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Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen 2 – The Translation Controversy

By Howard Jones

This is part of a series of introductory posts for the updated edition and translation of Martin Luther’s Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen und Fürbitte der Heiligen (An Open Letter on Translating and the Intercession of Saints), published as Volume 5 of the Treasures of the Taylorian. Series One: Reformation Pamphlets. Ebook of the publication

1. The Historical Context (Ulrich Bubenheimer)
2. The Translation Controversy (Howard Jones)
3. The Publication (Henrike Lähnemann)
4. Reading Early Modern German (Henrike Lähnemann)

Luther’s translation of the New Testament was a bestseller when it first appeared in September 1522: the initial run of 3,000–5,000 copies sold out within weeks at a price equivalent to a labourer’s weekly wage, and a revised edition was published in December. By 1525, 14 authorized and 66 unauthorized versions had appeared. At the same time as he was writing the Sendbrief, Luther was completing the translation of the Old Testament, parts of which had already been published in instalments. Luther’s first complete Bible translation was to appear in 1534.

Why was there such demand? It was not as if biblical stories, the Psalms, and even the whole Bible had not been available in German before Luther’s translation. The main form in which lay people had accessed biblical content was orally, in sermons, songs, or verse paraphrases intended for public reading. ‘Historienbibeln’ (‘story bibles’) were popular, harmonizing different versions of stories in the Bible and ordering them chronologically, often with illustrations. And eighteen printed editions of a full Bible translation in (High or Low) German prose were published before Luther, although all dated back to a single fourteenth-century translation, based on the Latin version (see Sonderegger 1998).

For Luther’s opponents, Scripture meant the Vulgate, the Latin Bible translated from Hebrew and Greek by St Jerome in the fourth century. While Jerome’s Vulgate (meaning a vernacular, popular version) had originally been produced to make the Bible accessible to readers of Latin, by the sixteenth century it had in practice replaced the original Hebrew Old and Greek New Testament, and was considered to be divinely authorized. Accordingly, pre-Luther German translations were not written in idiomatic, accessible language, but to help understand the Latin version.

With his early writings such as On the Freedom of a Christian (1520) Luther challenged readers to go to the Bible to check the claims he was making.[1] In his 1522 German New Testament, translated using the original Greek, Luther satisfied a demand which he had created himself and which could not be met by previous Bible editions. Massive public attention was now focused on the Bible in a version which the Church found unsuitably informal in tone and heretical in content. The Church’s objections were written up in 1523 in a critique by Hieronymus Emser (see Glossary of Names), who produced a Catholic version of Luther’s New Testament in 1527. It is against these ‘corrections’ that Luther defends his particular translation choices in the Sendbrief. There are a number of theological reasons why they were controversial.

The terms relevant to this controversy are faith, grace, justification/ righteousness, and works. Luther and his opponents agreed that people are justified (or, as he puts it in the Sendbrief, ‘become righteous’) by God’s grace. Justification/righteousness is necessary for salvation, that is, the saving of the soul from sin and death, but the disagreement was about how this is achieved. The official Church position was that a person is justified by a combination of faith in Christ and works, i.e. deeds. Luther, by contrast, held that a person is justified by faith alone. Moreover, while his opponents believed that, when people are justified, divine grace is infused into them, altering them intrinsically, Luther held that grace is a favour which is imputed to people but remains outside them. Luther’s belief that works do not help people to justification applied both to good works (good deeds done in accordance with Christian teaching) and to the works of the law (acts such as circumcision performed in fulfilment of Old Testament law). In Luther’s theology, people who are justified are by nature inclined to carry out good works, so justification is the cause, rather than the effect, of such works.

A further point of contention between Luther and his opponents which is relevant to the Sendbrief is the authority of Scripture. When Erasmus published his Greek-Latin parallel edition of the New Testament in 1516 (with a second edition in 1519), the Church did not object to this as a scholarly exercise, as long as it did not undermine the authority of the Vulgate or of the Church as its interpreter. For Luther, by contrast, Scripture meant the Bible in its original languages rather than the Vulgate, and Scripture was the sole authority. Luther made great use of Erasmus’s text of the New Testament in preparing his German version, and in many cases bypassed the Vulgate where he believed it to be based on a faulty reading of the Greek. 

