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Olivétan—“The Humble Little Translator” of the French Bible

Olivétan—“The Humble Little Translator” of the French Bible

Olivétan​—“The Humble Little Translator” of the French Bible

It was September 13, 1540. The police were searching the home of Collin Pellenc. In a secret room, they found some suspicious documents, among them a large book. On the second page were the words: “P. Robert Olivetanus, the humble little translator.” It was a Waldensian Bible! Collin Pellenc was arrested, convicted of heresy, and burned alive.

IN France at that time, as elsewhere in Europe, the Catholic Church was in pursuit of Reformers in an effort to stamp out their “insidious” doctrines. One of the Reformers, the fiery Guillaume Farel, was determined to win the French-speaking world over to the views of Martin Luther, a leading figure of the Protestant Reformation. Farel, from Dauphiné Province in southeastern France, knew that a key player in the battle of ideas was the printed page. To accomplish his mission, he needed supplies of pamphlets and treatises, as well as Bibles. But who would finance such an undertaking? Why not the Waldenses, an independent religious group devoted to preaching the Bible?

A Synod at Chanforan

Back in mid-September 1532, the Waldensian barbes (pastors) held a synod, or conference, at Chanforan, a hamlet near Turin, Italy. For several years, there had been interchanges between the Waldenses and leaders of the Reformation. Thus, Farel and several others were invited to the synod. The Waldenses wanted to know if their own doctrines agreed with those preached by Luther and his disciples. *

At Chanforan, Farel’s eloquence was convincing. When the Waldensian barbes showed him their old handwritten Bibles in their own dialect, he convinced them to finance the printing of a Bible in French. In contrast with the 1523 version by Lefèvre d’Étaples, based on the Latin, this one was to be translated from the Hebrew and Greek. But who was capable of handling such a task?

Farel knew just such a man. His name was Pierre Robert, but he was known as Olivétan, * a young teacher born in the Picardy region of northern France. Olivétan, a cousin of John Calvin, was an early Reformer and a trustworthy man. He also spent several years in Strasbourg diligently studying Bible languages.

Like Farel and many others, Olivétan had taken refuge in Switzerland. His friends begged him to accept the translation project. After refusing several times, he finally accepted the commission to translate the Bible “according to the Hebrew and Greek languages into French.” At the same time, the Waldenses put up 500 of the 800 gold crowns​—a fortune!​—needed to finance a printery.

The Crow and the Nightingale

Early in 1534, Olivétan isolated himself in the Alps and began his work, surrounded by his “silent teachers,” his books. His library would be the envy of any modern-day scholar. It included Syriac, Greek, and Latin versions of the Bible, rabbinical commentaries, Chaldean grammar books, and many other books. Most important, he had a current Venetian version of the original Hebrew text of the Bible.

Olivétan based his rendering of what is commonly called the New Testament on the French text of Lefèvre d’Étaples, although the Greek text established by the Dutch scholar Erasmus was taken into account on many occasions. Olivétan’s choice of vocabulary was often aimed at loosening the grip of Catholicism. For example, he preferred “overseer” to “bishop,” “secret” to “mystery,” and “congregation” to “church.”

For what many term the Old Testament, Olivétan was determined to render the original Hebrew word for word. He jokingly said that translating Hebrew into French was like “teaching the sweet nightingale to sing the song of the hoarse crow”!

In the Hebrew text, Olivétan came across the divine name in the form of the Tetragrammaton thousands of times. He chose to translate it “The Eternal,” an expression that later became common in French Protestant Bibles. In several places, however, he opted for “Jehovah,” notably at Exodus 6:3.

Remarkably, on February 12, 1535, after only a year or so, the translator declared his work complete! Since he admitted that he had “already long borne this yoke [of translation] all alone,” evidently the year 1534/1535 was the culmination of an ongoing, painstaking process. “I have done the best I could,” said the translator modestly. All that remained now was to print the first French Bible translated with the original languages in mind.

In Pirot’s Workshop

Pierre de Wingle, alias Pirot Picard, a friend of Farel’s and a Reformist printer, now entered the picture. After being hounded out of Lyon by the Catholic Church, he settled in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1533. With Waldensian money, he began printing “subversive” material in abundance. It was his workshop, for example, that produced posters condemning the Mass, some of which made their way to Catholic King Francis I of France.

Once again, de Wingle set his presses in motion​—this time to produce a Bible! To speed up the process, a team of four or five workers operated each of two presses, setting the type and printing the sheets. Finally, in “the year 1535, the 4th day of June,” de Wingle signed the printer’s page of Olivétan’s Bible. In his preface, the translator dedicated his work to those poor believers “crushed and weighed down” by “vain traditions.”

The final result met all expectations. The beauty and simplicity of the French text was enhanced by crisp, elegant, gothic script set in two columns and divided into chapters and paragraphs. Marginal notes attest to the scholarship of the translator. Introductory comments, appendixes, tables, and poems also embellish the work. At the end of the volume, a short rhyming acrostic reveals that “the Waldenses, who the Gospel preach, placed this treasure within public reach.”

A Masterpiece . . . and a Failure

Once scorned, the work of Olivétan is today unanimously recognized as a veritable masterpiece of scholarship. Moreover, his text went on to serve as the basis for Protestant Bible versions for three centuries.

Though about a thousand copies of Olivétan’s Bible were produced, they did not sell well. That was because there was no solid distribution network and also because it was a time when the French language itself was undergoing rapid change. Besides, a large 11-pound (5-kg) volume was not the ideal format for traveling preachers or clandestine readers.

In spite of the fact that a copy had made its way to Collin Pellenc’s home in France, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, Olivétan’s Bible was actually a commercial failure. In 1670, nearly a century and a half later, a bookshop in Geneva still had a copy for sale.

“No Name From No Place”

His mission accomplished, Olivétan slipped back into obscurity. Under assumed names, he revised his New Testament and parts of the Old Testament. He also dedicated himself to his other passion​—teaching. A thoughtful schoolteacher, he reedited his Instruction for Children, a book for youngsters providing moral lessons and an introduction to French reading based entirely on the Scriptures. Among the pseudonyms that he adopted was Belisem de Belimakom, meaning “No Name From No Place.”

Olivétan died in 1538 while in his early 30’s, possibly in Rome. Few people today are aware of the key role that this young scholar from Picardy played in the circulation of the French Bible. His name seldom appears in dictionaries, if at all. This would probably have suited “the humble little translator,” Louys Robert, alias Olivétan!


^ par. 5 For information on how the Waldenses were absorbed by the Reformation, see The Watchtower of March 15, 2002, pages 20-23.

^ par. 7 Born Louys Robert, he adopted the first name Pierre. The nickname Olivétan likely refers to the abundance of olive oil he used in order to provide light for his long hours of work.

[Picture Credit Line on page 18]

Archives de la Ville de Neuchâtel, Suisse/​Photo: Stefano Iori

[Picture Credit Lines on page 19]

Left photo: Alain Leprince - La Piscine-musée, Roubaix/​Courtesy of the former Bouchard Museum, Paris

Center and right: Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français, Paris

[Picture Credit Line on page 20]

Société de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français, Paris