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Thursday, August 03, 2006

Dying to know about the Luther Bible

Exactly why we should all be here more than ever now that it is August, I have no idea. However, I am not actually out of reach of the internet, and neither, so it seems, are my various cobloggers! This question was put to us by Matthew in the last day or so,

    Can someone describe to me Martin Luthers (original) translation of the Bible in terms of "dynamic and literal"? I have often heard it said that Luthers Bible was frequently free (if his letter on Translating is any indication!) and occasionally literal (when he found a passage to be useful in determining doctrine, etc.)
      How much truth is there to this? If the Luther Bible (original) could be compared to one of our modern English translations, what would it be most similar to? ESV, NEB/REB, NIV, GW, CEV???

      I'm just "literally" dying to know!!! (Oh yah, feelin' the idiomatic burn).
    Since I have been so gallantly rescued from the Antarctic, I must in return offer Matthew some succour. No, Matthew, you do not need to live in suspense. (But I googled the issue and came up with one of my own posts. Great help that is!)

    So here goes. This is Romans 3:21-26, first in Greek, then in the Luther Bible, third in a free and not very accurate back translation provided by yours truly (having many inexactitudes, I am not qualifed to do this) and finally the ESV. From this, I put it to our readers, which English translation does Luther's most closely resemble? I would add this caveat, Luther's style varies throughout the Bible.

      21 νυνι δε χωρις νομου δικαιοσυνη θεου πεφανερωται μαρτυρουμενη υπο του νομου και των προφητων

      Nun aber ist ohne Zutun des Gesetzes die Gerechtigkeit, die vor Gott gilt, offenbart und bezeugt durch das Gesetz und die Propheten. Luther

      Now however without effort of the law, the righteousness which applies before God, is revealed and testified by the law and the prophets Babelfish and I

      But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it ESV

      22 δικαιοσυνη δε θεου δια πιστεως ιησου χριστου εις παντας τους πιστευοντας ου γαρ εστιν διαστολη

      Ich sage aber von solcher Gerechtigkeit vor Gott, die da kommt durch den Glauben an Jesum Christum zu allen und auf alle, die da glauben. Luther

      I say however of such righteousness before God, which there comes by the faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all, which believe it Babelfish and I

      the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: ESV

      23 παντες γαρ ημαρτον και υστερουνται της δοξης του θεου

      Denn es ist hier kein Unterschied: sie sind allzumal Sünder und mangeln des Ruhmes, den sie bei Gott haben sollten, Luther

      Because it is here no difference: they are all sinners and lack the fame, which they should have with God, Babelfish and I

      for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, ESV

      24 δικαιουμενοι δωρεαν τη αυτου χαριτι δια της απολυτρωσεως της εν χριστω ιησου

      und werden ohne Verdienst gerecht aus seiner Gnade durch die Erlösung, so durch Jesum Christum geschehen ist, Luther

      and will without service be justified by his grace through the release, this through Jesus Christ was done Babelfish and I

      and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, ESV

      25 ον προεθετο ο θεος ιλαστηριον δια {VAR2: [της] } πιστεως εν τω αυτου αιματι εις ενδειξιν της δικαιοσυνης αυτου δια την παρεσιν των προγεγονοτων αμαρτηματων

      welchen Gott hat vorgestellt zu einem Gnadenstuhl durch den Glauben in seinem Blut, damit er die Gerechtigkeit, die vor ihm gilt, darbiete in dem, daß er Sünde vergibt, welche bisher geblieben war unter göttlicher Geduld; Luther

      which God has presented forth as a grace seat by the faith in his blood, the righteousness which applies before it, in that he forgives sins which had so far remained under godly patience; Babelfish and I

      whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. ESV

      26 εν τη ανοχη του θεου προς την ενδειξιν της δικαιοσυνης αυτου εν τω νυν καιρω εις το ειναι αυτον δικαιον και δικαιουντα τον εκ πιστεως ιησου

      auf daß er zu diesen Zeiten darböte die Gerechtigkeit, die vor ihm gilt; auf daß er allein gerecht sei und gerecht mache den, der da ist des Glaubens an Jesum. Luther

      in that it would show at these times the righteousness, which applies before him; so that he alone may be just and make just, the one in whom is faith in Jesus. Babelfish and I

      It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. ESV
    The most obvious difference between a German translation and an English translation is that the Latinized vocabulary of 'redemption' and 'propitiation' simply does not exist in German. It cannot. Another difference is that there is no attempt by Luther to translate one Greek word by one German word. And for Luther God has no sons, except for one, but only children.


    Which English translation do you think this most closely resembles?

    Here are a ccouple of articles first from the German Embassy and from the International Bible Society.

