Reading in tongues

Reading in tongues

A double-page spread from a printed book. The text is in twelve different languages, each printed in a different type face and size. The page is arranged in six columns with two languages alternating in each column. It is printed in black ink on off-white paper.
Elias Hutter’s Nuremberg Polyglot edition of the New Testament in twelve languages, 1599 [SGC RBK B.241]
This remarkable volume from the Chapter Library is a polyglot edition of the New Testament [reference SGC RBK B.241]. It was published in Nuremberg in 1599 and contains twelve translations of the text printed alongside each other. Polyglot comes from a Greek word combining poly, meaning ‘many’ and glotta, meaning ‘language’; it is typically used to describe a book containing multiple translations of the same text and most often these are books of Scripture.

The languages represented here are (left to right) Syriac, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, Bohemian, Italian, Spanish, French, English, Danish and Polish. Each of the six columns across the double page spread contains two languages and the text is printed one verse at a time, alternating between the two languages in that column as one reads down the page. This lay-out allows all of the translations of every verse to be compared side-by-side and at once.

The page depicted here shows verses from the Book of Acts, chapter 2. The author Luke describes the events in Jerusalem after the death of Christ when the disciples were visited for the first time by the Holy Spirit. They began to speak in tongues, which the gathered crowd could each understand in their own language although they came from diverse parts of the world. Today we commemorate this event each year with the feast of Pentecost.

A page of printed text in several different languages, focusing on the English and Latin translations for chapter 2 of the New Testament book of Acts. Printed in black ink on off-white paper.
An extract from Acts chapter 2 in the Nuremberg Polyglot

The editor of this extraordinary polyglot New Testament was a German scholar called Elias Hutter. He was born in Görlitz, in eastern Germany, in 1553. He studied languages at university in Jena and then became professor of the Hebrew language at the University of Leipzig from 1577. The translation of the New Testament into Hebrew used in the Nuremberg Polyglot is believed to be his own work. The German translation is based on that published by Martin Luther in 1522 and the English translation comes from the Geneva Bible, published in 1557 by English Protestants who had fled to Geneva to escape persecution under the reign of Catholic queen Mary I.

It is important to remember that less than a century before Hutter published this polyglot New Testament, Europe had just begun to experience the Protestant Reformation. One of the issues at the heart of the Reformation was the translation of Scriptures into vernacular languages so that anyone could read or listen to them in the same language that they spoke day to day. This posed a great challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church and many of the leading figures of the movement were exiled, excommunicated or executed.

The first complete translation of the New Testament in modern English was published by William Tyndale in 1526. Catholic authorities in England condemned his work as heretical and the book was banned because of Tyndale’s choice to translate certain Greek words in ways that did not support the structure of the Catholic Church. A decade later, Tyndale himself was arrested and tried by Catholic authorities. Found guilty of heresy, he was executed and his body burnt.

Hutter was born a generation later into a Germany where Protestantism was well established. He had a strong Christian faith and shared the beliefs of Tyndale, Luther and many other that people should be able to read the Bible in their own languages. Furthermore, he felt that the opportunity to compare different interpretations as clearly as possible was essential in order to better understand their meaning.

Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.