It may be hard for us to imagine, then, that an English translation of the world's best-selling book--the Bible--was met with strong controversy. J.K. Rowling's franchise is worth millions; early English Bible translators were often imprisoned, exiled or burned at the stake. The new The Bible in English: Before and After the Hampton Court Conference, 1604 exhibit at Southern Methodist University's Bridwell Library focuses on the violent struggle among translators, the Roman Catholic Church and the English government that finally produced the King James Bible. When theologians and scholars such as John Wyclif began questioning the church's way of doing things--the supreme authority of the pope and his clergy--they began to recognize the need to provide church members, not just priests, with access to the Bible. Furthermore, this Bible should be in the people's language, not German or Latin, but English. Wyclif's stance was declared heretical, creating or owning an English Bible was outlawed and, though he died of natural causes in 1384, his body was later exhumed and burned at the stake. Talk about overkill. Some of his followers met with the same fate, as did William Tyndale, the first to print an English New Testament in 1526, illegal though it was. For his work translating the Hebrew and Greek texts into English, he was kidnapped, imprisoned and finally strangled and burned. Besides wanting to be certain that these known heretics were dead, the crown and church sought to oh-so-gently dissuade other would-be translators.
The tide turned, for not wholly pure reasons, with Henry VIII's wacky political-religious maneuvering in creating the Church of England and allowing English Bibles to "go among our people," emphasizing England's break with Roman Catholic edicts. Translators must have had some uneasy moments under Bloody Mary's reign, during which she executed 300 Protestants, but they were reassured at Elizabeth's coronation; when she was presented with an English Bible, "she kissed it, elevated it over her head, pressed it to her breast and thanked the city for it," according to the exhibit's accompanying book Let It Go Among Our People. Elizabeth's successor, James I, convened the Hampton Court Conference and authorized the creation of the 1611 King James Bible that remained the English translation until the end of the 19th century.
The battle for an English Bible was, no doubt, a bloody one, but the history of Bible translation hasn't been without humorous mishaps also, such as a 1795 typographical error that rendered Mark 7:27 ("Let the children be filled...") as "Let the children be killed..." or a 1631 printing that left out an important word when the sixth commandment was misprinted "Thou shalt commit adultery." (And for that "wicked" error, printer Robert Barker was bankrupted.) Translators, in search of the right word, have coined the terms advent, acquisition, resuscitate, cooperate and many other common words. They've also given us useful phrases such as "filthy lucre," "sour grapes," "the land of the living" and "the skin of my teeth."
English Bibles are now ubiquitously available--in hotels, from the Gideons, at the dollar store and at the Bridwell exhibit, which boasts copies of every significant English translation, including four rare copies of the first edition of the King James Bible. Wyclif and Tyndale would die a thousand times to see the number of English Bibles the Bridwell Library has assembled.