    Note: Corrections to the German back translation will be gratefully accepted.


    At Thu Aug 03, 11:40:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...


    I am so thrilled that this actually got picked up as a blog topic. I have long wondered about Luthers translation and the method that he used, but without any knowledge of German (thats right... none whatsoever), a look into the entire "deal" has been nigh unto impossible.

    If your back translations from the german are even semi accurate, I would say the Luther Bible has a quality New English Bible or New Jerusalem Bible feel to it.

    What does everyone else think?

    And Suzanne, thanks a million just to discuss this.

    At Fri Aug 04, 07:05:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

    I once heard a lecturer say that Luther's Bible truly stood out among translations of his era, including English translations. He said that Luther truly wanted the Bible to be understood by the people, so he put it in the everyday language of the people. He was not content to merely provide lexical definitions, but would go and talk with those associated with a particular field to get the words right in German. For instance when he was translating the sections on method of sacrifice in the OT Law, Luther discussed these passages with butchers so that he would be sure to get the right and precise term.

    At Fri Aug 04, 12:04:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

    The most obvious difference between a German translation and an English translation is that the Latinized vocabulary of 'redemption' and 'propitiation' simply does not exist in German. It cannot.

    For this reason, perhaps the Luther Bible would take on a God's Word Translation aspect here and there due to the fact that the GW refuses to use the Latin carry over words in the translation. Instead, they prefer to render a complete English text (which I'm sure was done with differing levels of success dependant on how you look at it).

    Some will say that a translation that removes some of the theological or doctrinal terms that have been carried over from Greek/Hebrew/Latin/etc., that you are effectively dumbing down the Bible. However, I would not be afraid to deposit a similar question, "Did those who originally translate the Bible into English just carry over the Latin/etc., terms out of laziness?"

    A Greek NT professor that I have read some of said that an English translation should speak in English!

    At Fri Aug 04, 12:54:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

    However, I would not be afraid to deposit a similar question, "Did those who originally translate the Bible into English just carry over the Latin/etc., terms out of laziness?"


    It is certainly not laziness. English was in a minority lg. position as a legal and literary language in England for many centuries. It gained the mechanism morphologically as a germanic language to encorporate French words into its vocabulary to, in a sense, nativize these words. Latinate theological terms were already developing for theological use in English. Then these terms were used, a few in Wycliff's Bible, more in Tyndales and the most in the KJV. But it wasn't laziness - it was just the way English was.

    English was first used in parliament in England in the late 1300's just before Chaucer and Wycliff. French was the official lg up till then.

    German on the other hand, used terms already in existence in German for other purposes. It did not develop Latinized terms, but gave new meaning to old words.

    In many ways the situation for English is unique.

    At Fri Aug 04, 04:07:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    At Sat Aug 05, 04:13:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

    Suzanne, thank you for this. It is indeed clear that Luther shunned the formal equivalence method. I note for example that he avoided rendering δικαιοσυνη θεου literally as "the righteousness of God", but boldly (although possibly theologically controversially) rendered "die Gerechtigkeit, die vor Gott gilt", which is probably better translated "the righteousness which is valid before God" - three times in the short passage you looked at. This is certainly what would now be called a dynamic equivalence translation strategy. And there are a number of cases of this in this short passage.

    I have visited the room in the Wartburg castle where Luther first translated the New Testament. An interesting place to visit.

    At Sat Aug 05, 12:21:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

    I don't think Luther would "shun" the formal equivalence" method. However, he would encourage a freer translation. The 1963/1976 Beck Bible (pre-cursor of GW) would probably come closest to Luther's approach.

    At Sat Aug 05, 11:49:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

    I knew when I wrote that "laziness" above that it was incorrect, but due to a lack of sleep I just said, "Ah well, who cares, just say it; I'm not getting graded for this!" ;D

    My own laziness got me.

    I am aware of how the carry overs and what not worked to some extent (I read a book about it) during the early stages of the development of early modern English and whatnot, but I still had to question it...

    However, the "theological" terms are, now, one of the weakest points in many translations (field tested).

    At Thu Aug 24, 11:57:00 PM, Blogger Elischua said...

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    At Thu Aug 24, 11:59:00 PM, Blogger Elischua said...

    It is not true, that Luther shunned the formal equivalence method. He translated passages, which were very important for his theology, very freely (he really preached sometimes), but in most cases Luther translated rather literally and often even word for word. The translation method alternates very frequently.

    Luther even translated many idioms literally. But because of the strong influence of Luther's translation on the German language, many common phrases of the German language have their origin in Hebrew and Greek idioms which have been translated literally by Luther.

    Thus, apart from for Luther theologically important verses and the psalms, I would say, that Luther's translation is mostly literal with communicative phrases.


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