We will be hearing plenty about Martin Luther over the next two years, as Germans gear up for the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.
Luther is best known as the father of the Reformation. But he also wrote anti-Semitic screeds that were extreme—even by the standards of the time. In addition, he revolutionized the German language.
Before Luther, there was no single German language but a series of dialects. Two were dominant: Upper German and Low German. As a child, Luther lived on the linguistic borderlands that divide the two. His family moved back and forth across the boundary several times.
The first page of the Gospel of Matthew in the 1524 edition of the New Testament with a colored woodcut by Georg Lemberger. (Paul K via Wikimedia Commons)
“He was totally bilingual,” says Alexander Weber, a linguist at Birkbeck College, University of London. “It’s a stroke of luck in terms of the development of the German language that the key figure [of the Reformation] would actually be able to address an audience in Low German and Upper German.”
Luther’s bilingualism allowed him to create a national language. But his genius was in his colloquial turns of phrase. Before him, the Bible was a theological text. His translations transformed it into everyday language.
“This language has a new purpose, to speak to everybody,” says Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, which recently staged an exhibition of German cultural history. MacGregor wrote and hosted an accompanying podcast for the BBC.
Macgregor says Luther’s translations turned the New Testament’s gospels into “conversations you might overhear: Jesus speaking as a German carpenter to German fishermen.”
“He listened to the man in the street, the woman in the kitchen to the child playing,” says Lutheran theologian Margot Kässmann. “Still today…our language is really Luther’s.”
In this week’s World in Words podcast, a BBC special on the Bible’s influence in translation.
We hear how the translated Bible has profoundly affected the English spoken by Jamaicans. Poet Kei Miller talks about how his religious upbringing and his linguistic upbringing were intertwined through the words and images of the King James Bible. For him, Jamaicans understand their lives on Earth through biblical metaphors. They make sense of “a lifetime of oppression and hardship” by thinking of themselves “as the children of Israel…living through Babylon.” Phrases like “an eye for an eye” live alongside African proverbs. When Miller, who now lives in the UK, wants to remember the rhythm of speech in Jamaica, he just cracks open his copy of the King James Bible.
To this day, the King James and other translations of the Bible are profoundly influencing languages. Today, the only languages left not to have a written version of the Bible are languages without script– oral languages. (Check out this previous podcast, and this one). Take Kalenjin, spoken in parts of Kenya and Uganda. The Bible translated into Kalenjin draws draws people who aren’t necessarily religious, or at least Christian. It has become almost like a dictionary of the language, a repository of its words and phrases. Of course, new phrases and concepts came into being with the translation, and that’s the tricky part: how much did outsiders’ translation of the Bible improve the status of the language by establishing a writing system and literacy, and how did it change the course of the language and the culture?
Recent technological advances are speeding up the process of Bible translation, not without controversy. Through it all, Bible translation and linguistic research have marched hand in hand, sometimes producing unintended results. In 1977, Christian missionary Daniel Everett went to Brazil with the intention of bringing the Bible to the Pirahã people of the Amazonian basin. He didn’t manage to convert anyone– except himself. He lost his faith, and became an expert in the Pirahã language. He theorized that Pirahã has no recursion, or ability to embed phrases within sentences, as in relative clauses. This was a direct rebuke to Noam Chomsky’s theory that all languages are recursive (which is a cornerstone of the idea that all languages share a “universal grammar”). Some linguists have taken issue with Everett’s findings.
Michael Ford of the BBC’s religion program, Heart and Soul did the reporting on this documentary. I’ve since listened to several other Heart and Soul docs: on Hebrew, on Christianity in China, on communing with those who died in the Vietnam war. All excellently produced.
Listen via iTunes or here.
In 1973 Sue (pictured) and Peter Westrum and their baby went to live among an indigenous tribe in Indonesian New Guinea. They had been dispatched by Wycliffe Bible Translators (check out my interview with Wycliffe President and CEO Bob Creson) to learn the Berik language, develop a script for it, and then translate the Bible into Berik. They spent more than 20 years there. It was a time of great transformation for the Berik people, their beliefs and their language.
This week’s pod is entirely given over to a conversation I had with Sue Westrum. It includes two astounding pieces of archive tape recorded in New Guinea by her husband Peter. The first is the Westrums’ first meeting with the Berik people who lived essentially in the jungle, in several villages a few dozen miles upriver of a modern Indonesian port town. The second recording is of Berik singing and drumming: one night a large number of them gathered unnanounced outside the Westrums’ makeshift home, and they just started playing and chanting. In both cases, the Westrums weren’t sure how to respond, though they sensed that these were friendly gestures.
Over time, the Westrums learned the Berik language. They also began teaching some of the Berik about the Bible, with a view to selecting some of the best students to help them translate it into Berik. The Westrums — and Wycliffe Bible Translators — insist that they are not Christian missionaries, that their role as translators is different. And in some cases the roles can be kept separate. But perhaps not in this case. The Berik had animist beliefs and had been barely been exposed to other religions. It’s difficult to imagine how language classes focused on the Bible would not sometimes morph into Bible study and discussions of belief. Certainly, during the time that the Westrums lived among them, many Berik converted to Christianity.
There are so many aspects of Berik language and culture that are different from American English that the process of translating the Bible was painstakingly slow. One small example: for the Berik, the emotional center of a person is his gut — something between the heart and the soul in western thinking. The Wycliffe method is to translate words, ideas and messages in ways that speak to the target audience. But there are, presumably, doctrinal limits as to how far a translator of the Bible can stray. (True, this hasn’t stopped some Bible translators in the past from veering radically and quite imaginatively from the original).
Eventually, the Bible was translated into Berik– the very first book (aside from education and nutrition booklets) to be published in what had been an oral language: a cause for celebration among those who wish to spread Christianity, but far from that among those who argue against such cultural and linguistic intervention in fragile indigenous societies. I barely get into this debate in this particular podcast, but I feel duty-bound to do so at some point in the future.
Listen in iTunes or here.