Martin Luther’s Bible Translation

In my last post on Really Old German from the book Sternstunden I remarked in closing that the chapter on Martin Luther shouldn’t bring any big surprises. Turns out I was wrong. I expected some excerpts from his famous translation of the New Testament but instead this chapter contains Luther’s comments on his translation, cited from Luther Deutsch. Die Werke Martin Luthers in neuer Auswahl für die Gegenwart, ed. Kurt Aland, Vandenhoek und Ruprecht 1986, vol. 5, p. 79–92.

The comments as such have mostly been updated to modern German so I simply translate them into English here. The interesting part is the contents where Luther explains his choices for new translations of specific terms and phrases from the (Latin and Greek) bible and also comments on the work of translation in general, while heaping scorn on his Catholic predecessors and their attempts to translate the bible into German. So here are some selected quotes.

Die Verlierung der Salben

When the traitor Judas Matth. 26, 8 says: Ut quid perditio haec? and Marc. 14, 4: Ut quid perditio ista unguenti facta est? Were I to follow the asses and literalists [Buchstabilisten] I would have to translate, “Why has this loss of unguents happened?” [Warum ist diese Verlierung der Salben geschehen?] But what kind of German is this? What German says “Verlierung der Salben ist geschehen?” And rightly understood he must think the unguent was lost and perhaps he should search for it; although this too sounds dark and uncertain… But the German speaks thusly: “Why such waste [Verschwendung]? No, what a pity about the unguent.” That is good German, revealing that Magdalene wasted the spilled unguent and so caused damage.

Dem Volks aufs Maul geschaut

For one must not ask the letters in the Latin language how to talk in German, as these asses do; but one must ask this of the mother in the house, the children in the street, the simple man at the market, and pay attention to their mouths how they are talking [auf das Maul sehen, wie sie reden], and translate according to that, so they will understand it and notice that one is talking German with them.

Allein durch den Glauben

[Luther’s friend Linck asks] why I have translated in the third chapter [of the Epistle to the Romans; verse 28] the words of Paulus: “Arbitramur hominem iustificari ex fide absque operibus” thusly: “We maintain that man becomes just without the works of law, only through faith [allein durch den Glauben].” You point out that the Catholics uselessly enrage themselves beyond measure because the text of Paulus does not contain the word sola (only).

If your Catholic wants to make himself quite useless with the word sola so I simply reply: Doctor Martinus Luther wants it so, and I say: Catholic and ass are the same. For we do not want to be the Catholics’ students nor disciples, but their masters and judges, want to be proud too and brag about asses’ heads. […] They are doctors? Me too. They are scholars? Me too. They are preachers? Me too. They are theologians? Me too. They are disputants? Me too. They are philosophers? Me too. They are dialecticians? Me too. They hold lectures? Me too. They write books? Me too.

I shall boast further: I can interpret psalms and prophets; they cannot. I can translate; they cannot. I can read the holy scripture; they cannot. I can pray; they cannot. And to condescend to them: I know their own dialectic and philosophy better than they all do themselves, and furthermore know for sure that none of them understands their Aristotle.

So here Rom. 3, 28 I knew quite well that the Latin and Greek text does not contain the word sola without any reminder by the Catholics. It is true, these four letters sola are not there. The asses’ heads stare at those four letters like cows at a new gate, but do not see that the intent of the text nevertheless comprises the word sola and it belongs there if one wants to write clear and precise German.

For that is the way of our German language: when it talks of two things, one of which is affirmed and the other denied, one uses the word solum “allein” [only] alongside the word “nicht” [not] or “kein” [no]. E.g. when one says: “The farmer brings only corn, and no money”; “No, I truly do not have money now, but only corn”; “I have only eaten and not yet drunk”; “Have you only written and not yet read through it?” And so on in countless manners in everyday usage.

The Labor of Translation

When translating I strove to produce pure and clear German. And often we have looked for fourteen days, three, four weeks for a single word and sometimes yet failed to find it. In the book Hiob M. Philippus [Melanchton], Aurogallus and I labored so that we sometimes could barely finish three lines in four days. My dear, now that it is in German and complete, anyone can read and master it. Now one’s eyes run through three, four sheets and not once stumble; unaware what stones and blocks had lain there. Where he now moves as over a smooth board, there we had to sweat and fret ere we removed such stones and blocks, so as to enable such fine passage. It is easy to plow a cleared field; but nobody wants to root up the forest and the rhizomes and prepare the field.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.