Monday, 13 June 2016

On Martin Luther's Theory of Translation in the Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (1530)

The question of ‘word vs. sense’ translation has dominated the discourse of ‘translatology’ since at least Cicero[1]; Wells comments that the distinction between verbum e verbo and sensum de sensu goes back at least to St Jerome, if not Horace[2]; in 19th century France, Gustave Flaubert similarly referred to the dilemma of whether translations should be belles or fidèles. This same question is central to Martin Luther’s document of 1530, Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, in which he distinguishes between the importance of literal translation and the freedom to deviate from the original phrasing if it yields a better result in the new language. Luther’s Sendbrief is an essential document for understanding his own views on translation; the authority of his views on linguistic matters becomes so great as a result of his translation efforts that even into the eighteenth century he was included as a ‘grammarian’ by Elias Caspar Reichard[3]. Much of this later reverence stems from his strengths as a writer and translator.
In Wells’ eyes, ‘Luther is first and foremost a theological translator’[4]: for him, there is no divorcing the act of translation (i.e. of carrying meaning over from one language to another) from the content of translation (i.e. the word of God itself). It is therefore, as argued in the Sendbrief, as important to biblical translation that one has a right-thinking theological mind as it is one has good linguistic ability: ‘Ach es ist Dolmetschen ia nicht eines iglichen künst / wie die tollen heiligen meinen / es gehöret dazu ein recht / frum / trew / vleissig / furchtsam / Christlich / geleret / erfaren / geübet herz / darumb halt ich / das kein falscher Christ / noch rotten geist / trewlich dolmetschen könne’[5]. It is this correct theological attitude, the fact that one is ‘kein falscher Christ’, which Luther believed underpins the practical purpose of his translation: the fact that ordinary German-speakers are going to be turning to this version of the Bible. Since the sacredness of the text is found in the sense of the words, and not the specificity of Hebrew, Greek or Latin verbs and nouns themselves, a fluency of expression in 16th century German is important to ensuring that the Bible’s real theological message reaches people who want to hear it, as opposed to obscuring meaning by literalist, scholarly jargon[6]. The word dolmetschen, too, from Dolmetscher, ‘interpreter’, implies an illuminating of meaning, the process of making a passage clearer rather than mere word-for-word formality – Luther as exegete could not be separated from Luther as translator[7].
As Wells observes, Martin Luther’s Bible is written in ‘a language for the ear, not for silent reading’ whose ‘appeal to simple folk who would read it at home’ was precisely what struck his enemies as most dangerous[8]: a ‘call for idiomatic German, not Latin in German dress’[9]. Luther himself makes this same distinction a number of times in the Sendbrief, for instance: ‘Sondern man mus die mutter ihm hause / die kinder auff der gassen / den gemeinen man auff dem marckt drümb fragen / und den selbigen auff das maul sehen / wie sie reden / und darnach dolmetschen / so verstehen sie es denn / und mercken / das man Deudsch mit ihn redet’[10]. This whole-hearted embrace of the German language is an approach to translation we can often find in Luther’s works – rendering the Vulgate ‘barbarus’, barbarian, as ‘vndeudsch’ in his translation of 1 Corinthians 14:11, for instance, or writing that young men ‘sitzen’ at table, even if it would have been more accurate to use the word ‘liegen’, as was the custom (John 13:23, Matthew 9:10)[11]. We know that in many cases it took days for him to settle on the right word – Wolf mentions that Luther considered erzürnen, entrüsten, bekümmern, unlustig, unwilling, schellig machen, before eventually settling for ‘sie erzürneten jn gar offt in der Wüsten / Vnd entrüsteten jn in der Einöde’ (Psalm 78:40)[12], and elsewhere Bluhm has  commented on the sheer amount of time Luther spent on his Psalter[13].
One of his key examples of proper rendering in German comes in his discussion of the phrase ‘ex abundantia cordis os loquitur’ (Matthew 12:34, Vulgate), and specifically its overly literal translation by Thomas Emser (‘aus dem uberflus des hertzen redet der mund’). Mocking this with one of his favourite techniques, a plethora of rhetorical questions (‘…ist das deudsch gered? Welcher deudscher verstehet solchs? Was ist uberflus des herzen fur ein ding?’[14]), he insists instead that the German of hearth and home would be ‘wes das hertz vol ist / des gehet der mund uber’. He goes on to draw the same distinction between Emser’s ‘warumb ist dise verlierung der salben geschehen?’[15], adamant that no German would actually express him- or her-self in that way, and that a simple phrase such as ‘was sol doch solcher unrat?’ would be far more likely. Similarly, Luther rebuts those who criticised his usage of ‘allein’ in his controversial rendition of Romans 3:28 when no Latin equivalent ‘sola’ could be found in the original, claiming that the ‘allein…kein’ formation is of such established usage in German that to render it thus is ‘eine völlige Deudsche klare rede’[16], an admirable goal for any translator, and to avoid its usage is stilted and lacking proper emphasis. Luther’s theory of translation places great importance on this flexibility, and this intimate understanding of fluent linguistic expression in the language into which one is translating; see his comment ‘Den wer dolmetschen will / mus grossen vorrat von worten haben / das er die wal könne haben / wo eins an allen orten nicht lauten wil’[17].
In his 1977 work Semantics, John Lyons joins Luther in recognising the serious limitations of word-for-word translations, calling them ‘generally unsatisfactory and frequently impossible’[18]. But neither Luther nor Lyons quite advocates all disregarding of original phrasing; one of the more nuanced parts of the Sendbrief sees Luther qualifying his own assertions about word-for-word vs. sense-for-sense translations and indeed going so far as to concede there are points where he has stuck to a literal word where a more natural-sounding German one might look like a better choice. ‘Doch hab ich widerrümb,’ he says, ‘nicht allzu frey die buchstaben lassen faren / Sondern mit grossen sorgen / sampt meinen gehülffen drauff gesehen / das / wo etwa an einem wort gelegen ist / hab ichs nach den buchstaben behalten / und bin nicht so frey davon gangen’[19]: the job of the sense-for-sense translator is also to recognise a deviation too far. The specific example he gives in this context is the word ‘versiegelt’ [sealed], claiming that it would be better German in the context of the particular sentence of its appearance to use ‘gezeichent’ [signified] but that ‘ich habe ehe wöllen der deudschen sprache abbrechen / den von dem wort weichen’[20] – bringing us back to Luther’s stress on the importance of conveying the theological message over and above linguistic matters. And, indeed, sometimes Luther’s more literal translations could produce his greatest results; Bluhm praises his ‘literal and yet superb’[21] rendition of Psalm 23:1, ‘der herr ist meyn hirtte / myr wirt nichts mangeln’, which he also suggests that (due to the lack of additions and corrections) was one of the few places where Luther, too, was completely satisfied with his handiwork. Bluhm’s praise of the literary device of alliteration (herr, hirrte, myr, mangeln) is particularly notable[22].
But when he discusses his work on his own terms, in the Sendbrief, he only provides us with one example of him adhering to the original where he provides a number defending his deviations or innovations in German; this would suggest Luther more often comes down on the side of sense-for-sense than he does word-for-word. Vermeer calls this ‘dethroning the source text’[23], powerful language when applied to a man who was translating the ‘Word of God’, but done with the end goal that the words may have a new, living function (‘the means to a new text’). An erudite sociocultural grounding in both languages is important for a translator, then, but so too is the audacity to innovate – in Snell-Hornby’s words, ‘the rules must indeed be known and observed…but they also provide…infinite creative potential[24]. It is no hyperbole to state that Luther’s ongoing quest to make his translations both accurate and idiomatic yielded some of the richest linguistic results in German’s history.

