Skip to content

How doth the little crocodile

December 6, 2012

A few years ago, I suggested on a blog that early English Bibles were translated more from Latin and German than from Greek and Hebrew. Hmm. I am not exactly sure of my exact wording and perhaps that is too strong. But I wanted to emphasize the important role of the Vulgate, the Pagninus Latin Bible and the Erasmus Latin New Testament in the translation process of Tyndale, Coverdale and the many other translators involved in this tradition.

Peter Kirk asked,

Why do you have such a thing about 16th century Latin translations, repeatedly trying to insist that translations into other languages are based on them and not on the Greek and Hebrew? I have never seen anyone else even suggest this as a possibility.

I thought ever since that I would have to find an error introduced by the Pagninus Bible in order to establish its role in the English translation tradition. Of course, it is rather difficult to do this without a copy of the Pagninus Bible, so I didn’t get very far. I did take photographs of Genesis, but ultimately they were difficult to scroll through and I did not find a clear case where an error was introduced into English from the Pagninus Bible.

However, now that the Pagninus Bible is online it is somewhat easier to look things up. When Theophrastus cited Robert Alter on the Norton Critical Edition of the King James Bible, it reminded me of Alter’s lecture on the crocodile in Job which I heard last spring. Theophrastus cites Alter on Job 3:8,

Another pervasive issue addressed in the notes is mistakes in construing the original. The KJV abounds in misunderstandings of the original, many of them minor but some of them real howlers. When, for example, the King James translators at Job 3:8 have “who are ready to raise up their mourning,” they have badly mistaken livyatan, or “leviathan,” for an exclusively post-biblical homonym that actually means “funeral.” Herbert Marks discreetly and succinctly corrects the error, going on to explain in a few words Leviathan’s role in Canaanite mythology. The process of correcting the errors of the King James Version began in 1885 with the Revised Standard Version, but tinkering with the language of the 1611 version and slightly modernizing it were concomitant with taking away more than a little of its stylistic grandeur, and the use of corrective annotation seems a wiser strategy.

A quick check was enough to find that it was most likely through Pagninus that this error, “mourning” instead of “leviathan” was introduced into the English Bible. Here is a bit of trivia,

הָעֲתִידִים, עֹרֵר לִוְיָתָן

who are ready to rouse up leviathan – JPS 1917

qui parati sunt suscitare Leviathan – Vulgate 405

qui parati sunt suscitare luctum suum – Pagninus 1528

those that be ready to rayse vp Leuiathan – Coverdale 1535

that be redy to rayse vp mourning – Bishop’s Bible 1568

being readie to renue their mourning – Geneva Bible 1560

zu erregen den Leviathan – Luther 1545

I would have guessed that Coverdale had cribbed from Pagninus but it appears not. It might have been the Geneva Bible, 1560, that first introduced this inaccuracy into English from Pagninus.

No version of the Bible is translated from the original languages without reference to every major preceding translation. That is my guess, until someone proves otherwise. These kinds of things should help us to better understand the reality of the translation process. It is not about taking A in the SL, asking what it really means, and turning it into B in the TL and all that stuff. That’s what people think. But really it is about sitting at a desk, or rather large table, that it what it was like, and surrounding oneself with as many of the significant previous translations as one could get one’s grubby little mitts on.

But I remember interviewing Dr. Packer on the initial stages of the ESV revision. He doesn’t even use email, or so he told me then, but he recalls Dr. Grudem coming to Regent and placing a computer in his room, with all the relevant Bible translations that they were going to reference, already installed on it. So, of course, nowadays, that’s how it’s done, one way or another. Through electronic text.

But in other memories, I remember being taken down to the basement of the Vancouver School of Theology, and having pages and pages of photocopies and photographs of original Bibles in various languages put in front of me, and being asked to identify them. I was told electronic text is worthless, only a facsimile version is valid. But I use electronic text all the time.

Anyway, you get the drift. There is lots to the backstory of translation, and it isn’t all about going from the SL to TL* without chasing the weasel round the mulberry bush on the way.

* Source Language to Target Language

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2012 9:07 am

    Suzanne, thanks for quoting my 2008 comment. I was responding to your statement “Tyndale, in 1525, translated the Latin of Erasmus”, without any qualification like “more from Latin … than from Greek”. Indeed in your post at that time there is no mention of Tyndale or any translators into English making any use at all of the original languages. So your statement at the beginning of this post is not “too strong” but too weak.

    I would certainly accept that the 16th century translators referred to existing translations when they found obscurities in the original language texts, sometimes as with Leviathan with unfortunate results. So I can agree with your closing statement.

  2. December 6, 2012 12:07 pm

    Very interesting information. I love being given this window of information, from people I can trust have only the agenda of “let’s find the truth”. Keep up the good work.

  3. December 6, 2012 12:25 pm

    Lovely that you cite the Leviathan error. The inclusio in Job is quite obvious (to me) in the poetry – chapter 3 and 41 – Leviathan and his fluttering eyelids and dawn – form a frame for the speeches. Mind you – I benefited from the face that this error had already been ‘corrected’ by many – though still wrong in the KJV..

  4. December 6, 2012 3:51 pm

    I love the title of your post, Suzanne! How apt. How brilliant. Thank you for not giving it away.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 7, 2012 12:03 am

    Hi Peter,

    Its not an either/or situation but a both/and. Anyway, I appreciated your comment at the time, and it kept me thinking. I am trying to remember what I was thinking when I wrote, “Tyndale, in 1525, translated the Latin of Erasmus” but I think I was referring specifically to his translation of one word authentein as “to have authority.” Anyway, its a bit of fun finding influences and traces of other translations in the KJV.


    I have an agenda. Not sure how to express it, but I am quite sure that I am as human as the next person, so I must have an agenda.


    That line “the eyelids of dawn” is very haunting. Thanks. I enjoyed your post.


    Its important to welcome in the little fishes first.

  6. Robert Brenchley permalink
    December 20, 2012 6:08 pm

    Has anyone tried comparing Tyndale and Coverdale to the Wyclif translations?

  7. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    December 20, 2012 6:57 pm


    “Curse they it, that curse the day, that be ready to raise Leviathan.”

    Briefly, the Wycliffe Bible is a translation from the Vulgate, and the Coverdale Bible is a translation from Pagninus, Luther, Zwingli and the Vulgate. I don’t think Tyndale translated Job.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: