Martin Luther’s legacy of Bible translation

Happy Reformation Day everyone!

Luther was many things, but one of the most important things that he did in his life was to translate the Bible into German. No other work has had as strong an impact on a nation’s development and heritage as has that Book.

Luther took 11 weeks to translate the Bible into German from the original Greek and Hebrew texts, sequestered himself into the Wartburg Castle. This is an amazing task, but even more amazing is the lengths that Luther went to make sure that his translation of the Bible would be the best.

He wanted his Bible to be in the language of spoken German rather than written German; he wanted his translation to sound like the way people actually spoke. Every phrase had to pass the test of Luther’s ear before it would be put to paper. He spent time talking with older Germans in in the major dialects of the day, making sure that he understood their words and they understood his. In order to understand the rituals in the Old Testament, he had the town butcher slaughter sheep so that he could study their entrails and get the right words for them. When he found that he was unfamiliar with the precious stones used in Old Testament prophecy in reference to the New Jerusalem, he had similar gems brought to him from a noble’s collection for him to study.

All of Luther’s hard work paid off. The German Bible that was produced was of such high literary quality that many literary and theological scholars consider it superior to the King James Version that would follow it. And because it sounded natural when spoken as well as read, its cadence and readability have made it a popular Bible in Germany to this day.

And Germans all over Germany bought Luther’s Bible. Thanks to the printing press, still a relatively new invention, people were able to have the Bible in their language in their own homes for the very first time. Everyone bought it or heard it read. And because everyone had one, the German language adapted to the translation, until the German language united linguistically behind Luther’s work. It literally laid the groundwork for the modern German language and restructured German literature and performing arts. Many scholars consider Luther the most influential German who ever lived.

And this is the heritage that we continue as we seek to translate God’s Word into more languages in Botswana. Luther set the bar high for translation, and even if we can’t get it done in 11 weeks, we strive to reach that high level of influence in the languages in which we work. The translation of the Bible can literally change a culture and we are excited to see what God will do among the minority languages of Botswana with His Word.

500 years later, Luther’s work remains the inspiration behind what we do. And God continues to bless the work of those who translate His Word.

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