Roland Werner wears many hats, and most of them have something to do with the Bible.
Whether he’s preaching at the interdenominational congregation that he founded four decades ago in Marburg, writing devotionals and books about church history, lecturing on intercultural theology, or chairing a meeting of the German branch of the Lausanne Movement, the theologian and linguist’s life revolves around God’s Word.
He might be best known among Germany’s evangelicals for Das Buch (“The Book”), his popular Bible translation in modern German. The New Testament was first released in 2009, and a new version including the Psalms was published in 2014. Earlier this year came the third edition, this time with the addition of Proverbs.
Werner, age 65, discovered an affinity for languages at an early age. As an adolescent, he was already studying Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Arabic and several African languages followed later. A year as an exchange student in the United States helped perfect his English. His familiarity with these and other languages combined with his love of Scripture made the role of Bible translator a natural fit. He is currently working with a team to translate the Bible into a North African language.
This new version of Das Buch comes almost exactly 500 years after Martin Luther published his first Bible translation, known as the Septembertestament. While there was much fanfare a few years ago to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Werner laments that this milestone has gone largely unnoticed.
“You heard almost nothing about the [Septembertestament anniversary], neither in the churches nor in the news,” he said.
The Christus-Treff congregation founder hopes that his translation gives readers a fresh chance to engage with the Bible, even when more traditional translations are sometimes overlooked. He spoke with CT about the latest Das Buch edition, his other translation projects, and how rendering a verse in a new way can help readers understand the Bible more deeply.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Before we talk about translating Scripture, I’d like to ask you about reading Scripture. What was the first version of the Bible that you really engaged with?
When I was in first grade, my mother would have me read to her from a German children’s Bible while she ironed clothes. Later, there was another Bible for older children that I also read. When I was 13, I tried to read the whole Luther translation, but I gave up at some point.
The first Bible that I read all the way through was called The Way: The Living Bible. I spent a year in Seattle when I was 16 as an exchange student, and during that time I read both The Way and the King James Version. So, before I read the entire Bible in German, I had read both a modern translation and the Authorized Version in English.
Speaking of English translations, I understand that Eugene Peterson’s The Message helped inspire you to start working on Das Buch.
Indirectly, yes. I had heard about The Message and had received a copy at some point, although I must admit that I didn’t read the whole thing. In 2007, a friend from Australia came to visit. During our time together, he brought up The Message and asked if it could be translated into German. I told him that it wasn’t possible. It’s a good translation, but Peterson is so idiomatic and steeped in American culture that a direct translation into German just wouldn’t work. I explained that someone would have to do something similar, just in German. Then he said, “Well, why don’t you do that?” I said, “Okay, why not?” and started that very night.
A few days later was the Frankfurt book fair. By then, I had a preliminary translation of the first four chapters of Matthew. I showed it to a publisher friend of mine who was at that time leading the Stiftung Christliche Medien [a German Christian media foundation]. He and some of his colleagues looked at it and decided that it was different enough from other modern German translations to have its own flavor and sound. So he said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
Das Buch is, like The Message , a dynamic-equivalence translation, right?
Yes, but my translation is actually more literal than Peterson’s. Much more literal. I didn’t feel free to go too far away from the text. People tell me that Das Buch is very readable and that unchurched people can understand it easily. I tried to replace or at least alternate some of the heavily religious terminology that may be prone to misunderstanding with a dynamic equivalent. But there are some parts where I was even more literal than Martin Luther. So it’s sort of in between [dynamic-equivalence and a more literal translation].
Once you started working, how quickly did you make progress? What were the biggest challenges?
Well, we had a Christian youth festival in Bremen where I was the chairman, and we wanted to give the Gospel of John to every participant. Somehow the board agreed to use my version of John, which wasn’t ready yet, so I was under a little bit of pressure. I basically prepublished John for that festival in 2008. I did the rest of the New Testament in about a year. Whenever I had some time—for example, while traveling or even if I was sitting with my wife watching television—I would work on it.
I translated directly from the Greek. I’m very old fashioned, so I didn’t use any of the fancy Bible translation gear that is around today. I just put the Greek text into a Word document and worked from that. During that time, I did not read any German versions. That way I wouldn’t pre-impregnate my mind with a possible German rendering. Instead, I would occasionally look at translations in cognate languages. Versions in Dutch, Norwegian, English, and even non-Germanic languages like French, Spanish, or Italian would often give me ideas for a new way to render a verse in German. I wanted to make sure that it would have its own unique sound.
Why was it important to you to present biblical concepts in new, sometimes surprising, ways? For example, in some verses “kingdom of God” (Gottes Reich) is instead rendered “God’s new reality” (neue Wirklichkeit Gottes).