Bibliography:

Luther, Martin, Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (ed. Erwin Arndt), 1. Auflage, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1968.

Secondary literature:

  1. Besch, Werner, ‘Die Rolle Luthers für die deutsche Sprachgeschichte’ in Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung (eds. Werner Besch, Anne Betten, Oskar Reichmann, Stefan Sonderegger), de Gruyter, 2000.
  2. Bluhm, Heinz, Martin Luther, Creative Translator, Concordia, 1965.
  3. Lyons, John, Semantics, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  4. Reinitzer, Heimo, ‘Die Bedeutung der Bibelübersetzung Martin Luthers’ in Martin Luther heute, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 1983.
  5. Snell-Hornby, Mary, Translation Studies: An integrated approach, John Benjamins B.V., 1988.
  6. Sonderegger, Stefan, ‘Geschichte deutschsprachiger Bibelübersetzung in Grundzügen’ in Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung (eds. Werner Besch, Anne Betten, Oskar Reichmann, Stefan Sonderegger), de Gruyter, 1998.
  7. Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987.
  8. Wolf, Herbert (ed.), Luthers Deutsch: Sprachliche Leistung und Wirkung, Lang, 1996.
  9. Wolf, Herbert, Martin Luther, Sammlung Metzler, 1980.



[1]Snell-Hornby, Mary, Translation Studies: An integrated approach, John Benjamins, 1988, p1, p9.
[2]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p203.
[3]Ibid, p190.
[4]Ibid, p203.
[5]Luther, Martin, Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (ed. Erwin Arndt), 1. Auflage, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1968, p37 (citations are from print B).
[6]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p203.
[7]Bluhm, Heinz, Martin Luther, Creative Translator, Concordia, 1965, p128.
[8]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p201.
[9]Ibid, p204.
[10]Luther, Martin, Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (ed. Erwin Arndt), 1. Auflage, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1968, p33.
[11]Wolf, Herbert, Martin Luther, Sammlung Metzler, 1980, p103.
[12]Ibid, p107.
[13]Bluhm, Heinz, Martin Luther, Creative Translator, Concordia, 1965, p104.
[14]Luther, Martin, Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (ed. Erwin Arndt), 1. Auflage, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1968, p33.
[15]Ibid.
[16]Ibid, p31.
[17]Ibid, p35.
[18]Lyons, John, Semantics, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p236.
[19]Luther, Martin, Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (ed. Erwin Arndt), 1. Auflage, Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1968, p37.
[20]Ibid.
[21]Bluhm, Heinz, Martin Luther, Creative Translator, Concordia, 1965, p108.
[22]Ibid, p109.
[23]Vermeer, Hans J., cited in Snell-Hornby, Mary, Translation Studies: An integrated approach, John Benjamins B.V., 1988, pp46-7.
[24]Snell-Hornby, Mary, Translation Studies: An integrated approach, John Benjamins B.V., 1988, p50.

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