The New Living Translation
King Alfred’s Approach to Translation

My eldest daughter is teaching herself Old English using this course hosted at the University of Calgary. In the process, she is learning some excellent things, not only about the history of England and of English, but also about translation. Saturday morning, for instance, she made a translation of a piece by King Alfred. Alfred, who reigned in the late 800s AD, translated Gregory I’s book Pastoralis (Pastoral Care) from Latin into Old English, so that leaders in his realm could follow its wise counsel. My daughter translated the preface into fine contemporary English (if I do say so myself!).

Of interest here, however, is the comment Alfred makes about his approach to translating Gregory’s work:

When I remember how widespread in England Latin learning was, though I was occupied with many varied concerns in this kingdom [namely, fighting off the Vikings. -ed.], I decided to translate this book, in Latin called Pastorales, which in English is the Shepherd’s Book. I have translated it, sometimes word for word, and sometimes meaning for meaning, just as I learned it from Archbishop Plegmend and Bishop Assher, and my Father Grimbold. When I had learned it, I translated it into English as clearly as I could, just as I understood it. I will send it on to each bishopric in my kingdom….

As someone who has for years studied New Testament Greek and has wrestled with how best to translate it into clear, contemporary English, I appreciate Alfred’s understanding, expressed so lucidly here, that translation is an art requiring wisdom and insight, and that its purpose is for people to gain wisdom from what has been written before, as Alfred goes on to express.

And I command in God’s name that no one … take the book from the church. We cannot know how long we will have such wise bishops in England as we now (thanks be to God) have. Thus I want them [i.e., the book and bookmark] to always be in their place, except if the bishop wants them with him, or if it is on loan somewhere for copying.

We who are blessed with many great books, and many excellent translations of the Bible into English, would do well to hold Scripture in as high esteem.

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