that Martin!

I am reading an e-book translation of Martin Luther’s letter to a friend on translation. You can find it here: An Open Letter on Translating. The style is certainly Luther, in full bombast mode. To our ears, it sounds alternately crude, rude, and hilarious. Here is a paragraph I read to my wife, it should give you a flavor…

Now when the angel greets Mary, he says: “Greetings to you, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Well up to this point, this has simply been translated from the simple Latin, but tell me is that good German? Since when does a German speak like that—being "full of grace"? One would have to think about a keg "full of" beer or a purse "full of" money. So I translated it: "You gracious one". This way a German can at last think about what the angel meant by his greeting. Yet the papists rant about me corrupting the angelic greeting—and I still have not used the most satisfactory German translation. What if I had used the most satisfactory German and translated the salutation: "God says hello, Mary dear" (for that is what the angel was intending to say and what he would have said had he even been German!). If I had, I believe that they would  have hanged themselves out of their great devotion to dear Mary and because I have destroyed the greeting.

Bro. Martin is arguing against a charge that he mistranslated Rm 3.28 by adding in the word ‘alone’ to modify ‘faith’ where it says:

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

Martin’s point is that in translating, getting the meaning is more important than seeking a word-for-word correspondence. (He also says something to this effect, ‘If the papists don’t like my translation, let them write one of their own.’ He says this in a characteristically Martin-esque way.)

His letter is instructive and something that all of us concerned with the Bible and its translation should bear in mind. And it is entertaining to read at certain points!



  1. Brian Ernsberger says:

    That paragraph by Luther is hilarious! Thanks for posting it, got a good laugh from it.

  2. “Martin’s point is that in translating, getting the meaning is more important than seeking a word-for-word correspondence. ”

    Yes, but….

    If we believe in verbal inspiration, then formal equivalence that reflects as closely as possible the wording in the original language is important, too. A Biblical translator’s job is not easy.

    • Well… you’re right of course. And even Martin wouldn’t want to be as loose as his “God says hello, Mary dear” quip, since he didn’t actually translate it that way.

      I could have phrased my sentence a little better, though, eh? I do believe in formal equivalence over dynamic equivalence!

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Yes, well, I knew you believed in formal equivalence. :) Your sentence isn’t exactly wrong — rigid formal equivalence that buries the meaning isn’t good translation, either.

    I’m glad the angel wasn’t German! And I’m glad Luther knew how to have fun with his friends, and that we have some record of it.