If you’re ever feeling underappreciated as a literary translator and want to ease the pain, take a few minutes to read Martin Luther’s “Open Letter on Translation” (Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen), written in 1530 to defend his translation of the Bible into German. Luther’s translation of the New Testament, published in 1522, was one of the first major Protestant translations into modern European vernacular languages. This translation was a seismic event in many ways—a turning point in the Reformation; a major step in the crystallization of modern German; and an extension of the work of Gutenberg and Erasmus that would ultimately bring revolution to Europe, as literacy, spread by increased accessibility of the Bible, led to a vox populi. And yet Martin Luther’s letter defending his work is not the stately academic treatise one would expect; in fact, it sounds at times rather like he’s having a fit. Luther’s letter can be found online in a side-by-side presentation by Michael Marlowe, whose English translation is based on the Weimar edition of Luther’s Works, as well as on previous English translations by Charles M. Jacobs, Theodore Bachman, and Dr. Gary Mann. Written while Luther was holed up at Coburg castle—which Luther referred to as “the Wilderness”–while the imperial diet was in session at Augsburg, the letter focuses primarily on justifying Luther’s notorious addition of the word “alone” in Romans 3:28. Some choice excerpts:

Grace and peace in Christ, honorable, worthy and dear Lord and friend! I received your letter with the two questions, or inquiries, requesting my response. In the first place, you ask why in translating the words of Paul in the 3rd chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, Arbitramur hominem iustificari ex fide absque operibus, I rendered them, “We hold that a man is justified without the works of the law, by faith alone,” and you also tell me that the papists are causing a great fuss because Paul’s text does not contain the word _sola (a_lone), and that my addition to the words of God is not to be tolerated… .

You can give the papists this answer from me, if you like. First of all if I, Dr. Luther, had expected that all the papists together were capable of translating even one chapter of Scripture correctly and well into German, I would have gathered up enough humility to ask for their aid and assistance in translating the New Testament into German. However, because I knew (and still see with my own eyes) that not one of them knows how to translate or speak German, I spared them and myself the trouble. It is evident, however, that they are learning to speak and write German from my German translation, and so they are stealing my language from me, a language they had little knowledge of before this. It is my Testament and my translation, and it shall remain mine. If I have made some mistakes in it (although I am not aware of any, and would most certainly be unwilling to deliberately mistranslate a single letter) I will not allow the papists to be my judges. For their ears are still too long and their hee-haws too weak for them to criticize my translating. I know quite well how much skill, hard work, sense and brains are needed for a good translation. They know it even less than the miller’s donkey, for they have never tried it. It is said, “He who builds along the road has many masters.” That is how it is with me also. Those who have never been able to speak properly (to say nothing of translating) have all at once become my masters and I must be their pupil. If I were to have asked them how to turn into German the first two words of Matthew, Liber Generationis, not one of them would have been able to say Quack! And now they judge my whole work! Fine fellows! It was also like this for St. Jerome when he translated the Bible. Everybody was his master. He alone was totally incompetent, and people who were not worthy to clean his boots judged the good man’s work. It takes a great deal of patience to do good things in public. The world believes itself to be the expert in everything, while putting the bit under the horse’s tail. Criticizing everything and accomplishing nothing, that is the world’s nature. It can do nothing else. But I will return to the subject at hand. If your papist wishes to make a great fuss about the word sola (alone), say this to him: “Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and he says that a papist and a donkey are the same thing.” Sic volo, sic iubeo, sit pro ratione voluntas (I will it, I command it; my will is reason enough). For we are not going to be students and disciples of the papists. Rather, we will become their teachers and judges. For once, we also are going to be proud and brag, with these blockheads; and just as Paul brags against his mad raving saints, I will brag against these donkeys of mine! Are they doctors? So am I. Are they scholars? So am I. Are they preachers? So am I. Are they theologians? So am I. Are they debaters? So am I. Are they philosophers? So am I. Are they logicians? So am I. Do they lecture? So do I. Do they write books? So do I. I will go even further with my boasting: I can expound the psalms and the prophets, and they cannot. I can translate, and they cannot. I can read the Holy Scriptures, and they cannot. I can pray, they cannot. Coming down to their level, I can use their rhetoric and philosophy better than all of them put together. Please do not give these donkeys any other answer to their useless braying about that word sola than simply this: “Luther will have it so, and he says that he is a doctor above all the doctors of the pope.” Let it rest there. I will from now on hold them in contempt, and have already held them in contempt, as long as they are the kind of people (or rather donkeys) that they are. And there are brazen idiots among them who have never even learned their own art of sophistry, like Dr. Schmidt and Dr. Snot-Nose, and such like them, who set themselves against me in this matter, which not only transcends sophistry, but as Paul writes, all the wisdom and understanding in the world as well. Truly a donkey does not have to sing much, because he is already known by his ears.

