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William Tyndale and the Rhetoric of Translation

Daniel Sutton (St John's College, Oxford)

It may seem surprising, but Biblical translations into vernacular languages in the Reformation were deeply influenced by classical rhetoric. In William Tyndale’s case, his translations of the New Testament drew extensively on his knowledge of classical rhetorical techniques and frameworks, both in matters of style and interpretation. Tyndale framed his translation as a rhetorical composition in the simple style, hoping it would reach and resonate with as many English speakers as possible. Ultimately, though, he hoped his translation would render the Latin rhetorical tradition unimportant for the Church in England.

Tyndale’s relationship with classical rhetoric is seriously understudied. Daniell (1994) states “Analysis of his rhetorical skills as a translator has barely begun”. Auksi (1996) reiterated this call, arguing Tyndale’s polemical writings also demand rhetorical analysis. While Mack (2011), Auksi (1995) and Shuger (1988) discuss Renaissance rhetoric and the Reformation, none address Tyndale’s work. Studies of Tyndale’s style —notably Bone (1938), Davis (1971), and Stafford’s and Cummings’ chapters in Day (1998) — neglect its rhetorical aspects and context.

My argument has three parts. First, I show Tyndale was steeped in classical rhetoric. In Oxford, he would have studied several classical manuals, including the Rhetorica Ad Herennium, and Erasmus’ De Copia. He also presented a (lost) translation of one of Isocrates’ speeches when seeking patronage for his first New Testament translation.

Second, Tyndale shaped his translations as persuasive projects in the simple style. I compare the specific choices Tyndale made in his New Testament translations with the advice Rhetorica Ad Herennium Book Four gives for writing in the simple style. This comparison shows Tyndale’s style is not just plain, nor was he merely seeking accuracy, but he closely follows its advice on idiomatic word choices, the use of figures, the importance of euphony, and the persuasive power of clarity. Tyndale’s prefaces to his translations further illustrate that he understood his stylistic choices as interpreting scripture for the widest possible audience — whether they could read or only hear it — to move them in response.

Finally, I show Tyndale thought his project would eliminate the need for classical rhetoric in the English Church. When debating Thomas More — especially when defending his translation choices — Tyndale’s argumentation reveals that he thought reformed theology should be taught entirely using the style of his translations, without extraneous rhetorical skills or training. Unlike Erasmus, Tyndale envisaged his vernacular translations surpassing not only classical wisdom but also classical models for eloquence.

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Transformations of classical rhetoric in the Renaissance

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