Luther on Bible Translation
Updated: Jan 16, 2019
To the Honorable and Worthy N., my favorite lord and friend.
Grace and peace in Christ, honorable, worthy and dear lord and friend. I received your writing with the two questions or queries requesting my response. In the first place, you ask why I, in the 3rd chapter of Romans, translated the words of St. Paul: “Arbitramur hominem iustificari ex fide absque operibus” as “We hold that the human will be justified without the works of the law but only by faith.” You also tell me that the Papists are causing a great fuss because St. Paul’s text does not contain the word sola (alone), and that my changing of the words of God is not to be tolerated. Secondly, you ask if the departed saints intercede for us. Regarding the first question, you can give the papists this answer from me — if you so desire.
On the first hand, if I, Dr. Luther, had thought that all the Papists together were capable of translating even one passage of Scripture correctly and well, I would have gathered up enough humility to ask for their aid and assistance in translating the New Testament into German. However, I spared them and myself the trouble, as I knew and still see with my own eyes that not one of them knows how to speak or translate German. It is obvious, however, that they are learning to speak and write German from my translations. Thus, they are stealing my language from me — a language they had little knowledge of before this. However, they do not thank me for this but instead use it against me. Yet I readily grant them this as it tickles me to know that I have taught my ungrateful students, even my enemies, to speak.
Secondly, you might say that I have conscientiously translated the New Testament into German to the best of my ability, and that I have not forced anyone to read it. Rather I have left it open, only doing the translation as a service to those who could not do it as well. No one is forbidden to do it better. If someone does not wish to read it, he can let it lie, for I do not ask anyone to read it or praise anyone who does! It is my Testament and my translation — and it shall remain mine. If I have made errors within it (although I am not aware of any and would most certainly be unwilling to intentionally mistranslate a single letter) I will not allow the papists to judge for their ears continue to be too long and their hee-haws too weak for them to be critical of my translating. I know quite well how much skill, hard work, understanding and intelligence is needed for a good translation. They know it less than even the miller’s donkey for they have never tried it.
It is said, “The one who builds along the pathway has many masters.” It is like this with me. Those who have not ever been able to speak correctly (to say nothing of translating) have all at once become my masters and I their pupil. If I were to have asked them how to translate the first two words of Matthew “Liber Generationis” into German, not one of them would have been able to say “Quack!” And they judge all my works! Fine fellows! It was also like this for St. Jerome when he translated the Bible. Everyone was his master. He alone was entirely incompetent as people, who were not good enough to clean his boots, judged his works. This is why it takes a great deal of patience to do good things in public for the world believes itself to be the Master of Knowledge, always putting the bit under the horse’s tail, and not judging itself for that is the world’s nature. It can do nothing else.
I would gladly see a papist come forward and translate into German an epistle of St. Paul’s or one of the prophets and, in doing so, not make use of Luther’s German or translation. Then one might see a fine, beautiful and noteworthy translation into German.
We have seen that bungler from Dresden play master to my New Testament. (I will not mention his name in my books as he has his judge and is already well-known). He does admit that my German is good and sweet and that he could not improve it. Yet, anxious to dishonor it, he took my New Testament word for word as it was written, and removed my prefaces and glosses, replacing them with his own. Then he published my New Testament under his name! Dear Children, how it pained me when his prince in a detestable preface condemned my work and forbid all from reading Luther’s New Testament, while at the same time commending the Bungler’s New Testament to be read — even though it was the very same one Luther had written!
So no one thinks I am lying, put Luther’s and the Bungler’s New Testaments side by side and compare them. You will see who did the translation for both. He has patched it in places and reordered it (and although it does not all please me) I can still leave it be for it does me no particular harm as far as the document is concerned. That is why I never intended to write in opposition to it. But I did have a laugh at the great wisdom that so terribly slandered, condemned and forbade my New Testament, when it was published under my name, but required its reading when published under another’s name! What type of virtue is this that slanders and heaps shame on someone else’s work, and then steals it, and publishes it under one’s own name, thereby seeking glory and esteem through the slandered work of someone else! I leave that for his judge to say. I am glad and satisfied that my work (as St. Paul also boasts ) is furthered by my enemies, and that Luther’s work, without Luther’s name but that of his enemy, is to be read. What better vengeance?!
