No Iota in Vain: Martin Luther’s ‘Great and Worthy Undertaking’

The reformer translated the New Testament in ten weeks—and with strong convictions. /

One can only imagine the spare look of Luther’s cell as he settled into his monumental task of translating the New Testament. With only his Greek and Hebrew texts as physical references, and no library to consult or clutter, delay or confuse his labor, his concentration was total. It would be easy to romanticize the process. But a more realistic vision involves sweat and frustration, long hours, and a feeling of being overwhelmed. He approached the assignment with awe. Later, he would call it “a great and worthy undertaking” and say that, given the unsatisfactory Bibles then available to the common person, “the people require it.” But the language of the Bible dazzled him.

He truly believed that he was dealing with the very words of God.

“One should tremble before each letter of the Bible, more than before the whole world!” he would say later. “God is in every syllable. No iota is in vain.”

His first challenge was to establish the rules for his translation. Above all, he needed to keep his audience upmost in his mind. What could a typical German understand? What should be the tone? What should be the grammar? “It is not enough to know the grammar of a biblical passage,” he would say later. “One must observe the sense. I held fast to the meaning . . . as if I understood neither Greek nor Hebrew nor Latin.”

In his first days of labor, he evolved two basic principles of translation. The first was to reduce all things to the most general, basic origin and type. “If a passage is obscure I consider whether it treats of grace or of law, whether wrath or forgiveness of sin, and with which of these it agrees better. By this procedure I understand the most obscure passages.” The second was to submit ambiguous passages to the original Hebrew and not lazily fall back on literal translation, as he felt the Talmudic scholars had done. “The Jews go astray so often in the Scriptures because they do not know the true contents of the books. If one knows the contents, the sense must be chosen that is nearest to it.” For the common reader, the goal was “to make Moses so German that no one would suspect he was a Jew.”

In whose language was this to be written? Should his tone be lofty and correct, like the learned speech of the royal courts of the Holy Roman Empire in Vienna or the official language of the Electorate of Saxony? Or should it be conversational, the tongue of the street? If so, which street? At this time there were 17 ways to write German in Wittenberg. Which of these—or what combination—should he choose?

Soon enough he made his choice.

“You’ve got to go out and ask the mother in her house, the children in the street, the ordinary man in the market,” he explained later. “Watch their mouths move when they talk, and translate that way. Then they’ll understand you and realize you are speaking German to them.”

As Luther began his work, he knew that the eventual product would be highly controversial. In his mind was the proverb, “He who builds along the road has many masters.” In his boldness he saw himself as the successor of St. Jerome, the first translator of the Bible. The fourth-century saint also had many masters—and critics. St. Jerome, too, was berated as incompetent by “people who were not worthy to clean his boots,” Luther knew. When Jerome himself had been asked by Pope Damasus to translate the ancient Latin Scriptures, he tried to get out of the assignment.

“Is there anyone learned or unlearned,” St. Jerome had wondered, “who, when he takes the volume in his hands and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, will not break out immediately into violent language and call me a forger and profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections in them?” But Jerome had scoffed at his critics, calling them “two-legged asses” and “yelping dogs.”

Luther, inevitably, was more coarse. His detractors would criticize, but then they would use his translation as theirs. They would stick to his work “like shit to a wagon wheel.” A violent reaction was inevitable. The world will criticize, he was to say. That was the way of the world.

Within a day of setting to work, he jump-started his process with the first 12 verses of Matthew: the birth of Christ, the treachery of Herod, the journey of the wise men to Judea guided by a star in heaven. Luther had translated these verses in the latter part of November, before his secret trip to Wittenberg, as he wrote his Christmas sermon called “The Christmas Postil.”

But after those 12 verses he was in new territory. In times past he had relied on the Latin of the Vulgate. Now he saw the literal Latin as a confusing and meaningless obstacle to speaking good German. Glancing ahead, the insufficiency of Latin became dramatically clear. In Luke 1:28, for example, when in the Vulgate the angel greets the Virgin Mary with the salutation “Hail Mary, full of grace . . . ,” Luther balked. What did it mean to say “full of grace”? Was it like a keg full of beer or a purse full of money? he asked himself. Luther translated the salutation simply as “God greet you, dear Mary.” That is all the angel meant to say, he felt.

