Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Luther meets Ryken

The conversation has been hot and heavy on TC's blog, New Leaven. A good comparison of the ESV and NRSV today. But on an earlier post Luther meets Ryken, we got into an interesting discussion.

TC claimed,

Here’s the grind: while the English professor is highly critical of the dynamic equivalence approach to Bible translation, the 16th century German reformer gladly embraced the dynamic equivalence approach to Bible translation of his time.

Iyov wrote,

No, this is not really right. You are mistranslating Luther, or misexpressing him. He did not produce a dynamic translation and took care to produce an accurate translation according to the standards of his day.

Do you have the original German quote?

And I took the bait. I am such a sucker for this stuff. I wrote,

I think Tyndale and Luther had the same goals and undertook a very similar type of translation. However, Luther did sneak in a few of his own dynamic translations here and there. For example,

1. He added allein “only” to Romans 3:28,

Rom. 3:28

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. KJV

So halten wir nun dafür, daß der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, allein durch den Glauben. Luther

2. He prefered to say that a woman was schwanger “pregnant” rather than “with child” or “conceive seed.”

Hebrews 11:11

Durch den Glauben empfing auch Sara Kraft, daß sie schwanger (pregnant) ward und gebar über die Zeit ihres Alters; denn sie achtete ihn treu, der es verheißen hatte. Luther

Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised. KJV

3. And I like what he did here,

Hebrews 13:17

Gehorcht euren Lehrern (teachers) und folgt (follow) ihnen;

Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit to them KJV

4. But not so much here,

Romans 16:7

Grüßet den Andronikus und den Junias, (first to translate Junia as a male) meine Gefreundeten und meine Mitgefangenen, welche sind berühmte Apostel (are well known apostles) und vor mir gewesen in Christo. Luther

Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. KJV

Otherwise, though, it is very similar to Tyndale although there are specific differences in details. For example, “saved” and “blessed” are both translated with selig and German lacks latinizations like “justification” so that would always be gerechtigkeit - righteousness.

Luther’s Bible sounds less formal than the KJV but it is still for the most part literal. That my sense in any case.

So here is the question, if Luther's translation is relatively literal why did he write,

"Whoever would speak German must not see Hebrew idioms; but if he understand the Hebrew writer, he must see to it that he grasps his meaning and must think: Now let me see. How does a German speak in this case?"

How should we characterize Luther's translation?


At Wed Aug 20, 02:09:00 AM, Blogger Ted M. Gossard said...

It was groundbreaking at least for him and in his time. I wonder if he had ready or any access to Tyndale's work or any other such work?

That being the case, it's easier to see how he'd go conservative in his approach.

At Wed Aug 20, 04:15:00 AM, Blogger Iyov said...

Well, I went to the trouble of actually looking up the Luther quotation. It appears in Word and Sacrament I in the chapter Defense of the Translation of the Psalms. Reading it in full context gives us a rather different impression of what Luther was doing here (I use the Pelikan edition -- I don't have easy access to the German edition but will update this comment when that arrives). A few paragraphs after the given quote, Luther explains his philosophy:

Again in Psalm 68 we ran quite a risk, relinquishing the words and rendering the sense. For this many know-it-alls will criticize us, to be sure, and even some pious souls may take offense. But what is the point of needlessly adhering so scrupulously and stubbornly to words which one cannot understand anyway? Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style. Rather he must see to it—once he understands the Hebrew author—that he concentrates on the sense of the text, asking himself, “Pray tell, what do the Germans say in such a situation?” Once he has the German words to serve the purpose, let him drop the Hebrew words and express the meaning freely in the best German he knows....

[We] translated quite literally—even though we could have rendered the meaning more clearly another way—because everything tums on these very words. For example, here in [Psalm 68] verse 18, “Thou hast ascended on high; thou hast led captivity captive,” it would have been good German to say, “Thou hast set the captives free.” But this is too weak, and does not convey the fine, rich meaning of the Hebrew, which says literally, “Thou hast led captivity captive.”

Thus read in context, Luther is clearly arguing that usually literal translation is best, but when a misinterpretation is likely, more colloquial language may be used. Clearly he set the standard high, and his translation is not that different from translation we would normally classify as formal, such as the NRSV.

At Wed Aug 20, 07:32:00 AM, Blogger David Ker said...

Suzanne, thanks for this. Iyov, I appreciate you tracking down this quote. I've been guilty of quoting this out of context for years and it would be nice to see the whole thing (although I don't read German, modern or medieval.)

Sue, I don't really consider the "only" addition to be an idiomatic translation. Instead in my view it is a purely theological driven translation choice. The Nyungwe and Chichewa translators also used an "only" addition in Titus for "husband of ONLY one wife." Mainly because churches in our region are opposed to polygamy.

At Wed Aug 20, 08:08:00 PM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

In my opinion, Suzanne is right that Luther's translation is relatively literal by today's standards. But it was more dynamic and free-wheeling than the Zurich Bible translation (considered by many for a long time to be better than Luther's) of his day. The truth, as often, lies somewhere in the middle.

The new edition of the Zurich Bible translation, which I reviewed with exemplification on my blog a while back, is far more careful than Luther was to let, for example, the Old Testament speak in its own idiom, not that of the New Testament.

At Wed Aug 20, 08:17:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I have to give Iyov credit for pointing out that Luther's Bible is quite literal. To me it sounds much less formal than the Tyndale - KJV because it lacks latinizations like "justification" and "propitiation" and so on since German does not allow that. It simply does not create new theological terms, to my thinking anyway. For example, both "saved" and "blessed" are translated as selig which seems very odd to an English reader. The overall effect of Luther's translation is different from the KJV although the basic principle may be the same.

At Wed Aug 20, 09:03:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Thanks for mentioning the Zurich Bible. I have not seen it. I would like to reread your post about it, but I can no longer find the "search this site" dialogue window on your site.

At Thu Aug 21, 07:31:00 AM, Blogger John Hobbins said...

The title of my post was:

A Splendid New Bible Translation: The New Zürcher Bibel

Google that and the link should come right up.

At Thu Aug 21, 11:53:00 AM, Blogger Richard A. Rhodes said...

I have to whistle Iyov for a foul here. (Guess who has been watching Olympic soccer.)

If you read Luther's letter to translators (which can be found here), you'll see that Luther is very much a dynamic equivalent translator. His Psalm 68 comment (not in this letter) is the exception that proves the rule. He sees the need to explain why he made a more literal choice in Psalm 68 vs. 18, when his general principles are to judge translation by clarity of sense.

(I apologize to those of you who don't read German. I don't have the bandwidth to translate the whole thing.)

At Thu Aug 21, 12:04:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks Rich,

I am doing my best to agree with everybody here. It is somewhere on the spectrum in any case. :-)

At Thu Aug 21, 12:06:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Maybe you could give further examples of dynamic equivalence in Luther.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home