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Translating the Spirit of Freedom

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.

by Julia Bouquet

When I first heard of Luther, I was in 4th grade. We had watched the film by Eric Till (2003) at school and I was so impressed by the courage and the compassion Joseph Fiennes showed in his role as the famous reformer, that I could not talk of anything else but Luther for the next weeks. Through all my schooldays this need to get to know the man behind the big name never ceased but became the foundation of my interest in theology in general. Nearly from the beginning of my career in translation studies I wanted to specialize in translating religious and theological texts. Hence, it came as no surprise that I was overjoyed when Prof. Henrike Lähnemann offered me the possibility to work with her in the project of the Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen – Edition. During my internship I transcribed the text from the original owned by the Taylorian, I encoded it into XML – with the help of Emma Huber, the subject librarian for German at the Taylorian – and I even got the chance to contribute to the content-related footnotes.

Encoding the text into XML - screenshot of editing software
Encoding the text into XML

But as a student of translation studies I had one practical question, that was still unanswered: How do we translate such a text without shortcomings? The more I got to know the text the more I understood its complexity from a translator’s point of view: Firstly, the pamphlet exists in two different versions – a German and a Latin one – that aim at different audiences. Secondly, its language is direct but at the same time allows a variety of interpretations. His language with now extinct expressions and non-standardized spelling is hard to understand for a modern German audience, let alone for English native speakers. Thirdly, the Bible is often quoted indirectly, or the citations are slightly altered. And lastly, his message back then was not only theological but social dynamite. This extraordinary effect on the addressees would certainly be hard to translate for today’s readership. Therefore, I was quite excited when I was given the chance to write something about the translation process of this edition.

Julia's desk at Wellington Square, proof of the mentioned sweets included
My desk at Wellington Square, proof of the mentioned sweets included

As I was sitting at my desk in Prof. Lähnemann’s office, enjoying the sweets she always provided me with, I thought about what the blogpost should look like: It became clear to me that I wanted it to be a platform for the people that were brave enough to face this challenge. So, I interviewed the translators in our group of “Freiheit enthusiasts”, who were making Luther accessible to a new online audience:

Anna Linton is a Senior Lecturer in the German Department at King’s College London. She works on the literature, culture and history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and is currently engaged in a project on German writers in Stuart Britain. She has also published on seventeenth-century poetry, Christian Weise, Georg Rudolf Weckherlin, and Hans Sachs, and is interested in book history, particularly in manuscript dedications.

Sharon Baker returned to study as a mature student in 2004. During her Erasmus study at the Philipps University in Marburg, she studied Mittelhochdeutsch and in the final year of her BA on a study visit to Nuremberg, she started looking at Hans Sachs. Having completed her BA in French and German in 2008, she worked for her M.Phil. on Sachs at the University of Bristol in 2010. (Title: ‘Sachs and the City: Staged Avarice as a Barometer for Civic Confusion’) In 2018 she got her PhD from the University of London. (Title: ‘From Satire to Silence: Hans Sachs’s Commentary on Civic Decline’)

Approaching the Text

JB: “Since the early beginnings of translation studies there has always been the question whether one should translate word-for-word or sense-for-sense. Do you two have a specific point of view on translation in general, that is reflected in every text you translate?”

AL: “I think this would depend very much on the purpose of each translation. If I am translating texts for my students (we teach with a mixture of students who read English and German), then it is very much about getting across the gist of the text, but if the focus is on the language, then I would adopt a more literal approach.”

JB: “How do you approach a text for the first time?”

AL: “I read it through several times to make sure that I have understood it and do some research if necessary. I find that often something that is puzzling becomes clearer later in context.

SB: “I also note vocabulary that is particularly testing and note subjunctive use etc before beginning to translate.”

JB: “Did you translate theological texts before? If yes, how did you get into this specific field?”

AL: “I have translated some Latin texts, but these are manuscript dedications, not a published theological text. I became involved in this because Henrike Lähnemann invited me to do it, and as I teach the text for my module, it seemed a good way of getting to know it even better.”

SB: “Most of my work has been involved in translating Hans Sachs, his Fastnachtspiele and his Gedicht with some of his songs as well. However, I did have to translate quite a few bits of Luther as I could see that Hans Sachs incorporated many of Luther’s works within his own, i.e. his sermons on ‘Wucher’ appear in quite a few of Sachs’s Fastnachtspiele.”

