Monday, July 14, 2008

John Allen's translation of the Institutes

Several years ago, before I owned a copy of Calvin's Institutes, I heard a Reformed preacher highly commend John Allen's translation of the work. Shortly thereafter I ran across a beautiful two-volume copy of that same work. So I bought it for $25. To my shame, I haven't cracked it open until now.

Beginning this 1936 edition is a 56-page literary history of Calvin's Institutes written by B. B. Warfield. Sound boring? Actually, it is kind of, but I'm glad I read it. It recounts all the editions and publications of the work in all the languages in which it was translated until 1909, when Warfield wrote the introduction. (The 1909 edition was a Memorial Edition in commemoration of Calvin's 400th birthday.) My edition also includes a brief account of the American editions of the work as an introduction of this 1936 edition, written by one Thomas C. Pears, Jr. Incidentally, my edition (the seventh American edition) "is a complete new revised edition of the Institutes, of which one thousand copies have been printed in this year, which marks the four hundredth anniversary of the first edition published at Basle in the year 1536." It almost makes me tremble to use it!

About the translation itself. Before 1909, when Warfield wrote his introduction, the Institutes had been translated in English three times, by Thomas Norton in 1561, by John Allen in 1813, and by Henry Beveridge in 1845. John Allen was a layman, the headmaster of a private school in Hackney, near London. Concerning his translation technique, Allen states in the Translator's Preface:
Among the different methods of translation which have been recommended, he [the translator] has adopted that which appeared to him best fitted to the present undertaking. A servile adherence to the letter of the original, the style of which is so very remote from the English idiom, he thought would convey a very inadequate representation of the work, such extreme fidelity... being seldom successful, even in a faithful transmission of the precise sentiments of the author to the mind of the reader. A mere attention to the ideas and sentiments of the original, to the neglect of its style and manner, would expose the Translator of a treatise of this nature to no small danger of misrepresenting the meaning of the Author, by too frequent and unnecessary deviations from his language. He has, therefore, aimed at a medium between servility and looseness, and endeavoured to follow the style of the original as far as the respective idioms of the Latin and English would admit.

Warfield apparently deems him successful in his endeavor for he says, "The translation is certainly so far successful that it conveys with plain directness the meaning of the original author, and so far, at least as we have observed, never either misses it or obscures it."


Blue Dog Daddie said...

I have Beveridge's translation. I think that the subtle differences in the English would have little impact on the meaning of the work to me ... I am not that deep a scholar!

BlueDog said...

Warfield says that that Beveridge's translation has become more popular than Allen's, especially in England. I'm pretty sure the most popular one now, at least judging by most of my friends' libraries, is one translated by Ford Lewis Battles. I looks like a pretty impressive work, as it documents variants between the Latin and French as well as material that was added in later of Calvin's edition. I find that stuff interesting merely from a historical perspective. I, like you, find that sort of thing unnecessary for the essential meaning of the work.