with Christ’s teachings. The speakers of this language, many of whom were considered the most learned men of their time, “waste their brains about questions and strife of words,” while ignoring the far greater scandal: that the Church’s hoarding of Scripture had transformed a once-great religion into a combination of superstition and gamesmanship—an enervation that looked very similar to the one that Christ had fought.
Tyndale’s discontent led him to Cambridge and back to Gloucester, where he hoped to continue his work away from the sophistry arguments of the Universities. But the Gloucester clergy grew jealous of the favor that powerful local families showed this loquacious upstart, calling for an official inquiry into his allegedly heretical beliefs, at which Tyndale spoke so eloquently that the charges were dropped. But Tyndale knew that his persecution wasn’t over—at least not so long as people remained ignorant about what the Bible actually said. His anger, which had previously been content to work patiently, sparked into an active fury, as we can see from the famous exchange that occurred just before Tyndale left Gloucester:
“Master Tyndall happened to be in the company of a learned man, and in communing and disputing with him drove him to that issue that the learned man said, we were better to be without God’s law than the pope’s: Maister Tyndall hearing that, answered him, I defy the Pope and all his laws, and said, if God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.”
From this point on, the particulars of Tyndale’s life—from where he lived to what he studied to who he worked with—are bent towards the fulfillment of a single project: the transformation of the Bible in England from tool of Church oppression to national spiritual source, a “bright book of life” (as one of Tyndale’s stylistic heirs, D.H. Lawrence, would call Constance Garnett’s Anna Karenina).
He started with the Gospels. Centuries of familiarity have canned these accounts so thoroughly that we tend to forget they were once written documents—actual testimonies made by real people (however inspired). But Tyndale doesn’t forget this: he does his best to return a sense of immediacy and even urgency to the Gospels. Again and again he finds English equivalents for the Greek that convey not just the literal events being described, but the undeniable interestingness of the description. In his translation of one famous scene from the Gospel of Mark, for example, he gives literature one of its great dark nights of the soul:
“And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying Eloi, Eloi, lama sabaththani, which is, if it be interpreted: my god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me. And some of them that stood by when they heard that said: behold, he calleth for Helias. And one ran, and filled a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink, saying: let him alone, let us see whether Helias will come and take him down.”
As interpreted by Tyndale, the key technique of this scene is its juxtaposition of high and low tones. Jesus’s cry to God (given in Aramaic, as it is in the original Greek version and most other English translations) shows us his suffering at its highest and most private. But this moment of isolation ends a moment after it arrives and the narrative opens out via the Breughlian detail of the sponge—a moment whose ordinariness Tyndale’s language emphasizes in a way that the King James Version does not:
“And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? Which is, being interpreted, My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me? And some of them that stood by, when they heard it, said, Behold, he calleth Elias. And one ran and filled a sponge full of vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink, saying, Let alone; let us see whether Elias will come to take him down.”
Despite the fact that it steals its best phrase verbatim from Tyndale’s Mark (“My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?”), the KJV version feels very different from its predecessor. The topography of the paragraph has been smoothed out, and the variety leveled by the terraforming Latin influence into a heightened chant that completely changes the effect of the scene. Whereas Tyndale’s steady cam puts us at the cross with the soldiers, waiting to see if Helias will indeed save his son.
This difference in effect is also a difference in meaning. Told as it is from its uniformly great height, Christ’s death in the King James Version feels like a fulfillment of fate. It’s a ritual sacrifice, a return to the circle of law, transgression, and appeasement that rules not only the Old Testament, but the Classical tragedies. The king must die. But the Tyndale translation emphasizes the human, rather than the divine side of the crucifixion. Its language is open and contingent and even slightly funny: a tool, instead of an undertow. So the Gospel that it tells is a sort of proto-novel, whose sentences tremble with the possibility of something else happening.
That nothing else does happen, and that Christ dies without “Helias” coming to save him, is one of the things that gives the Gospels either their sadness or exultation, depending on your point of view. In a similar way, the end of Tyndale’s life could be read as either an inevitable fulfillment of destiny, or an avoidable, and therefore heartbreaking human tragedy. By the time it happened, the uproar over Biblical translation into English had died down significantly. Tyndale’s Gospel had been heralded as a miracle in England and beyond, and King Henry VIII’s position vis-a-vis translation into the vulgate thawed significantly.
But Tyndale’s career had earned him many enemies, one of whom—an opportunistic young man named Henry Phillips—managed (more by chance and persistence than skill) to slip into the house where he was staying in Antwerp and arrest him. Within days Tyndale had been sent north, to the castle at Vilvorde, where he stayed as a prisoner for one hundred and thirty five days, writing appeals in the hopes that his sentence might be postponed or changed. But, as Daniel puts it, “None of this would stop the cold machinery of law,” and in October, 1536, Tyndale was executed at last.
His work persists—not just on its own, but in the immense influence it has had on English writing and translation over the centuries. From the King James Bible and Shakespeare (neither of which exist without him) to modern writers like Walt Whitman and D.H. Lawrence. His words are literally ours, in the form of phrases so common that we barely recognize them as inventions (“Am I my brother’s keeper?” “The signs of the times.”). His Bible, as he intended, belongs to everyone. That is the miracle.
Josh Billings is a writer and translator who was born in Vermont, grew up in Papua New Guinea and Zambia, and currently lives in Rockland, Maine. He has worked as an English teacher and nurse. His translations of Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin’s The Duel are available from Melville House Books.