A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Edgar Johnston
Reviews of the new ESV/German (2017) parallel texts of the Bible point to the usefulness of this new parallel Bible. The Luther Bibel 2017 builds on previous revisions but also reverses some changes that were made over time to “add back” some of Luther’s original wording where appropriate. This has been described as adding “More Luther” back to this edition. The ESV German/English Parallel Bible, produced in partnership with the German Bible Society, is ideal for native speakers, bilingual readers, and those who are learning either language.
According to the New Apostolic Church site, the German Bible Society—the ultimate authority for all Luther translations—offers the following account: roughly 40 percent of the 2017 translation is actually distinct from the text of the 1984 Luther translation. The distribution of these changes is varied. In the Apocryphal books of the Scripture, for example, 3,700 verses out of a total of 4,400 verses have been changed, which amounts to eighty percent. By comparison, the Old and New Testaments have only had to endure some gentle changes: of the approximately 31,000 verses of the Old Testament, only 12,000 verses—just under 40 per cent—have been revised. In total, the 2017 Luther translation exhibits nearly 16,000 verses diverging from the 1984 edition. According to experts, it is more precise—because it has been more accurately translated from the original text—and it is easier for the reading public of today to understand.
One reviewer makes an important point about translation philosophy when comparing the German and English in this parallel Bible: “In no way is the Luther Bible an equivalent to the ESV in terms of general translation style or gender philosophy.”
It should be well-known that ESV (see preface to ESV) professes to have a translation philosophy that is labeled as “formal equivalence,” while the Luther rendering is famously known as a “dynamic equivalence” translation. As Philip Schaff describes it,
Luther had a rare combination of gifts for a Bible translator: familiarity with the original languages, perfect mastery over the vernacular, faith in the revealed word of God, enthusiasm for the gospel, unction of the Holy Spirit. A good translation must be both true and free, faithful and idiomatic, so as to read like an original work. This is the case with Luther’s version. Besides, he had already acquired such fame and authority that his version at once commanded universal attention.
His knowledge of Greek and Hebrew was only moderate, but sufficient to enable him to form an independent judgment. (9) What he lacked in scholarship was supplied by his intuitive genius and the help of Melanchthon. In the German tongue he had no rival. He created, as it were, or gave shape and form to the modern High German. He combined the official language of the government with that of the common people. He listened, as he says, to the speech of the mother at home, the children in the street, the men and women in the market, the butcher and various tradesmen in their shops, and, “looked them in the mouth,” in pursuit of the most intelligible terms. His genius for poetry and music enabled him to reproduce the rhythm and melody, the parallelism and symmetry, of Hebrew poetry and prose. His crowning qualification was his intuitive insight and spiritual sympathy with the contents of the Bible.”
I do not intend to enter into the translation philosophy issue of formal vs. functional, but would refer to Rodney Decker’s review of the ESV:
The most appropriate terminology in this arena is not a dichotomy of literal versus dynamic equivalence, but rather a spectrum with formal equivalence on one end and functional equivalence on the other. Formal equivalence is a translation approach that seeks to reproduce the grammatical and syntactical form of the donor language as closely as possible in the receptor language. Thus, for each word in the donor language, the same part of speech is used in the receptor language and, as much as possible, in the same sequence. For example, Greek nouns are translated by English nouns, participles as participles, etc. Functional equivalence, by contrast, focuses on the meaning and attempts to accurately communicate the same meaning in the receptor language, even if doing so requires the use of different grammatical and syntactical forms. Although the form may differ somewhat in functional equivalence, the translation functions the same as the original in that it accurately communicates the same meaning.”
Decker is correct to point out that there is a spectrum. No translation is perfectly “formal” or “functional.” The ESV itself says in its preface that “Every translation is at many points a trade-off between literal precision and readability, between “formal equivalence” in expression and “functional equivalence in communication, and the ESV is no exception.”
Some years ago my wife and I decided to use a German/English parallel translation in our daily devotions. My wife is a native German, and I am life-long American. When we met my wife spoke no English, only German. Gradually she transitioned to the NIV, but we found the parallel Bible helpful for obvious reasons. So we chose an earlier version of the ESV/Luther Parallel Bible and will now use this new rendering.
This choice has yielded many interesting discussions between us during our devotions. Often my wife will ask me why the German and English are so different? Well, that question has yielded multiple answers. It has caused me to check the original in order to see what the issue is. Those with a theological education and experience in reading Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic will not be surprised, but perhaps the answers I have given over time will be helpful to those not schooled in the original:
- The difference between the English and German may simply be a translation preference, that is, the difference in rendering is based on a meaning choice by the translation committee. This may be due to translation philosophy but not necessarily.
- The difference may be based on the choices available in the version of the original text (a minority text of the many manuscripts of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, and the same kind of thing in the Greek New Testament in its various versions). If you have a study Bible you can often see comments to this effect.
- The difference may be due to the influence of other renderings of the original, such as the Latin Vulgate, the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.
- It may be due to translation philosophy (as above).
While I personally come down on the side of those who use functional equivalence, I greatly appreciate the work of the ESV translation and their commitment to accuracy in translating the Word of God. The ESV is a beautiful and useful rending of the original.
All in all, this parallel version has made both of us more aware of translation issues and more appreciation of godly translators who present us with the Word of God in various languages. After all, translation is a missional task that brings the Word of God to all the nations. For this grand work we give lasting thanks to our great God, and to the men and women over the centuries who have given much of their lives to the great ministry.
Edgar Johnston is Professor Emeritus of The Center for Urban Theological Studies (CUTS), now a part of Lancaster Bible College.
Buy the books
ESV German/English Parallel Bible (Luther/ESV)