With Matthew 12:34, he had a similar issue. There, the phrase in the Vulgate was, “Ex abundantia enim cordis os loquitur,” whose literal translation is, “Out of the excessiveness of the heart the mouth speaks.” Is that speaking German? What is “excessiveness of the heart” anyway? Is it like the excessiveness of a house or of a stove or of a bench? The common man of the German street or the German mother in her house would say, “What fills the heart overflows the mouth.” Now that was speaking good German.

Another hurdle presented itself in the story about Mary Magdalene in Matthew 26 and Mark 14. There, Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus in the home of Simon the leper as the high priests and scribes and elders are meeting in the palace of the high priest Caiaphas about seizing Jesus and killing him. She brings an alabaster box containing precious oil, and while Jesus is dining, she pours the oil over his head. The disciples are shocked, and ask, in the Vulgate, “Why has the loss of ointment occurred?” What kind of German is this? Luther scoffed. The German might think the ointment was lost and should be looked for and found. But the true German would say, “What’s the reason for this waste?” or “Why this extravagance?” or “What a shame about the oil!”

From the beginning he determined to translate not literally but rather freely, relying on his insight into the essential meaning of the verse and being spare, direct, and vigorous in his rendering. When it came to words like “joy,” “love,” and “heart,” he would stress their relation to faith in God. In Matthew 11:28—“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”—he substituted the word “labor” with “toil” to stress the empathy of Jesus for the common worker.

And yet the dialects of the vernacular German had their own deficiencies, and so it was not so easy to choose the lingo of “the person in the street.” Which street and which person? Translating Hebrew phrases into common German, he said, was like teaching a nightingale how to crow like a rooster. The word for “boat,” for example, was commonly Kahn, but also Kleinschiff, Nachen, and Weidlung. Which to use? And homonyms often had different spellings: Rad or Rat; fiel or viel. Conversely, while Hebrew had twelve different ways to say the word “God,” German had only one way.

When one compares the complexity, speed, and intent of Luther’s translation not only to the Vulgate but also to the King James Version of the Bible 90 years later, Luther’s translation is even more impressive. If Luther’s fundamental approach was to make the Bible accessible to the common person, the approach of King James’s translators was to please and glorify the king himself with elegant, poetic verse. Their process in the early 1600s would take ten years, not ten weeks, and there were forty-eight translators, not one.

The difference in the two approaches can be seen in some comparative examples, along with certain passages that must have appealed directly to Luther’s desperate situation.

For Matthew 5:15, the Vulgate reads: “Neither do men light a lamp and put it under the measure, but upon the lamp-stand, so as to give light to all in the house.” And the King James Version reads: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.” Luther is more direct: “One does not light a lamp and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shines everywhere in the house.”

For Matthew 6:11, both the Vulgate and the King James read: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Luther’s version is more insistent: “Give us our daily bread today.”

In the King James Version, Matthew 6:34 reads: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” The Vulgate is harsher: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” But Luther changed the sense entirely. Perhaps thinking of the recent pestilence in Wittenberg, his last line reads: “It is enough that each day has its own plague.”

In Matthew 7:6, the Vulgate reads: “Do not give to dogs what is holy, neither cast your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet and turn and tear you.” The King James Version is essentially the same. But Luther is more graphic: “You should not give holy things to dogs, nor throw your pearls to sows, lest they trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

With Luke 1:57, if he had been merely translating the Vulgate word for word, he would have read about the birth of John the Baptist: “Now Elizabeth’s full time of being delivered was come, and she brought forth a son.” The King James Version reads: “Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son.” Why mince words? Luther probably asked himself. From the Greek text, he went for the essence: “When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son.”

When he got to the Gospel of John, worried as he was about what was going on with his friends in Wittenberg, or what might happen to them in his absence, or what might happen to him if he were seized, he surely would have related emotionally to John 15:12–13: “My commandment is this. Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay one’s life down for his friends.”

James Reston Jr. is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of 15 books.

Excerpted from Luther's Fortress: Martin Luther and His Reformation Under Siege by James Reston Jr. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.

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