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.

pronoun for "God"

God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself” in many English Bible translations when referring to the persons of the Trinity with the capitalized “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).

Modern Chinese, however, offers another possibility (click or tap here to read more):

In modern Chinese, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.

In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.

While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, many other Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. (Source: Zetzsche)

Early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970) also used 祂 to refer to “God.” Kramers points out: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”

Source: R. P. Kramers in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.

In Kouya, Godié, Northern Grebo, Eastern Krahn, Western Krahn, and Guiberoua Béte, all languages of the Kru family in Western Africa, a different kind of systems of pronouns is used (click or tap here to read more):

In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.

Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”

In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)

Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”

Translation: Chinese





Translator: Simon Wong