Returning to the issue at hand, if your Papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word “alone” (sola), say this to him: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so and he says that a papist and an ass are the same thing.” Sic volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas. (I will it, I command it; my will is reason enough.) For we are not going to become students and followers of the papists. Rather we will become their judge and master. We, too, are going to be proud and brag with these blockheads; and just as St. Paul brags against his madly raving saints, I will brag over these asses of mine! They are doctors? Me too. They are scholars? I am as well. They are philosophers? And I. They are dialecticians? I am too. They are lecturers? So am I. They write books? So do I.
I will go even further with my bragging: I can exegete the psalms and the prophets, and they cannot. I can translate, and they cannot. I can read Holy Scriptures, and they cannot. I can pray, they cannot. Coming down to their level, I can do their dialectics and philosophy better than all of them put together. Plus I know that not one of them understands Aristotle. If, in fact, any one of them can correctly understand one part or chapter of Aristotle, I will eat my hat! No, I am not overdoing it for I have been educated in and have practiced their science since my childhood. I recognize how broad and deep it is. They, too, know that everything they can do, I can do. Yet they handle me like a stranger in their discipline, these incurable fellows, as if I had just arrived this morning and had never seen or heard what they know and teach. How they do so brilliantly parade around with their science, teaching me what I grew beyond twenty years ago! To all their shouting and screaming I join the harlot in singing: “I have known for seven years that horseshoe nails are iron.”
So this can be the answer to your first question. Please do not give these asses any other answer to their useless braying about that word “sola” than simply “Luther will have it so, and he says that he is a doctor above all the papal doctors.” Let it remain at that. I will, from now on, hold them in contempt, and have already held them in contempt, as long as they are the kind of people that they are — asses, I should say. And there are brazen idiots among them who have never learned their own art of sophistry — like Dr. Schmidt and Snot-Nose, and such like them. They set themselves against me in this matter, which not only transcends sophistry, but as St. Paul writes, all the wisdom and understanding in the world as well. An ass truly does not have to sing much as he is already known for his ears.
For you and our people, however, I shall show why I used the word “sola” — even though in Romans 3 it wasn’t “sola” I used but “solum” or “tantum”. That is how closely those asses have looked at my text! However, I have used “sola fides” in other places, and I want to use both “solum” and “sola”. I have continually tried translating in a pure and accurate German. It has happened that I have sometimes searched and inquired about a single word for three or four weeks. Sometimes I have not found it even then. I have worked Meister Philip and Aurogallus so hard in translating Job, sometimes barely translating 3 lines after four days. Now that it has been translated into German and completed, all can read and criticize it. One can now read three or four pages without stumbling one time — without realizing just what rocks and hindrances had once been where now one travels as if over a smoothly-cut plank. We had to sweat and toil there before we removed those rocks and hindrances, so one could go along nicely. The plowing goes nicely in a clear field. But nobody wants the task of digging out the rocks and hindrances. There is no such thing as earning the world’s thanks. Even God cannot teach thanks, not with the sun, nor with heaven and earth, or even the death of his Son. It just is and remains as it is, in the devil’s name, as it will not be anything else.
I also know that in Romans 3, the word “solum” is not present in either Greek or Latin text — the papists did not have to teach me that — it is fact! The letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these knotheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text — if the translation is to be clear and accurate, it belongs there. I wanted to speak German since it was German I had spoken in translation — not Latin or Greek. But it is the nature of our language that in speaking about two things, one which is affirmed, the other denied, we use the word “solum” only along with the word “not” (nicht) or “no” (kein). For example, we say “the farmer brings only (allein) grain and no money”; or “No, I really have no money, but only (allein) grain”; “I have only eaten and not yet drunk”; “Did you write it only and not read it over?” There are a vast number of such everyday cases.
