Station: [19] Luther's Open Letter on Translation

What makes a good translator? What is important and what do you need to consider in your choice of words?

Probably the most famous German translator explained his principles in this pamphlet. In 1530, Martin Luther published his "Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen" – an open letter on translation. 

This was less than a decade since his enforced stay at Wartburg Castle, where he started on his Bible translation. Since then, his translation of the New Testament had been published, but the Old Testament had not yet been published. At that point, Luther provided significant insight into the way he pursued the art of translation.

He starts off by raging against the papists, of course, but then eloquently explains his principles. His motto was “dem Volk aufs Maul schauen” – to look at how ordinary people talk. Or as he put it in 1530:

… You must not ask the letters of the Latin languages how one ought to speak German, as these asses do. Instead, you must ask the mother at home, the children in the alleys, the common man in the marketplace. And look at their speech, the way they talk. And translate in that manner, then they will understand and appreciate that you are talking German to them.

So it's all about what today’s translators would call the "target language". A translation is only successful if the text sounds as natural and understandable as possible in the new language. Luther again:

…for I wanted to speak German, not Latin nor Greek, once I had decided to prepare a translation into German.

In pursuit of this aim, Luther worked on his translations for years, studying, experimenting, rejecting and revising ... until at some point, it all came right.

The hard work was worthwhile: from then on, Martin Luther's German became the new, authoritative language ... and the words he coined are still part of everyday life in Germany today – something he shares with Shakespeare, as it happens.


Both quotes Luther:, p. 637

All depictions: © Bibelgalerie Meersburg