The word surprising is actually the answer. I wanted to surprise people and make them think. Maybe I’ve gone too far here or there; I don’t know. In fact, I’ve backtracked in new editions on some of these expressions. [However,] I’m aware that my Bible translation is not the only one in German. Anyone who is really interested in studying in depth will probably have another version at their disposal so that they can compare. My goal is for a new phrasing to have a surprising effect that helps people better understand the exciting content of this life-changing book.
When you look at the Greek word basileia, which is usually translated as “kingdom” in English or “Reich” in German, it’s actually a more dynamic concept than either of those words convey. When you hear “Gottes Reich,” it sounds like a country. But that’s not what is meant. It’s the expanding reality of God’s authority over this world and over our lives. That’s what I’m trying to communicate.
This latest edition includes Proverbs, in addition to the New Testament and the Psalms. You’ve said that Proverbs was especially tricky to translate into German. Why is that?
I found translating the Psalms challenging, but Proverbs even more so. Proverbs employs a condensed and finely honed poetic language, and Hebrew itself is a very [concise] language. It’s tricky to translate in a way that is both clear in today’s context and true to the poetic beauty of the original.
Another challenge is that the concepts in Proverbs come from a rural environment in ancient Israel. I had to decide whether I would take them as they are or transfer the underlying image into something that is more recognizable today. Ultimately, I felt that changing the illustrations would stray too far from the original text. Even so, you sometimes have to add a little additional information or at least make it into a full German sentence for it to make sense. [Translating directly word for word] doesn’t work. I tried to be concise, poetic, and to follow the flow of the Hebrew language while still making it understandable. That was a big challenge.
Das Buch has readers in the Landeskirchen (regional mainline churches supported by church taxes) as well as in the Freikirchen (independent churches supported by donations). These two groups of German Christians can have very different cultures. Why do you think your translation bridges that gap?
I’m a member of the Landeskirche. There is a strong evangelical wing within that church, and those would be the Bible-reading people. People know me in that part of the body of Christ because that’s where I belong. In the free churches, they mostly know me because I was involved in some nationwide [evangelism] functions over several decades. Those who would consider themselves broadly evangelical, meaning Bible-interested, Bible-reading Christians, might be interested in my translation just to see how it can inspire them in their personal Bible reading.
You used the word evangelical, which in German would be evangelikal. American Christians sometimes get confused about the difference between that word and the similar term evangelisch. What’s the difference?
Evangelisch actually just means “Protestant,” while evangelikal has more or less the same meaning that evangelical has in the United States or Great Britain. That term only came to Germany in the 1960s. People are still debating whether that is a helpful term, especially because of its connection to a certain kind of evangelicalism that part of the church in America seems to adhere to that is foreign to us. It conjures up images of a political stance, which is not what the word evangelical was originally supposed to mean.
German Christians used the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017 as an opportunity to promote Bible reading and engagement. Five years later, how do you evaluate those efforts?
There were many encouraging examples of people becoming more interested in the Bible. As a whole, however, I would almost say that the Landeskirche in Germany missed a chance. There was a narrative saying that the main point of reformation was the discovery of individual freedom. And, of course, that is true; Luther said that the individual stands with his or her conscience before God. But where do they stand? On the authority of the Bible. That’s what Luther meant. He didn’t just mean abstract freedom in an Enlightenment sense, but that’s what it was made out to be in a lot of the official presentations.
Language study and translation work has taken you to Africa many times over the past several decades. What can Christians in the West learn from their fellow believers in Africa and other Majority World contexts about engaging with the Bible?
Our post-Enlightenment worldview in the West tends to cut out the miraculous. In Africa and other non-Western contexts, the reality of the spirit world is much more of a given, and it’s much closer to everyday life. In some missiological thinking, one speaks of “the [excluded] middle.” The Western mind acknowledges the natural realm that can be explained by science, and then there may or may not be some sort of abstract higher being. In between there is nothing. For someone from the Majority World, the reality of dreams, visions, spirit beings, curses, possessions, and so forth is so much more real and taken for granted. Because the Bible comes from a situation where there was a very similar worldview, it speaks so much more directly [to people outside the West].
In 1998, you wrote an essay for Christianity Today about the spiritual climate in post–Cold War Europe. You expressed a hope that despite the challenges that churches and ministries were facing, “the fruit they are producing is real and will last.” Do you still have the same perspective over two decades later?
I think I would still adhere to that. I’ve just come from a meeting in Bavaria that was run by a coalition of evangelists from the United Kingdom. They invited young people from all over Europe who are interested in evangelism. There were people from Iceland, Albania, Georgia, Spain, Italy … I was very encouraged. Yes, we’re not so strong, but we’re there.
Additionally, the new reality is the many migrants that live in Europe. There is a strong spiritual movement among them. For example, at a Berlin Landeskirche on any given Sunday morning, you might have 10 or 20 mostly elderly Germans sitting in the church service at 10 o’clock, and then the same church building will be packed with Africans for a service in the afternoon.
James Thompson is an international campus minister and writer from the state of Georgia.