Translations of the Institutes

Justin Taylor
A reader asked about the different English translations of Calvin's Institutes. Any translation would probably be serviceable in understanding Calvin's main intent. We will be using the Battles/McNeill translation for blogging through the Institutes. There are four main English translators/translations:

  • Thomas Norton (1561)
  • John Allen (1813)
  • Henry Beveridge (1845)
  • Ford Lewis Battles (1960)
In one of his lectures on the Institutes, Professor David Calhoun gave the following overview:

The first was Thomas Norton back in the sixteenth century. Calvin was very fortunate with his first English translator. Norton did an exceptionally good job. Very soon after the completion of the Institutes in 1559, which was written in Latin, it was translated by Calvin into French and then quite soon into English. John Allen was the second translator. John Allen and Henry Beveridge were both nineteenth-century translators. The Beveridge translation is still in print. It was until fairly recently anyway. Those are not bad but not very good either. Ford Lewis Battles' 1960 translation is the one that we are using. Even though it has been criticized some, it is by far the most superior translation that we have at present.
And here is J. I. Packer's typically concise take:

No English translation fully matches Calvin's Latin; that of the Elizabethan, Thomas Norton, perhaps gets closest; Beveridge gives us Calvin's feistiness but not always his precision; Battles gives us the precision but not always the punchiness, and fleetness of foot; Allen is smooth and clear, but low-key.
Some readers may be interested in this site by the late Professor David F. Wright, who was collecting and correcting mistranslations from the Battles translation.

For those who are able to read Latin and/or French, John Hobbins at the "Ancient Hebrew Poetry" blog has a couple of good posts, here and here.