• Luther's Open Letter on Translating - AgeeCreative
  • An Open Letter on Translating By Martin Luther, 1530
  • Translated from "Ein sendbrief D

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God's grace and mercy. The wise Solomon says in Proverbs 11: "The people curse him who withholds grain, but there is a blessing on the head of him who sells it." This verse speaks truly concerning everything that can serve the common good and well-being of Christendom. This is why the master in the gospel reprimands the unfaithful servant like a lazy rascal for having hidden and buried his money in the ground. So that this curse of the Lord and the entire Church might be avoided, I had to publish this letter which came into my hands through a good friend. I could not withhold it, as there has been much discussion about the translating of the Old and New Testaments. It has been charged by the enemies of truth that the text has been modified and even falsified in many places, which has startled and shocked many simple Christians, even among the educated who do not know the Hebrew and Greek languages. It is devoutly to be hoped that with this publication the slander of the godless will be stopped and the scruples of the devout removed, at least in part. Perhaps it may even give rise to more writing on such questions and matters such as these. Therefore I ask all lovers of the truth to take this work to heart seriously, and faithfully to pray to God for a right understanding of the divine Scriptures, to the improvement and increase of our common Christendom. Amen.

English translation of Martin Luther's Open Letter on Translating

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This I can testify with good conscience: 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 dear Christians and to the honor of the One who sits above, who blesses me every hour of my life. If I had 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 of 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. And I am more than amply rewarded if just one Christian acknowledges me as a workman with integrity. I care nothing about the papal donkeys, as they are not good enough to acknowledge my work and, if they were to bless me, it would break my heart. Their insults are my highest praise and honor. I shall still be a doctor, even a distinguished one. I am certain that they shall never take that away from me until the Last Day.

 

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Still more offensive is that Paul does not reject just ordinary works, but works of the law! One could easily take offense at that all the more and say that the law is condemned and cursed before God, and so we should be doing nothing but what is against the law, as it is said in Romans 3: "Why not do evil so that there might be more good?" This is what one of our time began to do. Should we reject Paul's word because of such "offense" or refrain from speaking freely about faith? Dear me, Saint Paul and I want to offend like this, for we preach so strongly against works and insist upon faith alone just so that people will be offended, stumble and fall, that they may 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 man to see, the night and darkness must help him to see.

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I am amazed that anyone can object to something as evident as this. Just tell me: Is Christ's death and resurrection our work, that we do, or not? Of course it is not our work, nor is it the work of any 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 sins and rose for our justification." Tell me, further: What is the work by which we take hold of Christ's death and resurrection? It cannot be any external work, but only the eternal faith that is in the heart. Faith alone, indeed all alone, wihtout any works, 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 them at the stake, when it is clear at its very core 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 conveys, grasps, and imparts this life and righteousness — why should we not say so? It is not heretical to believe that faith alone lays hold on Christ and gives life; and yet it seems to be heresy if someone mentions it. Are they not insane, foolish and absurd? They will admit that it is right but they brand the telling of it as wrong, though nothing can be simultaneously right and wrong.


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For instance, Christ says: . If I am to follow these donkeys, they will lay the original before me literally and translate it thus: "Aus dem uberfluss des hertzen redet der mund" [out of the excessiveness of the heart the mouth speaks]. Tell me, is that speaking German? What German could understand something like that? What is "the excessiveness of the heart"? No German can say that; unless, perhaps, he was trying to say that someone was altogether too generous, or too courageous, though even that would not yet be correct. "Excessiveness of the heart" is no more German than "excessiveness of the house, "excessiveness of the stove" or "excessiveness of the bench." But the mother in the home and the common man say this: "Wes das hertz vol ist, des gehet der mund über" [What fills the heart overflows the mouth]. That is speaking good German of the kind I have tried for, although unfortunately not always successfully. The literal Latin is a great obstacle to speaking good German.

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Since it is not proper in the matter of divine worship for us to do anything that is not commanded by God (whoever does so is tempting God), it is therefore neither advisable nor tolerable that one should call upon the saints to incercede for him, or to teach others to call upon them. Rather this is to be condemned and people should be taught to avoid it. Therefore, I also will not advise it and burden my conscience with the iniquities of others. It was very hard for me to tear myself away from this calling upon the saints, for I was so steeped in it to have nearly drowned. But the light of the gospel is now shining so brightly that from henceforth no one has an excuse for remaining in the darkness. We all know very well what we need to do.