William Shakespeare's translation of Psalm 46

One interesting story from the translation of the English Bible is William Shakespeare’s rumored translation of Psalm 46 in the King James Version (Authorised Version). Shakespeare’s 46th birthday occurred in 1611 (some sources say 1610), which coincided with the publication date of the King James Bible. Careful readers realized that the 46th word from the beginning of Psalm 46 is “shake,” and the 46th word from the end is “spear” (or in the first edition: “speare”).

Susan Gillingham wrote this about the assertion in 2012 (p. 172f.): “[William Shakespeare’s] collected works offer allusions to over sixty different psalms. His source was almost certainly the Geneva Bible; given that the King James Bible was published in 1611, some five years before his death, and that it took some time before it overtook the popularity of the Geneva Bible, it is more likely that his allusions to psalmody are from the latter translation. But others have had a different view. An article in the Times some forty years ago popularized the idea that Shakespeare had a particular hand in the translation of some of the Psalms for the King James Bible. The key evidence was from Psalm 46: Shakespeare would have been 46 in 1610, the year before the publication, and when one reads in 46 words from the beginning of Ps. 46:1 (starting with ‘God’), and then 46 words from the end of Ps. 46:11 (after the rubric ‘Selah’), one gets a combination of words ‘shake+speare’. Was this some secret coding by Shakespeare himself, or maybe a birthday attribution by the translators? Another view presumes that Shakespeare had a hand in Psalm 23, as his birthday fell on 23 April. However, it is more likely that the fifty-four translators possibly did not recognize the literary worth of Shakespeare for what it was (noting that Sir Thomas Bodley wrote to the Keeper of the Books, Thomas James, as late as 1598, telling him not to fill the library with those ‘Baggage Books,’ i.e. the folios of Shakespeare), but rather used their own committee of clerics, academics and theologians.”

Note: Other scholars, including Naseeb Shaheen (2011, p. 20), insist that Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Psalms that was typically included in the Book of Common Prayer, was Shakespeare’s preferred English translation of the Psalms.

Psalm 46 in the original King James Version:

1 God is our refuge and strength: a very present helpe in trouble.
2 Therfore will not we feare, though the earth be remoued: and though the mountaines be caried into the midst of the sea.
3 Though the waters thereof roare, and be troubled, though the mountaines shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.
4 There is a riuer, the streames wherof shall make glad the citie of God: the holy place of the Tabernacles of the most High.
5 God is in the midst of her: she shal not be moued; God shall helpe her, and that right early.
6 The heathen raged, the kingdomes were mooued: he vttered his voyce, the earth melted.
7 The Lord of hosts is with vs; the God of Iacob is our refuge. Selah.
8 Come, behold the workes of the Lord, what desolations hee hath made in the earth.
9 He maketh warres to cease vnto the end of the earth: hee breaketh the bow, and cutteth the speare in sunder, he burneth the chariot in the fire.
10 Be stil, and know that I am God: I will bee exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.
11 The Lord of hosts is with vs; the God of Iacob is our refuge. Selah.

king

Some languages do not have a concept of kingship and therefore no immediate equivalent for the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic that is translated as “king” in English. Here are some (back-) translations:

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  • Piro: “a great one”
  • Highland Totonac: “the big boss”
  • Huichol: “the one who commanded” (source for this and above: Bratcher / Nida)
  • Ekari: “the one who holds the country” (source: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
  • Pass Valley Yali: “Big Man” (source: Daud Soesilo)
  • Una: weik sienyi: “big headman” (source: Kroneman 2004, p. 407)
  • Ghomála’: Fo (“The word Fo refers to the paramount ruler in the kingdoms of West Cameroon. He holds administrative, political, and religious power over his own people, who are divided into two categories: princes (descendants of royalty) and servants (everyone else).” (Source: Michel Kenmogne in Theologizing in Context: An Example from the Study of a Ghomala’ Christian Hymn)

Faye Edgerton retells how the term in Navajo was determined:

“[This term was] easily expressed in the language of Biblical culture, which had kings and noblemen with their brilliant trappings and their position of honor and praise. But leadership among the Navajos is not accompanied by any such titles or distinctions of dress. Those most respected, especially in earlier days, were their headmen, who were the leaders in raids, and the shaman, who was able to serve the people by appealing for them to the gods, or by exorcising evil spirits. Neither of these made any outward show. Neither held his position by political intrigue or heredity. If the headman failed consistently in raids, he was superceded by a better warrior. If the shaman failed many times in his healing ceremonies, it was considered that he was making mistakes in the chants, or had lost favor with the gods, and another was sought. The term Navajos use for headman is derived from a verb meaning ‘to move the head from side to side as in making an oration.’ The headman must be a good orator, able to move the people to go to war, or to follow him in any important decision. This word is naat’áanii which now means ‘one who rules or bosses.’ It is employed now for a foreman or boss of any kind of labor, as well as for the chairman of the tribal council. So in order to show that the king is not just a common boss but the highest ruler, the word ‘aláahgo, which expresses the superlative degree, was put before naat’áanii, and so ‘aláahgo naat’áanii ‘anyone-more-than-being around-he-moves-his-head-the-one-who’ means ‘the highest ruler.’ Naat’áanii was used for governor as the context usually shows that the person was a ruler of a country or associated with kings.”

(Source: Faye Edgerton in The Bible Translator 1962, p. 25ff.)