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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

Ælfric's Lord's Prayer

The Lord's Prayer in EnglishThe Lord's Prayer in EnglishThe translation of the Bible into English has a history almost as long as that of the English language itself. Although the Bible used by the Church in Anglo-Saxon England was the Latin Vulgate version of St Jerome, it was not long before poetic paraphrases of some of the books of the Old Testament and of the Gospel story were written in Old English, to satisfy the needs of the vast majority of the population who knew no Latin.

St Aldhelm (640?–709), first bishop of Sherborne, is alleged to have translated the Psalms into Old English, while the Venerable Bede (673–735) is stated by his biographer St Cuthbert to have been engaged in the translation of St John’sGospel into the vernacular at the time of his death; sadly, neither of these translations has survived.

It was the vision and energy of King Alfred the Great (849–99), however, which perhaps did most to foster the development of prose translations into the English language. Alfred believed that the spread of learning was crucial to the future of hiskingdom; to further this end he not only oversaw the translation into English of a number of Latin works but established schools where children were taught to read and write in English, only those destined for high positions in the court or the Church progressing to the study of Latin.

The earliest complete English translation of the Gospels still extant is believed to be the so-called Wessex Gospels, written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English towards the end of the 10th century. Seven manuscript copies of this version survive, suggesting a reasonably wide circulation. Broadly contemporary are the homilies and Biblical translations of Ælfric (ca 950–ca 1010), abbot of Eynsham; shown here is his translation of the Lord’s Prayer in a 17th century edition.

Ælfric’s translations were seized upon by 17th century antiquarians, such as the editor of this edition, William Lisle, as demonstrating the superiority of the ‘pure’ English of the pre-Conquest era to that of their own time, adulterated by words imported from Latin and other Romance languages:

For what tongue is able more shortly and with less doubtfulnesse, to give utterance and make way for the cumbersome conceits of our minde, than ours? What more plentifull, than ours might be, if we did use well but our own garbes, and the words and speeches of the sundry shires and counties of this Iland?

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