Wednesday 23 December 2009

And the Iron Entered into Coverdale's Soul

Myles Coverdale is my hero. He is the patron saint of inadequate optimists.

Coverdale was an early protestant and like all protestants he believed that the Bible should be translated into the vernacular. Thus the ownership of the Bible would be taken from the priests and prelates of the Roman Church. To do this, you of course needed to go back to the original Hebrew and Greek. So Coverdale set out to make his translation bravely ignoring the fact that he didn't know any Hebrew and was utterly innocent of Greek.

Coverdale did know a bit of German and the Germans had already started translating the Bible from its original languages. So armed with a dash of Deutsche and the belief that he was doing God's Work he settled down to translate.

The result was a carnival of inaccuracy. The most fabulous of his mistakes is in Psalm 105 and it goes like this:

But he had sent a man before them: even Joseph, who was sold to be a bond-servant
Whose feet they hurt in the stocks : the iron entered into his soul

The iron entered into his soul and the phrase entered into the language. It is beautiful, and like most beauty it is utterly wrong. It should be his neck was put in irons.

How this came about is reasonably explicable. The Hebrew word nefesh means breath. Metonymically it can mean neck, because that's where you do most of your breathing. Metaphorically it can mean soul because your breath is your soul (the same as spirit, which comes from the latin to breathe).

Once you've got his soul was put in irons, all you need to do is mistake the subject for the object, which Coverdale could do with ease, and you have The iron entered into his soul.

There are too many Coverdale mistakes to list them all. My second favourite, which I came across in church one Sunday, is in Psalm 18:

As soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me : but the strange children shall dissemble with me.

The strange children shall fail : and be afraid out of their prisons.

Who are the strange children, and why were they in prison in the first place? To what abominable crimes has infantile strangeness led them? Why will fear release them? What the hell is going on, God?
Coverdale's strange children are the ben necker or foreign-born. Coverdale's prison should be a stronghold or fortress. The literal translation is:
As soon as they hear me, they obey me;
foreigners cringe before me.
They all lose heart;
they come trembling from their strongholds.

Which isn't nearly as good. It's just another of those dull, dull, dull gentiles-shall-be-driven-before-me bits of the Old Testament. That is the paradox of the Coverdale psalter. It may be inaccurate, it may not be what God or David or a series of writers over several centuries meant, but it is one of the finest works in the English language.
The Book of Common Prayer, which is used on Sunday evenings in my parish church, still contains the Coverdale Psalter. Shakespeare, I once read*, alludes to the psalms more than any other book. Coverdale, though no linguist, was a poetic genius. Had he let his utter inadequacy deter him from his task, posterity would have been impoverished. Keats was wrong: error is beauty, beauty error.
Well done, my son.
*I can't remember the reference.


  1. how do you spell inaccuracy? this way, or the way you have done it? No spell-check in your system?

  2. No spell-check at all and you're utterly right. I shall change it.

  3. I didn't know that's where this phrase came from! I always remember Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables telling her friend Diana, "the iron has entered into my soul" when referring to how she would never speak to Gilbert Blythe again...

  4. Just reading the Etymologicon...the use of the Hebrew "nefesh" for neck is not common! Other words for neck are tzavar, neck; garon, throat; and oref, back of the neck. Hence, in Hebrew a stiff-necked people are "am kishei-oref".