I might as well start by admitting the obvious: It’s probably hard to get excited for the anniversary of a German Bible translation when we use English and most of our churchgoers and pastors (understandably) don’t read German today. For us English speakers, however, Luther’s translation is still worth caring about because it demonstrates what Luther thought about communicating the Gospel. Reflecting on how Luther communicated then lends insights to us for communicating that same Gospel today. Luther’s translation of the New Testament was not the first one into German, but he made such radical departures from what had been done that his translation stood far above the rest. His uniqueness, I believe, lies in his strong reader orientation.
Previous translations had tried to be so faithful to the traditional translation of western Christianity—the Latin—that in extreme cases it resulted in tortured, incomprehensible German sentences. Luther, however, tried to be faithful not only to the biblical text, but also to his audience so they could understand the message of the Gospel clearly. Scholars have noted how earlier German translations adapted Latin terms transliterated into the German text, like glori or pontifex (high priest), likely trying to maintain ties with the traditional Latin or thinking something would be lost if specific Latin vocabulary was not maintained and explained in the church. In contrast, Luther wanted the German Bible to sound how Germans speak—oddly a more revolutionary concept than it seems at first glance.
It is hard to evaluate how Luther’s translation would have sounded to its original listeners and readers since even modern native speakers of German have 500 years of linguistic development between them and Luther. Thankfully, we at least have what Luther himself wrote about his process in his work On Translating: An Open Letter. Though he speaks against being overly literal and word for word rather than sense for sense, he notes that he kept very close to the original language “where everything turns on a single passage” (Luther’s Works 35:194). Overall, one can see where many words line up between his German and the original Greek, so he is not drastic in general, as if paraphrasing. Yet he is concerned for German word order, using common German vocabulary, and clarity in style, taking liberties when needed. When facing heavy criticism for taking too many liberties, he makes it clear his concern for his German audience is the top priority over impressing elitist snobs: “We do not have to inquire of the literal Latin, how we are to speak German…. Rather we must inquire about this of the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. That way they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them” (LW 35:189). To set the goalposts for a good translation as using the language of mothers, children, and the common man would, of course, have sounded even more extreme in Luther’s context.
He addresses a few examples against critics to shed light on what he means. For example, in Matthew 12:34, the Latin translation would have sounded exactly like our New King James Version: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Yet Luther, with lovable bluntness, writes about the verse, “What German could understand something like that? What is ‘the abundance of the heart’? … For ‘abundance of the heart’ is not German, any more than ‘abundance of the house,’ ‘abundance of the stove,’ or ‘abundance of the bench’ is German. But the mother in the home and the common man say this, ‘What fills the heart overflows the mouth’” (LW 35:189–190). When criticized for changing the angel’s greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28 from the Latin, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” Luther writes, “What German understands what that is, to be ‘full of grace’? He would have to think of a keg ‘full of’ beer or a purse ‘full of’ money” (LW 35:191). Though Luther had gone with “gracious one” instead for his translation, he writes with a bit of humor that he was holding back: “Suppose I had taken the best German, and translated the salutation thus: ‘Hello there, Mary’—for that is what the angel wanted to say, and what he would have said, if he had wanted to greet her in German. Suppose I had done that! I believe they would have hanged themselves” (LW 35:191–192). Luther wanted to avoid the misunderstandings and confusion that result from callously translating word for word or without a thoughtful reader orientation.
Additionally, Luther’s style had a way of bringing the translation down to earth for people. For example, one scholar notes he often added little particles to his German, imparting the flavor of spoken, conversational language. It might be comparable to how we often add “so,” “like,” or “yeah” when speaking English more than writing it, though German has more such particles and with greater subtlety. In fact, when translating from Luther’s German into English, you often need to simply leave them untranslated; otherwise, you end up with an unwieldly abundance of words like “indeed” in your sentence. Yet in Luther’s translation, this feature would have made it more natural. To give an example where Luther influenced (and continues to influence) our English translations, a scholar once noted his eloquent deviation from the Latin in John 13:1. The Latin would have sounded something like, “Having loved his own who were in the world, into the end he loved them,” but Luther’s fingerprints are on most English translations that read something like, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” These examples illustrate how Luther valued clear, approachable communicating.
For all these reasons, Luther’s Bible is widely regarded as a landmark translation and a brilliant accomplishment. He certainly knew what he was doing. How might Lutheranism have ended up if he had a drab outlook on translation? I’m glad I don’t have to find out!
So then, the anniversary of Luther’s translation is not only a celebration of the past but also a helpful challenge to us who carry the Lutheran tradition forward. Luther was attuned to the people and their language, and he simply wanted them to clearly understand the Gospel message in whatever way they could handle it. We have people in our lives that we want to talk to about Jesus, whether teaching children or chatting with a friend, whether with the churched or the unchurched. Luther shows that such communication is not simply about using the right churchly words but rising to the occasion or needs of the listener. The person we communicate with influences how we communicate. Luther’s New Testament translation did it, bringing with it the comfort of Christ crucified, the Gospel message that has found its way to us still today. I hope his translation can inspire us also to carry this great tradition forward.
-Rev. Dr. Nicholas Proksch