Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to Gilbert Murray

Letter No.: 
April 19th, 1949

The White Gates,

Dear Professor Murray1

I expect you have seen with concern, as I have, the proposal to make a new translation of the Bible.
Of course if a few scholars helped by some literary hacks choose to convert the Bible into scholarly journalese I suppose it cannot be helped, but does not this new scheme mean more than this? Will not the new version be officially adopted and “appointed to be read in churches”? If so, goodbye to our glorious heritage of English thought and language, founded on the authorized version. As it is we are having a hard tussle with Americanized newspaper diction and the English Bible is one of our stoutest bastions of resistance.
It is said that the Bible as it stands is no longer read, but will not the doubtful morality and still more doubtful history of the Old Testament make an even weaker appeal to the ordinary man if it is no longer clothed in magnificent language?
Promoters of this new scheme do not seem to realise that a thought and its expression are indivisible: if you take away the beauty of the expression the beauty of the thought will disappear also. The language of the English Bible has created thoughts in the minds of English people, different, no doubt, from the thoughts expressed in the Hebrew original, but it is these thoughts that have formed much that is best in the English character and it is these thoughts, or at all events, the most forcible expression of them which are, as I have said, one and the same of which these Wiseacres propose to deprive us.
We hear much about the so-called “mistranslations”. Now much of the moral fibre of the English character is built up on these very mistranslations. Let me quote two examples:-
(1): Job’s “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. Even without Handel’s music these words have been a stand-by to troubled minds for generations. Do our reformers propose to substitute “Avenger”, which I am told is the correct translation?
(2): In St. Luke XI.14 the English version has “Goodwill toward men” which has surely always been the watchword of all right-thinking people, but the Vulgate, as you know, has “Hominibus bonae voluntatis” which is a sentiment only worthy of the Soviet Republic. Are we to destroy all that three centuries have taught us to hold as true and of good report because it is now supposed that a few primitive Easterns thought differently?
I wonder if the translators will dare to alter the words of the Lord’s Prayer or such phrases as “Man goeth to his long home” or “For there the wicked cease from troubling and there the weary are at rest,” words which have engraved themselves indelibly on our consciousness.
If the translators keep these and others like them and “modernise” the rest, the result will be an intolerable patchwork.
Will you not use your influence to stop all this? Perhaps you and other men in your position would write a letter to the “Times” to set the ball rolling and you may be sure that all right-thinking people will back you up.
I am writing a similar letter to
the Master of Trinity College Cambridge
Yours sincerely

R. Vaughan Williams

1.  This letter refers to what resulted in the New English Bible, the first new translation since the King James version. It was sent in identical terms to G.M. Trevelyan. VW probably wrote to Murray and Trevelyan as fellow members of the Order of Merit but was unable to enrol either of them in his crusade. In 1951 wrote to Veronica Wedgwood in the hope of enthusing her about the matter, as editor of Time & Tide - see VWL2174. Underlined passages are added in VW’s handwriting to the typed text.


Location of original letter:

Shelfmark of original letter: 
MS Gilbert Murray 99, ff. 207-208
General notes: 

Typewritten, signed, with manuscript additions. Blank draft copy at British Library MS Mus. 1714/1/17, ff. 105-106.

Cobbe 520
Original database number: