The Protestant Reformation began at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was increasing its political power and wealth, yet decreasing its spiritual force. It was a time marked by the sale of indulgences, corruption, the doctrine of apostolic succession, and other unbiblical practices. With Bible translations scrutinized and banned by the Church, common people were unable to understand the Latin Bible from which the church read and used to teach people false doctrines.
The most notable and first complete Middle English Bible translation, Wycliffe’s Bible (1383), was banned by the Oxford Synod. Erasmus’ Greek translation followed, with the earliest printed edition of the Greek New Testament appearing in 1516. It paraphrased many Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and, despite being available to few, it provided an accurate text for other scholars and translators to follow.
Today marks 500 years since Martin Luther is said to have personally nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Ironically, Luther never intended to question the Church or the Pope, but rather to debate academically the issue of the sale of indulgences. Yet his critical theses, printed on a leaflet, quickly spread throughout Germany and sparked the Protestant Reformation.
Reformers shared a common belief that preached Catholicism was different from the New Testament Christianity, and Luther became the first Bible translator to use the Greek and Hebrew originals as the source text instead of the Latin translation. Furthermore, he produced a localized translation of the New Testament into German, paraphrasing large sections with the intention not only to process the words themselves but to convey the true meaning in a linguistic style understandable by the common people.
A German translation from the original languages, in the absence of comprehensive dictionaries and grammar books, was a colossal work for a single translator. To accomplish this feat, Luther formed a translation committee, believing that, “Translators must never work by themselves. When one is alone, the best and most suitable words do not always occur to him.” Luther remained the principal translator and required that before any phrase could be put on paper, it first had to be spoken aloud and pass his approval.
Luther intended for every German-speaking Christian to be able to understand the Word of God, but Germany was divided by dozens of regional dialects. So Luther combined the Saxon dialect, which was used at the Saxon court and in diplomatic and government correspondence, with that of the common people. “To translate properly is to render the spirit of a foreign language into our own idiom. I try to speak as men do in the market place and I listen to the speech of the mother at home, the children in the street…”
Indeed, Luther’s Bible spoke the language of its intended audience. It avoided foreign terms by replacing those with local equivalents. For example, he localized the currencies mentioned in the Bible, turning the Greek drachma and Roman denarius into a German Groschen. Luther used popular alliterative phrases thereby enriching the language of theology with the vocabulary of the German poets and Volk.
Martin Luther’s localized and idiomatic Bible penetrated the daily life of Germans and facilitated the formation of the modern German language. Luther became the personification of the German national spirit, and his localized translation fueled the Reformation.
As a leader in professional language localisation services, today, the team at EVS Translations commemorates Martin Luther’s skills as a translator. If it were not for his linguistic talents and translation innovations, the Protestant Reformation might have taken an entirely different course.