Unsung Heroes: The Translation Team Behind the Luther Bible
In 1521, an imprisoned monk decided to spend his time behind bars on an ambitious project: translating the New Testament into his native language for the first time. His religious education had afforded him a working knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, although he had not studied linguistics or translation. After his release, he went on to translate the Old Testament, allowing him to publish the full Bible in his language two years later. Though his project was completed quickly and with limited available resources in biblical scholarship, it rocked the Church's understanding of Scripture and began an entire movement. His name was Martin Luther.
This German translation is now called the Luther Bible and is often pointed to as one of the first vernacular language translations. It is undoubtedly an amazing story that lends itself well to romantic retellings of the jailed Luther working valiantly by candlelight to bring the Scriptures to his countrymen for the first time in their heart language. Maybe that is why we don't always recognize that Luther did not accomplish such a feat completely alone and unaided.
Even in 16th century Wartburg, a good Bible translation needs a good translation team.
Luther's Translation Team
Source Texts and Resource Translations
While Luther completed the first German Bible translation, he was not the first Bible translator. The 16th century Church was already using the Latin Vulgate translation, attributed to St. Jerome's work in the 4th century. This Latin translation was commissioned by Pope Damasus I who wanted an acceptable replacement for the multiple Latin translations in use at the time. Even before the Roman Catholic Church, several New Testament authors themselves translated parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to make them more accessible to their Greek-speaking target audiences. They too would have had the Septuagint Greek translation of their Hebrew Scriptures, created sometime between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE for Jews living in Egypt who spoke Greek better than Hebrew.
Luther had all of these previous Bible translators to thank as he was able to consult their work and learn from their interpretational decisions. He also owed thanks to the generations of monks who had faithfully copied these translations, allowing him access to these resources even in prison.
Language Community Advisors
Luther was a native speaker of German from birth, but being fluent in your mother-tongue is not equivalent to being a good translator. Language requires speakers (or signers, in the case of deaf communities) and a good translation needs many such speakers to reflect an accurate representation of the language. Just as a novel reflects the writing style and vocabulary of a single author, a translation will also reflect the language of whoever translated. More voices will reflect a wider sample of the language community.
Luther understood this well enough to ask for help from the Germans in his community (presumably after he left prison) and his efforts in recruiting help were rewarded. Later, in a letter about translation, he said:
“In my translation of the Bible I strove to use pure and intelligible German. Our quest for an expression could sometimes last four weeks without us being happy with our work. (…) In addition, I have not worked on my own: I recruited assistants from everywhere. I tried to speak in German, not Greek nor Latin. But to speak German one should not turn to texts in Latin. The house-wife, children playing, people in the street are those to learn from: listening to them teaches one how to speak and to translate – then they will understand you and know how to speak your language.”
-Martin Luther, in an "Open Letter on Translating"
His Trusty Translation Consultant
Wait, Martin Luther himself had a Bible translation consultant to check his translation drafts?! He may not have boasted the exact title, but his trusted friend Philip Melanchthon read over the translation and worked with Luther on subsequent drafts. A biblical scholar in his own right, Melanchthon was serving as professor of Greek and Hebrew in Wittenberg in 1521 when Luther began his translation project (Wengert 2019).
Melanchthon helped Luther refine his approach over the course of the project and was more involved in the latter stages than the beginning. While the final Luther Bible has its share of interpretational challenges and questions, Luther's endeavor was undoubtedly aided by the contributions of many helpers.
Behind Every Good Bible Translation is a Great Translation Team
Though the goal to translate the Bible into every language is a relatively recent one, Bible translation itself has been an ongoing task for as long as the Bible has existed. And just as the Luther Bible cannot be attributed to one solitary monk, current translation work requires a team and community for success.
It takes translators, linguists, advisors, consultants, scholars, church leaders, prayer partners, financial investors, and community members to get the job done. Please pray for God to raise up the right people for these roles in continuing and new projects. You might even ask how you can be part of Bible translation too.