In all these phrases, this is a German usage, even though it is not the Latin or Greek usage. It is the nature of the German tongue to add “allein” in order that “nicht” or “kein” may be clearer and more complete. To be sure, I can also say “The farmer brings grain and no (kein) money, but the words “kein money” do not sound as full and clear as if I were to say, “the farmer brings allein grain and kein money.” Here the word “allein” helps the word “kein” so much that it becomes a clear and complete German expression.
We do not have to ask about the literal Latin or how we are to speak German — as these asses do. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common person in the market about this. We must be guided by their tongue, the manner of their speech, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them.
For instance, Christ says: Ex abundatia cordis os loquitur. If I am to follow these asses, they will lay the original before me literally and translate it as: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Is that speaking with a German tongue? What German could understand something like that? What is this “abundance of the heart?” No German can say that; unless, of course, he was trying to say that someone was altogether too magnanimous, or too courageous, though even that would not yet be correct, as “abundance of the heart” is not German, not any more than “abundance of the house, “abundance of the stove” or “abundance of the bench” is German. But the mother in the home and the common man say this: “What fills the heart overflows the mouth.” That is speaking with the proper German tongue of the kind I have tried for, although unfortunately not always successfully. The literal Latin is a great barrier to speaking proper German.
So, as the traitor Judas says in Matthew 26: “Ut quid perditio haec?” and in Mark 14: “Ut quid perditio iste unguenti facta est?” Subsequently, for these literalist asses I would have to translate it: “Why has this loss of salve occurred?” But what kind of German is this? What German says “loss of salve occurred”? And if he does understand it at all, he would think that the salve is lost and must be looked for and found again; even though that is still obscure and uncertain. Now if that is good German why do they not come out and make us a fine, new German testament and let Luther’s testament be? I think that would really bring out their talents. But a German would say “Ut quid, etc.” as “Why this waste?” or “Why this extravagance?” Even “it is a shame about the ointment” — these are good German, in which one can understand that Magdalene had wasted the salve she poured out and had done wrong. That was what Judas meant as he thought he could have used it better.
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.
Yet why should I be concerned about their ranting and raving? I will not stop them from translating as they want. But I too shall translate as I want and not to please them, and whoever does not like it can just ignore it and keep his criticism to himself, for I will neither look at nor listen to it. They do not have to answer for or bear responsibility for my translation. Listen up, I shall say “gracious Mary” and “dear Mary”, and they can say “Mary full of grace”. Anyone who knows German also knows what an expressive word “dear” (liebe) is: dear Mary, dear God, the dear emperor, the dear prince, the dear man, the dear child. I do not know if one can say this word “liebe” in Latin or in other languages with so much depth of emotion that it pierces the heart and echoes throughout as it does in our tongue.
I think that St. Luke, as a master of the Hebrew and Greek tongues, wanted to clarify and articulate the Greek word “kecharitomene” that the angel used. And I think that the angel Gabriel spoke with Mary just as he spoke with Daniel, when he called him “Chamudoth” and “Ish chamudoth, vir desiriorum”, that is “Dear Daniel.” That is the way Gabriel speaks, as we can see in Daniel. Now if I were to literally translate the words of the angel, and use the skills of these asses, I would have to translate it as “Daniel, you man of desires” or “Daniel, you man of lust”. Oh, that would be beautiful German! A German would, of course, recognize “Man”, “Lueste” and “begirunge” as being German words, although not altogether pure as “lust” and “begir” would be better. But when those words are put together you get “you man of desires” and no German is going to understand that. He might even think that Daniel is full of lustful desires. Now wouldn’t that be a fine translation! So I have to let the literal words go and try to discover how the German says what the Hebrew “ish chamudoth” expresses. I discover that the German says this, “You dear Daniel”, “you dear Mary”, or “you gracious maiden”, “you lovely maiden”, “you gentle girl” and so on. A translator must have a large vocabulary so he can have more words for when a particular one just does not fit in the context.