Thoughts about the Freiheitstext

JB: “Luther tried to engage the reader by employing techniques he took from preaching, such as numbering the paragraphs, using memorable similes and addressing the reader directly. This way he tried to pull the audience into the argument. Hence my question: Was the meaning of the text easily accessible to you?”

AL: “I found the meaning generally clear, in line with Luther’s obvious intention with the text, but then I know it quite well, so it is hard to judge how someone reading it for the first time would find it.”

SB: “It is strange that the shorter items are harder to understand sometimes than the longer pieces. One wonders if Luther became more adept at putting into words his ideas and gave more examples as the piece progresses.”

JB: “Did the features of genre in theological texts influence your translation?”

SB: “This text is written by an academic and a theologian who was indeed a university lecturer – hence the language use is more technically religious and needs to reflect accurately the serious nature of its content. As I was a regular church attendee during the period when ‘thee and thou’ were so very old fashioned, I found it quite challenging to get back into ‘religious speak’ and then we also have the demands of the editor, who wants to produce a translation in fairly modern ‘up-to-date’ vernacular.”

JB: “Regarding the function of the text, I found the text to be of the explanatory type, as it tries to fill the gaps in the knowledge of the reader and provides answers to questions that might come up in the readers mind. But at the same time, I thought that it discussed different points of views with an intention of proving Luther’s perspective right. How did you feel about the text function while translating?”

SB: “I find most of the text has an explanatory function and hence the word choice and sentence structure is not argumentative, but gently persuasive.”

AL: “Explanatory, for sure, but also argumentative. This is furthered by Luther by the catechetic structure, which we have obviously retained. The ‘first, second …’ structure also gives a clear sense of an argument being developed, and the reader is led by the nose through that.”

JB: “Christiane Nord, a major name in translation studies, really centres around making sure, that the purpose (skopos) of a target text (TT) is compatible with the original author’s intentions in the source text (ST). Do you think this is the case here? Do the intended audiences then and now correspond?”

AL: “I have tried, at Henrike Lähnemann’s suggestion and in line with my own feelings about the text, to make it accessible for a generally educated reader without much knowledge of Luther’s theology. So, in some ways the purpose of the ST and the TT are not that dissimilar in my mind. It is about communication.”

SB: “The first version of the text was written in Latin. It was more academic, written with more biblical references and addressed to the Pope. The German version is not a direct translation from the Latin, Luther wrote this so that the people could understand it – that is why he wrote it in German. Hence, its purpose was to communicate Luther’s views and to educate the reader about Christian freedom from his standpoint. I believe that Luther meant it for all his followers, but then those with basic reading may have had to have the arguments therein explained to them, so the addressee then was someone who would communicate with his followers. If then we agree that the purpose was to communicate and educate, then the TT of our translation should reflect Luther’s intention. That is his use of clarity in the vernacular to inform, which I found quite a problem. 1. Because it is a very theological and educated text, which makes it difficult to ‘lower the tone’.  2. Because our addressees will be mostly academic and not a target audience of people desirous of change.

JB: “Do you think the addressee’s understanding of the text changed over time?”

SB: “One thing that I did think of was that those following Luther’s progression and arguments about the Catholic church may have had more immediate understanding of his points than a later reader.”

JB: “What was the impact of medium then and now? Did it influence your translation?”

SB: “There were some problems with the printed matter. Spelling was not formalized at all and you can see instances of that here. You can also see a few errors in type setting when a word is spelt incorrectly. This can make for a few errors on behalf of the translator.”

AL: “The printed work would not have been an expensive item but would nonetheless have been accessible only to those who could read, and to those interested enough to acquire it, so a self-selecting group. Obviously, the website will make this potentially available to a wider readership, but it will still be self-selecting – those who choose to access it.”

Tackling the Translational Tasks

Screenshot of Bible comparison website
Comparing the verses Luther uses in his argument. KJV versus Luther’s Bible from 1545

JB: “Would you say the translation is all in all more oriented towards the ST or towards the TT? How would you define your overall approach? Faithfull (unconventional target language (TL) usage to replicate stylistic features of ST)? Balanced (natural use of TL to convey same info in same register and tone)? Creative (creative use of TL, mostly used for metaphoric language)?”

