Around Oxford Editions Libraries Taylor Reformation

Martin Luther: ein Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen – An Open Letter on Translating (1530)

This article was originally posted on the Taylor Reformation blog which has now become part of the Taylor Editions website with a dedicated Reformation Pamphlets series.

The Taylorian is fortunate to hold many Reformation pamphlets, by Martin Luther and others. These pamphlets were acquired from several University Libraries, notably Heidelberg in 1878.  One of them,  an open letter, Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (Open Letter on Translating), was chosen for publication on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In it, Luther explained his ideas about sense-for-sense translating which he used in his hugely influential translation of the Bible.

It was not just the fact that Luther translated the Bible that was important: it was also the way he did it. Like others before him, Luther cultivated a sense-for-sense, as opposed to a word-for-word, approach. His great innovation was a translation style close in register to colloquial speech, but with a simple eloquence that brought the original text alive.

(Jones 2017: xiv)

It has been published online with translation into English and can be freely downloaded from (print copies for sale in the library). Howard Jones translated the text into English, Henrike Lähnemann wrote the introduction and Emma Huber (German Librarian) prepared the digital publication.

Cover of Taylor publication of Sendbrief

The Sendbrief was read out in full on 25th May 2017 in the Taylor Institution by over 30 readers who read one or two paragraphs each. This reading event was marvellous: it brought the text to life in a new way. As an author, Luther came across as a witty person who really engaged with his audience of ordinary people. He gently criticised his opponents for being ‘Esel’ (donkeys), not clever enough to understand that the real purpose of the Bible was to be read by all, whether educated or not. Such ‘Esel’ could easily be recognised, as Luther stated:  ‘A donkey doesn’t have to do much braying, just look at his ears.’ (p.14-15). The entire event is available on video from

Luther’s thoughts about translation also became clear to me when I heard the letter being read out. His thoughts about how to translate in such a manner that the ordinary reader could understand, can be regarded as an early example of translation theory. One of Luther’s arguments against literal translation was illustrated by the angel’s greeting to Mary ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord be with you’. Luther goes on to say ‘Tell me, is this good German? Show me any German who would says ‘You are full of grace’ […] They are going to think of a barrel full of beer […] that is why I rendered it into German as ‘gracious one’ […] I will go on saying ‘gracious Mary’ […] and they can go on saying ‘full-of-grace-Mary’.

The facsimile and transcription can be found on .

title page of the Sendbrief
First page of Sendbrief


Martin Luther, translated by Howard Jones (2017) Ein Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen = An open letter on translating. Treasures of the Taylorian. Series one. Reformation pamphlets. Oxford : Taylor Institution Library.

Taylor Institution Library Main Stack BR333.L88 LUT 2017

Johanneke Sytsema, Linguistics Librarian

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