Why should I talk about translating so much? I would need an entire year were I to point out the reasons and concerns behind my words. I have learned what an art and job translating is by experience, so I will not tolerate some papal ass or mule as my critic, or judge. They have not tried the task. If anyone does not like my translations, they can ignore it; and may the devil repay the one who dislikes or criticizes my translations without my knowledge or permission. Should it be criticized, I will do it myself. If I do not do it, then they can leave my translations in peace. They can each do a translation that suits them — what do I care?
To this I can, with good conscience, give witness — that I gave my utmost effort and care and I had no ulterior motives. I have not taken or wanted even a small coin in return. Neither have I made any by it. God knows that I have not even sought honor by it, but I have done it as a service to the blessed Christians and to the honor of the One who sits above who blesses me every hour of my life that had I translated a thousand times more diligently, I should not have deserved to live or have a sound eye for even a single hour. All I am and have to offer is from his mercy and grace — indeed of his precious blood and bitter sweat. Therefore, God willing, all of it will also serve to his honor, joyfully and sincerely. I may be insulted by the scribblers and papists but true Christians, along with Christ, their Lord, bless me. Further, I am more than amply rewarded if just one Christian acknowledge me as a workman with integrity. I do not care about the papists, as they are not good enough to acknowledge my work and, if they were to bless me, it would break my heart. I may be insulted by their highest praise and honor, but I will still be a doctor, even a distinguished one. I am certain that they shall never take from me until the final day.
Yet I have not just gone ahead, ignoring the exact wording in the original. Instead, with great care, I have, along with my helpers, gone ahead and have kept literally to the original, without the slightest deviation, wherever it appeared that a passage was crucial. For instance, in John 6 Christ says: “Him has God the Father set his seal upon (versiegelt).” It would be more clear in German to say “Him has God the Father signified (gezeiehent)“ or even “God the Father means him.” But rather than doing violence to the original, I have done violence to the German tongue. Ah, translating is not every one’s skill as some mad saints think. A right, devout, honest, sincere, God-fearing Christian, trained, educated, and experienced heart is required. So I hold that no false Christian or divisive spirit can be a good translator. That is obvious given the translation of the Prophets at Worms which although carefully done and approximating my own German quite closely, does not show much reverence for Christ due to the Jews who shared in the translation. Aside from that it shows plenty of skill and craftsmanship there.
So much for translating and the nature of language. However, I was not depending upon or following the nature of language when I inserted the word “solum” (alone) in Romans 3 as the text itself, and St. Paul’s meaning, urgently necessitated and demanded it. He is dealing with the main point of Christian doctrine in this passage — namely that we are justified by faith in Christ without any works of the Law. In fact, he rejects all works so completely as to say that the works of the Law, though it is God’s law and word, do not aid us in justification. Using Abraham as an example, he argues that Abraham was so justified without works that even the highest work, which had been commanded by God, over and above all others, namely circumcision, did not aid him in justification. Instead, Abraham was justified without circumcision and without any works, but by faith, as he says in Chapter 4: “If Abraham is justified by works, he may boast, but not before God.” However, when all works are so completely rejected — which must mean faith alone justifies — whoever would speak plainly and clearly about this rejection of works would have to say “Faith alone justifies and not works.” The matter itself and the nature of language necessitates it.
“Yet”, they say, “it has such an offensive tone that people infer from it that they need not do any good works.” Dear, what are we to say? IS it not more offensive for St. Paul himself to not use the term “faith alone” but spell it even more clearly, putting the finishing touches on it by saying “Without the works of the Law?” Galatians 2.16 says that “not by works of the law’ (as well as in many other places) for the phrase “without the works of the law” is so severe, offensive, and scandalous that no amount of revision can help it. How much more might people learn from “that they need not do any good works”, when all they hear is the preaching about the works themselves, stated in such a clear strong way: “No works”, “without works”, “not by works”! If it is not offensive to preach “without works”, “not by works”! If it is not offensive to preach “without works”, “not by works”, “no works”, why is it offensive to preach “by faith alone”?
