John Purvey, General Prologue, Wicliffite Bible (ca. 1395)
Translate the following passage into Modern English, taking care to preserve its full meaning and tone, while producing a coherent and natural-sounding ModE expression. Note that the punctuation will have to be altered to meet modern readers' expectations, as will word order, sentence completion and structure, etc.:
First it is to knowe that the beste translating is out of Latyn into English to translate aftir the sentence and not oneli aftir the wordis so that the sentence be as opin either openere in English as in latyn and go not fer fro the lettre; and if the lettre mai not be suid in the translating let the sentence euere be hool and open for the wordis owen to seme to the entent and sentence and ellis the wordis ben superflu either false.
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Rarely is a translation passage as filled with power and potentially deadly importance as Purvey's preface. Followers of John Wycliffe (ca. 1320s-1384) undertook vernacular translations of the Vulgate Latin Bible despite clerical and civil prohibitions against the act. These laws are easier to explain if you think about what might result as a result of translating "the word of God" from one language to another. Faiths which depend upon specific foundation texts tend to resist violently any attempt to substitute translations for texts in the languages in which they originated. Wycliffe's agendas were complex, but at least in part, he argued that Christians had to know their sacred text personally in order to be saved by its doctrine. The Church taught that interpreting doctrine was too dangerous for any but the most well-educated scholars, and even some of them fell into heresy, so any move to make the sacred text open to interpretation by lay people was inherently dangerous to their souls. For believing Christians, the choice of whether or not to translate the Bible into the vernacular languages was a stark one. Each side taught that people who followed the other side's doctrine risked almost certain eternal damnation. Since Latin literacy was rare, found in perhaps one percent of the English population in the fourteenth century, these contesting beliefs had dramatic consequences. Vernacular (i.e., non-Latin) translations of the Bible had been produced before, but Wycliffe took the matter to the public as a lay preacher, that is, a popular religious speaker who held no official position in the Church. His followers, called "Lollards" by their detractors, worked largely in secret and passed the forbidden translations among themselves. Their activities helped provoke the controversy which led, in the following century, to the Protestant Reformation and the Roman church's response, the Counter-Reformation. Martin Luther produced his own Biblical translation, as did other Protestants like William Tyndale, Myles Coverdale, and John Rogers (pseud. "Thomas Matthew"). For a scholarly edition of the Wycliffite Bible, see the library's print copy: 225.52 1879.