Martin Luther on Bible Translation and the Literal Approach


I love Martin Luther. He was an original thinker, fearlessly independent, brilliant in depth and simplicity. He was devout and Christ-centered. And he gave the German people a wonderful bible. So I turned to him when I was wondering about literalism in bible translation. It seemed to me that sometimes the scholars overused it. He confirmed that I was on the right track.

In my research for The Story of the Matthew Bible, I have examined revisions to Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s scriptures made by the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’, the KJV, and the RV. I have wondered at the obscurity introduced by some “literal” renderings. Too often the meaning suffers or is lost. I realized that this is why I love the Matthew Bible: it is full of meaning.

What is literalism? Briefly, it is rendering the words in native idiom rather than English idiom (or in Luther’s case, German idiom). The result is to give the words, but not the meaning. One example only:

     Matthew Bible 1537- Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness, thou that comfortest me in my trouble.

     KJV 1611- Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress.

“Enlarge me” is a literal translation of a Hebrew idiom. But the trouble is, while it may mean something to a Jew, it does not to us. The Matthew Bible gave the meaning – “comfort me.”

Luther did not say that literal translation is wrong. He just said it is wrong to subordinate meaning to technique:

” What is the point of needlessly adhering so scrupulously and stubbornly to words which one cannot understand anyway? Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style. Rather, he must see to it – once he understands the Hebrew author – that he concentrates on the sense of the text.. [and] once he has the German words to serve the purpose, let him drop the Hebrew words and express the meaning freely in the best German he knows.” (from Defense of the Translation of the Psalms).

But this does not mean that literal renderings are casually jettisoned:

“On the other hand, we have at times also translated quite literally – even though we could have rendered the meaning more clearly another way – because everything turns on these very words. For example, here in [Psalm 68:18], “Thou hast ascended on high; thou hast led captivity captive,” it would have been good German to say, “Thou has set the captives free.” But this is too weak, and does not convey the fine, rich meaning of the Hebrew, which says literally, “Thou hast led captivity captive.” This does not imply merely that Christ freed the captives, but also that he captured and led away captivity itself, so that it never again could or would take us captive again; thus it is really an eternal redemption.”  (Also from Defense)

It comes down to judging when the meaning is best rendered in the idiom of the target language, or when the idiom of the source language may or should be retained. This decision requires not only care and philological knowledge, but also that which only a called and Spirit-filled Christian can have: a right understanding of the passage.

St Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate, said, “The gospel is not in the words of scripture, but the meaning.” In the Story of the Matthew Bible, I will look closely at how the literalistic approach to translation has affected meaning and readability in English scriptures from the Matthew Bible to the present time.