Still more offensive is that St. Paul does not reject just ordinary works, but works of the law! It follows that one could take offense at that all the more and say that the law is condemned and cursed before God and one ought only do what is contrary to the law as it is said in Romans 3: “Why not do evil so that there might be more good?” which is what that one divisive spirit of our time was doing. Should one reject St. Paul’s word because of such ‘offense’ or refrain from speaking freely about faith? Gracious, St. Paul and I want to offend like this for we preach so strongly against works, insisting on faith alone for no other reason than to offend people that they might stumble and fall and learn that they are not saved by good works but only by Christ’s death and resurrection. Knowing that they cannot be saved by their good works of the law, how much more will they realize that they shall not be saved by bad works, or without the law! Therefore, it does not follow that because good works do not help, bad works will; just as it does not follow that because the sun cannot help a blind person see, the night and darkness must help him see.
It astounds me that one can be offended by something as obvious as this! Just tell me, is Christ’s death and resurrection our work, what we do, or not? It is obviously not our work, nor is it the work of the law. Now it is Christ’s death and resurrection alone which saves and frees us from sin, as Paul writes in Romans 4: “He died for our sin and arose for our righteousness.” Tell me more! What is the work by which we take hold of Christ’s death and resurrection? It must not be an external work but only the eternal faith in the heart that alone, indeed all alone, which takes hold of this death and resurrection when it is preached through the gospel. Then why all this ranting and raving, this making of heretics and burning of them, when it is clear at its very core, proving that faith alone takes hold of Christ’s death and resurrection, without any works, and that his death and resurrection are our life and righteousness? As this fact is so obvious, that faith alone gives, brings, and takes a hold of this life and righteousness — why should we not say so? It is not heretical that faith alone holds on to Christ and gives life; and yet it seems to be heresy if someone mentions it. Are they not insane, foolish and ridiculous? They will say that one thing is right but brand the telling of this right thing as wrong — even though something cannot be simultaneously right and wrong.
Furthermore, I am not the only one, nor the first, to say that faith alone makes one righteous. There was Ambrose, Augustine and many others who said it before me. And if one is to read and understand St. Paul, the same thing must be said and not anything else. His words, as well, are blunt — “no works” — none at all! If it is not works, it must be faith alone. Oh what a marvelous, constructive and inoffensive teaching that would be, to be taught that one can be saved by works as well as by faith. That would be like saying that it is not Christ’s death alone that takes away our sin but that our works have something to do with it. Now that would be a fine way of honoring Christ’s death, saying that it is helped by our works, and that whatever it does our works can also do — that we are his equal in goodness and power. This is the devil itself for he cannot ever stop abusing the blood of Christ.
Therefore the matter itself, at its very core, necessitates one say: “Faith alone makes one righteous.” The nature of the German tongue teaches us to say it in the same way. In addition, I have the examples of the holy fathers. The dangers confronting the people also compel it so they do not continue to hang onto works and wander away from faith, losing Christ, especially at this time when they have been so accustomed to works they have to be pulled away from them by force. It is for these reasons that it is not only right but also necessary to say it as plainly and forcefully as possible: “Faith alone saves without works!” I am only sorry I did not add “alle” and “aller”, and said “without any (alle) works of any (aller) laws.” That would have stated it most effectively. Therefore, it will remain in the New Testament, and though all the papal asses rant and rave at me, they shall not take it away from me. Let this be enough for now. I will have to speak more about this in the treatise “On Justification” (if God grants me grace)...
(the following paragraphs deal with a different subject so the remainder of this letter was omitted.)
Your good friend.
The Wilderness, September 8, 1530
This text was translated for Project Wittenberg by Dr. Gary Mann in 1995 and was placed by him in the public domain. You may freely distribute, copy or print this text, providing the information in this statement remains attached. Please direct any comments or suggestions to: Rev. Robert E. Smith of the Walther Library at Concordia Theological Seminary.