Away from the scholarly debates about ancient biblical languages, Luther appealed to the authority of Scripture in a more obvious way, by condemning Church practices which had no scriptural basis at all. This he did most famously by attacking indulgences in his Ninety-Five Theses of 1517.[2] Originally granted by the Church in recognition of the good deeds for which people’s punishments after death would be reduced, by Luther’s time indulgences were being widely sold to finance the Church itself, and in particular the building of St Peter’s at Rome. The latter part of the Sendbrief[3] is devoted to another practice encouraged by the Church which Luther considered to be without scriptural authority, namely asking departed saints to intercede on behalf of the living. However, the most controversial aspect of Luther’s position on Scripture was his belief in ‘sola scriptura’, for this turned his translation of the Bible into a challenge to the legitimacy of the Church itself.[4]

In the Sendbrief Luther offers general advice on Bible translation, and comments on specific examples. In the following years, he expanded on this in the Summarien über die Psalmen und Ursachen des Dolmetschens (‘Summaries of the Psalms and the Reasons for Translating’, 1531–3), which deals mainly with translation from the Hebrew Old Testament.[5] His general advice can be summarized under the following headings:

The qualities of a good translation.
Luther stresses the need for an accessible, idiomatic version which reflects spoken German rather than being a word-for-word rendering of the Latin text; see esp. fol. a4v.

The qualities of a good translator.
A translator must have a deep understanding of both the source and the target language and must be a true Christian (that is, one who shares Luther’s own theological viewpoint); see esp. fol. b2v.

The best method of translating.
Here Luther recommends: close observation of how ordinary Germans speak; patience and hard work; and collaboration with expert colleagues; see esp. fol. a4r–a4v.

The German rendering which receives the most attention in the Sendbrief is Romans 3: 28 as discussed on fol. a2r, in Latin: Arbitramur hominem iustificari ex fide absque operibus (‘We consider man to be justified by faith and without works’). The Latin which Luther cites here is not the wording of the Vulgate. It is close to that of Erasmus’s 1516 and 1519 editions of the New Testament, but it is not an exact quotation from Erasmus (for example, it does not include the Latin for ‘of the law’). Luther appears to be giving an approximate quotation from memory, but the omission may reflect the close association in Luther’s mind between ‘works of the law’ and ‘works’ in general. In the Sendbrief he renders this in German as: Wir halten / das der mensch gerecht werde on des gesetzs werck / allein durch den glauben (‘We consider that man becomes righteous without the works of the law, by faith alone’). The wording in Luther’s September 1522 translation was gerechtfertiget werde (‘is justified’) rather than gerecht werde (‘becomes righteous’).[6]

The contentious point here is the addition of ‘allein’ (‘alone / only’), which Luther insists upon even though there is no equivalent in either the Latin version or the Greek original. He even stresses the exclusiveness of faith further by moving ‘by faith alone’ to the end of the sentence. Luther starts by defending this addition on grounds of idiom: in German it is more natural when x is affirmed and y denied to say ‘only x and not y’ rather than ‘x and not y’ (fol. a4v). What Luther does not say here is that, if there is an (unstated) alternative beyond x and y, such as z, then specifying ‘only x’ also changes the meaning by ruling out not just y, but z too. Thus, if faith (x) and the works of the law (y) are the only alternatives, specifying ‘faith alone’ rather than merely ‘faith’ does not change the meaning. But Luther’s opponents, including Emser, believed that there was an alternative to faith and the works of the law, namely good works (z), and that good works (along with faith) are necessary for justification. Emser actually makes this point in a gloss to this passage of Romans in his 1527 version of the New Testament.

For Luther’s opponents, therefore, the addition of ‘alone’ is not – or not only – a question of idiom, but it also changes the meaning. Later in the Sendbrief Luther does make the theological case for adding ‘only’. In contrast to Emser’s distinction between the works of the law and good works, Luther presents the works of the law as the epitome of all works (see fol. b3r), so that when St Paul excludes the works of the law as a means to justification, all works, including good works, are excluded by implication. Incidentally, the importance that Luther attaches to the addition of ‘only’ in Romans 3: 28 is inconsistent with his translation of Galatians 2: 16, where he renders a very similar Latin sentence without adding ‘alone’.

The other German rendering discussed in the Sendbrief which appears to have a theological motivation is the rendering of Luke 1: 28 (fol. b1r), in Latin: Ave, gratia plena (‘Hail, woman full of grace’) which Luther translated in the ‘Septembertestament’ as Gegrusset seystu, holdselige (‘Greetings, gracious one’).

