‘Go on a barefoot pilgrimage to the King’s grace and his Council to petition to have the Holy Scripture in your language.’ These remarkable words appeared in a book printed in the mid-16th century. They were the impassioned plea of one Welshman to his compatriots about the need to have the Scriptures translated into Welsh. The author of those words was William Salesbury. Disappointingly for him, his words fell on deaf ears. However, in time he became the answer, at least in part, to his own plea.
So who was William Salesbury and what is the story behind his involvement with this ambitious goal to see the Bible translated into Welsh?
Salesbury was born in Llansannan, Denbighshire. He was a lawyer, having trained at one of London’s Inns of Chancery, following studies at Oxford University. However, his interests were wide-ranging, as befitting someone influenced by Renaissance learning and culture, which among other things, prized ancient sources.
Salesbury was also a convinced Protestant. In one of his writings, he gives an insight into his spiritual pilgrimage. He describes himself as being ‘tangled and abominably deceived, and trained, and brought up in tender age, in the Popes holilyke Religion before Christes second byrthe…’ He was concerned for the spiritual well-being of his compatriots and an expression of that concern was his desire to see the Scriptures in their own tongue.
A political struggle
However, Salesbury’s aim was not a straightforward one given the historical circumstances, both politically and religiously. The Acts of Union which had united Wales to England included the effective prohibition of the use of Welsh in any official capacity, so to suggest publishing a Bible in Welsh was a potentially seditious act. Religiously, the times were also volatile. Henry VIII would be succeeded by his Protestant son Edward, then by the Catholic Mary and then by the Protestant Elizabeth.
An act of parliament
The great breakthrough in realising the dream of having the Scriptures in Welsh came with the publication in 1563 of an act of parliament authorising the translation into Welsh of both Old and New Testament, as well as the Book of Common Prayer. In no small part, the act was due to Salesbury’s ‘behind the scenes’ activity, rallying support from those with influence. One of those whom Salesbury recruited as a key supporter was Richard Davies, the Bishop of St. David’s.
So after many years of preparatory work and campaigning, authorisation was finally granted for the realisation of Salesbury’s dream. The task of providing the Scriptures in Welsh was now able to get underway with official sanction.
The Welsh New Testament of 1567
Salesbury himself translated the lion’s share of the New Testament. Richard Davies translated 1 Timothy, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, while the Book of Revelation was translated by Thomas Huet, a precentor and canon at St. David’s.
In setting about the process of translation, Salesbury, true to his Renaissance influences, gathered various sources, including, most importantly, a Greek New Testament. Analysis of Salesbury’s New Testament has enabled scholars to deduce which other texts Salesbury had available to him. Interestingly, one of those other texts was the Geneva Bible, produced by Protestant exiles in Geneva. In fact, one scholar (Isaac Thomas) has demonstrated that of the other sources to which Salesbury had access, he turned to the Geneva Bible most often for guidance, when seeking to render the underlying Greek into Welsh. The influence of the Geneva Bible can also be seen in Salesbury’s New Testament in that he included notes in the margin, as was characteristic of the Geneva Bible. Salesbury used marginal notes for various reasons, but on the title page of the 1567 New Testament explicit reference is made to their use in cases where words in the text were not likely to be understood, be that due to dialect or lack of familiarity. However, whereas the marginal notes in the Geneva Bible included applicatory comments, Salesbury did not follow suit.
Salesbury’s principles of translation
There are three particular aspects which stand out from Salesbury’s work which, in the view of Isaac Thomas, amount to his principles of translation.
The title page of the 1567 New Testament states that the translation was ‘word for word’ from the original. In practice, this meant having an equivalent word in Welsh for every corresponding word in the original Greek. However, Salesbury did not keep to the word order (syntax) of the underlying Greek when translating into Welsh. Where Salesbury had inserted a word into the text, he enabled the reader to identify such cases clearly by using a different ‘typeface’ or font.
Variation of expression
Another distinctive aspect of Salesbury’s work was the way he varied which Welsh word he used to translate the same word in the original text. This was a reflection of the influence, in particular, of the important Renaissance scholar Erasmus, who had championed the idea of variety and abundance of vocabulary and expression in literature.
Dignity of expression
Salesbury’s desire for dignity of expression can be seen in his use of antiquated Welsh terms. In the case of Welsh words of Latin origin, he also sought to highlight that by the way he spelt them, even if that did not reflect how they were pronounced.
These distinctive features — spellings which did not reflect how words were pronounced, and the attempt to Latinise the spelling of Welsh words proved to be controversial, both during his lifetime and for long after. Equally controversial was his decision to disregard one particular type of mutation (where the initial letter of a word changes). For example, when Bishop William Morgan wrote the preface to his complete Welsh Bible published in 1588, while generously acknowledging Salesbury’s prior work, he also described his task in part as ‘cleansing’ the New Testament. This most likely refers to ridding the translation of aspects of Salesbury’s work, such as the unusual pattern of spelling and the inconsistent use of mutation.
Notwithstanding these criticisms, his translation has been hailed by Isaac Thomas as being among the best of the period, as far as faithfulness to the original is concerned. Furthermore, he has left a legacy of terms which he coined and which continue to be a part of Welsh religious vocabulary, such as atgyfodiad (resurrection) and cyfryngwr (mediator). It is fitting, then, 450 years after the publication of the New Testament in Welsh on October 7th, 1567, that we mark William Salesbury’s contribution to the development of the Welsh Bible. Whatever the perceived faults of his New Testament, it was the foundation for the subsequent complete Bible in Welsh. Without his vision, concern, campaigning, dogged determination and sheer hard work, the Bible might never have been translated into Welsh at all, to the spiritual loss of Wales and generations of her people.