For you and our people, however, I shall show why I used the [German equivalent of the] word sola — even though in Romans 3 it was not [the equivalent of] sola I used but solum or tantum. That is how closely those donkeys have looked at my text! Nevertheless I have used sola fides elsewhere; I want to use both solum and sola. I have always tried to translate in a pure and clear German. It has often happened that for three or four weeks we have searched and inquired about a single word, and sometimes we have not found it even then. In translating the book of Job, Master Philip, Aurogallus and I have taken such pains that we have sometimes scarcely translated three lines in four days. Now that it has been translated into German and completed, all can read and criticize it. The reader can now run his eyes over three or four pages without stumbling once, never knowing what rocks and clods had once lain where he now travels as over a smoothly planed board. We had to sweat and toil there before we got those boulders and clods out of the way, so that one could go along so nicely. The plowing goes well in a field that has been cleared. But nobody wants the task of digging out the rocks and stumps. There is no such thing as earning the world’s thanks. Even God himself cannot earn thanks, not with the sun, nor with heaven and earth, nor even the death of his Son. The world simply is and remains as it is, in the devil’s name, because it will not be anything else. I know very well that in Romans 3 the word solum is not in the Greek or Latin text — the papists did not have to teach me that. It is fact that the letters s-o-l-a are not there. And these blockheads stare at them like cows at a new gate, while at the same time they do not recognize that it conveys the sense of the text – if the translation is to be clear and vigorous [klar und gewaltiglich], it belongs here. I wanted to speak German, not Latin or Greek, since it was German I had set about to speak in the translation. But it is the nature of our language that in speaking about two things, one which is affirmed, the other denied, we use the word allein [only] along with the word nicht [not] or kein [no]. For example, we say “the farmer brings allein grain and kein money”; or “No, I really have nicht money, but allein grain”; I have allein eaten and nicht yet drunk”; “Did you write it allein and nicht read it over?” There are countless cases like this in daily usage. We do not have to ask the literal Latin how we are to speak German, as these donkeys do. Rather we must ask the mother in the home, the children on the street, the common man in the marketplace. We must be guided by their language, by the way they speak, and do our translating accordingly. Then they will understand it and recognize that we are speaking German to them. Yet why should I be concerned about their ranting and raving? I will not stop them from translating as they want. But I too shall translate, not as they please but as I please. And whoever does not like it can just ignore it and keep his criticism to himself, for I will neither look at nor listen to it. A translator must have a large store of words so that he can have them all ready when one word does not fit in every context. Why should I even bother to talk about translating so much? If I were I to explain all the reasons and considerations behind my words, I would need an entire year.

I have learned by experience what an art and what a task translating is, so I will not tolerate some papal donkey or mule acting as my judge or critic. They have not tried it. If anyone does not like my translations, he can ignore it; and may the devil repay him for it if he dislikes or criticizes my translations without my knowledge or permission. If it needs to be criticized, I will do it myself. If I do not do it, then let them leave my translations in peace. Each of them can do a translation for himself that suits him — what do I care? So much for translating and the nature of language. However, I was not depending upon or following the nature of the languages alone when I inserted the word solum in Romans 3. The text itself, and Saint Paul’s meaning, urgently require and demand it. For in that passage he is dealing with the main point of Christian doctrine, namely, that we are justified by faith in Christ without any works of the Law. Paul excludes all works so completely as to say that the works of the Law, though it is God’s law and word, do not aid us in justification. Furthermore, I am not the only one, nor the first, to say that faith alone makes one righteous. There was Ambrose, Augustine and many others who said it before me. And if a man is going to read and understand St. Paul, he will have to say the same thing, and he can say nothing else. Paul’s words are too strong — they allow no works, none at all! Now if it is not works, it must be faith alone. Therefore the matter itself, at its very core, requires us to say: “Faith alone justifies.” The nature of the German language also teaches us to say it that way. In addition, I have the precedent of the holy fathers. The dangers confronting the people also compel it, for they cannot continue to hang onto works and wander away from faith, losing Christ, especially at this time when they have been so accustomed to works they have to be pulled away from them by force. It is for these reasons that it is not only right but also necessary to say it as plainly and forcefully as possible: “Faith alone saves without works!” I am only sorry I did not also add the words alle and aller, and say, “without any works of any laws.” That would have stated it with the most perfect clarity. Therefore, it will remain in the New Testament, and though all the papal donkeys go stark raving mad they shall not take it away. But this is getting too long. Let this be enough of an answer to your questions for now. More another time. Excuse this long letter. Christ our Lord be with us all. Amen.

Martin Luther, Your good friend. The Wilderness, September 8, 1530

Luther’s translation of the Bible is just one episode in a long and fascinating history of translations and revisions. Ironically, the Catholic Church’s sacred Vulgate was originally translated into Latin from the Greek and Hebrew precisely so that the common people—to whom the name Vulgate alludes– could read it. “The intention of St Jerome [translator/compiler of the definitive Latin Vulgate Bible around 405]… was that ordinary Christians of the Roman empire should be able to read the word of God. ‘Ignorance of the scriptures’, he wrote, ‘is ignorance of Christ’.”

Yet Luther’s own translation was a gauntlet thrown in the face of Church hierarchy eleven centuries later as he sought to make the Bible once more accessible to the “common people.” He even went so far as to add woodcuts depicting Biblical characters that supported his own interpretation of the Bible. “When Martin Luther first translated and published the New Testament, he thought that Revelation should not have the same status or authority as the gospels or the letters of Paul or Peter. And so he put it at the end, but he didn’t number it. He didn’t put a “saint” in front of [John’s] name. He thought it was an edifying book, but not of the same status. But what’s interesting, even though he felt that way, it’s the one book that he illustrated, where he put woodcuts, because Revelation allowed him to make one of his central points, which was that the papacy was the Antichrist, and the end of the world was coming. And so there you see the only woodcuts in the New Testament. You see the whore of Babylon wearing a papal crown. You see the seven-headed beast wearing a papal crown. The message was clear. You didn’t have to read (as most people didn’t). You got the message. The papacy, the papal office–not the individual popes but the papal Church–was where Satan was working to undermine Christendom. And the fact that Satan was there meant the world was coming to an end soon.”

(The newsletter of the literary division, Summer 2008, number 43)