AL: “I would say that my translation probably has a slight TT bias, just as Luther’s own did when translating the Bible, but within the parameters that it should still reflect what is there where possible.”

SB: “I tried to be faithful and balanced.  It was too daunting to be creative initially – especially when trying to interpret Luther’s intentions.”

JB: “What is the size of the translational units you agreed on?”

AL: “The units were determined by the paragraphs in the original text.”

SB: “Anna and I were given ‘odds’ and ‘evens’ to do, according to the numerical items.”

JB: “Do you modernize and shorten the sentence structure for easier understanding, or do you stick to it as far as possible to create a specific effect?”

AL: “I am not sure about this. I think I tried to stick closely to Luther but moved things around where the meaning was in danger of being lost. One interesting issue that did arise was what to do with cases where Luther cites from the Bible, but paraphrases rather than using the exact wording. I wanted to reflect in my translation that he had done this by not fully citing from an English translation (KJV).”

JB: “How do you deal with (theological) medieval terminology?”

SB: “I found this particularly challenging as I wanted to give an accurate translation of the words – but you soon learn you can’t, as Luther uses (as per Howard Jones’ article) so many words to mean the same word. I have had trouble with ‘selig’, and of all things with ‘Werck’.  When I began the translation, I believed it to mean Luther’s opposition to the idea of good deeds giving access to salvation. But by the end I was persuaded especially after his use of it in conjunction with Adam’s time in the Garden of Eden, that ‘Werck’ meant labour. The Jury is out on this one as we need to discuss it.”

JB: “While translating, did you make use of parallel texts of Luther’s for comparison? Were you able to discover discrepancies in text composition, register, style or attitude?”

AL: “I did look at modern German translations of the text. The published English translation is based on the Latin edition of the text, so there are some notable differences, but it was sometimes helpful (along with the Latin) in trying to understand trickier places. In terms of the style, this text is rather different in tone to An den Christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, which is much more inflammatory and rabble-rousing. Here the emphasis is much more on an argument logically constructed and followed, and on at least suggesting clear thinking.”

JB: “Which resources and tools do you use?

AL: “I use Grimm’s dictionary online, as well as online medieval dictionaries to try to gauge how the meanings of words change. Grimm is particularly helpful because it gives examples from different writers, often from the period, and often Luther himself.”

SB: “I have the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen and read some other articles by Howard Jones. I use the and I have two dictionaries that I use for really tricky words. I found with Hans Sachs that he tended to use a dialect which was more similar to words found in Mittelhochdeutsches Wörterbuch so I could find the basis there and then use as a follow up. I also looked at the Latin and a Latin translation into English. We will also be discussing the ‘contested’ words in a forum, Henrike Lähnemann has already commented on much of the input.”

Editing the text and and commenting on the content - screenshot of translation with comments and edits
Editing the text and and commenting on the content

JB: “How do you manage the collective translation process in times of Corona? How and how often do you communicate with the others? “

AL: “We haven’t interacted very much so far for various reasons beyond our control, but we have emailed a little.”

SB: “It is the first time I have done this sort of exercise as a collective and it is not helped by not knowing Anna nor meeting her before we started. The lockdown in the UK and then my illness affected the flow of my work so perhaps I needed more time to read her translation before continuing mine.  I like the way she translates – word for word – but they make sense.  I think she got the ‘religiosity’ correct.  I think that the text will change as we proofread it and come to some more agreement on the various translations of the words.”

JB: “What is the proofreading process like?”

AL: “I found quite a few inconsistencies when proofreading my own sections. I haven’t yet done the proofreading for the joint parts.”

SB: “We will see!!”

In conclusion, it can be said that I am very thankful for the willingness to support my little project, that Anna and Sharon showed. They’re both very capable translators and I’m sure they’ll be able to render a translation that will resemble the linguistic mastery Luther showed and fulfil the purpose the famous author gave his text: communicate and educate.


Kingreen, Jan [ed.] / Slenczka, Ruth (2017): Martin Luther – Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen – kommentiert von Jan Kingreen. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen.

Roper, Lyndal (2017): Martin Luther: renegade and prophet. Random House, New York. Chapter 7.

Munday, Jeremy (2016): Introducing Translation Studies – Theories and Applications. New York & Oxon: Routledge. Chapter 4, 5, 6.

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