Luther objects to a word-for-word translation from the Latin here on grounds of idiom, arguing that ‘full of grace’ would not be readily understood and would conjure up images such as ‘a barrel full of beer or a bag full of money’. However, elsewhere Luther does use ‘full’ with abstract nouns, and in John 1: 14 he even calls Jesus ‘full of grace’, which reduces the weight of his linguistic argument. Indeed, although Luther does not say so, it is likely that his avoidance of ‘full of grace’ was theologically motivated. As explained in Section 3 above, Luther held that grace did not reside in people, but remained outside them. Moreover, Emser had attacked Luther’s translation of this verse in his 1523 critique, arguing that, although ‘gratia’ could mean worldly ‘favour’, it had a divine sense when referring to God’s grace, as here. Luther is being especially provocative, in that his translation implies a denial that divine grace can be inherent even in the Virgin Mary. Although a saint, she was a human being and therefore, to Luther, lacked the divine quality which would be implied if she were held to be ‘full of grace’.

The original Greek word underlying the Latin ‘gratia plena’ is ‘kecharitōmenē’, ‘beloved, endowed with favour / grace’. Luther (fol. b1v) takes this word to be St Luke’s attempt to render a Hebrew word meaning ‘beloved, valued’ which occurs as ‘Ish Chamudot’ ‘man greatly loved / valued’ in the Old Testament Book of Daniel (e.g. Daniel 9: 23). In the Vulgate version of Daniel this greeting is rendered as ‘vir desideriorum’. Luther mockingly points out that a word-for-word translation of this phrase into German would be ‘man of lusts’ (‘man der lüste’), which would misleadingly suggest that Daniel was a sinful pleasure-seeker. It is noticeable that Luther’s case against the word-for-word translation ‘Mary, full of grace’ includes an appeal to clear, idiomatic German as well as a detailed analysis of the underlying Greek and Hebrew, but that the theological argument that grace cannot reside in people is not actually stated.

Luther rejects a word-for-word translation of the Latin in three further cases. Thus ‘abundance of heart’ (Matthew 12: 34, Luke 6: 45) strikes Luther as unidiomatic (fol. b1r), while ‘loss of ointment’ (Matthew 26: 8, Mark 14: 4) erroneously suggests that the ointment poured over Jesus’ head has been mislaid (fol. b1r). In the translation discussed on fol. b2v Luther also recommends a departure from the Latin, but this time at the expense of idiomatic German. Here he defends his use of a verb meaning ‘to seal’ rather than one meaning ‘to indicate’ in, ‘This is the man on whom God the Father has set His seal’ (John 6: 27). In doing so, Luther keeps closer to the sense of the Greek ‘esphragisen’ ‘sealed’, than to that of the Latin ‘signavit’, which can mean ‘sealed’ but also has a wider meaning of ‘indicated’. Luther believed that ‘sealed’ had the special sense of ‘endowed with the Holy Spirit’, which he wants to preserve even though he considers that a translation closer to the Latin would have sounded better in German. Although Luther had a clear interest in language for its own sake, all of his pronouncements on translation in the Sendbrief can be viewed in terms of his own theology. Luther’s views on justification and grace are clear in his choice of wording in Romans 3: 28 and Luke 1: 28. His belief in the authority of the original scriptural languages is reflected in the discussion of Luke 1: 28 (together with the angel Gabriel’s greeting in the Book of Daniel) and in his choice of ‘to seal’ in John 6: 27. More generally, Luther’s belief in ‘sola scriptura’ underlies his general preference for accessible German: if the Bible is to serve as the unique medium with God, it must be written in an idiom which the people can understand.


[1] Cf. the commentary and blog posts on the edition on the Taylor Editions website, https://editions.mml.ox.ac.uk/editions/freiheit-1520/.

[2] Text and translation available in Jones et al. (2018), together with background on the indulgences controversy.

[3] Sendbrief, fols b4v–c2r.

[4] Cf. the explanation in Introduction 1.

[5] The relevant extracts are reproduced in Arndt (1968).

[6] For a discussion of this lexical change, part of a wholesale replacement of words based on ‘rechtfertig’ with those based on ‘gerecht’, see Jones (2018).

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