Sunday, February 11, 2024

Was Luther the First to Use Standard Hochdeutsch as Language of a Bible Translation?

Since I have been on the internet, which happened c. 23 years ago, early 2001, I have more than once been challenged by Protestants on Catholicism supposedly banning Bible translations to the vernacular. I have also more than once referred to the fact I was reading in Konvertitenkatechismus, 1950, by the Jesuits of Paderborn. Before Luther's translation there were already 18 German translations* in print, 14 in "Hochdeutsch" and 4 in "Niederdeutsch".

Sometimes this fact has been acknowledged even by Protestant adversaries. "Yes," they will say, "the Catholics did translate, but only into very narrow dialects that hardly anyone understands."

They will give a quote from a Bavarian or Alsatian translation from prior to Luther, and then the same passage in Luther's Bible. Unless you yourself speak the dialect in question, you are guaranteed to understand Luther's Bible better.

I have then tried to explain something to them. This time, I'm documenting it. Please, keep in mind, the Middle Ages in Germany officially ended on the 30 October 1517, just shortly before Luther translated his Bible, on the day when he nailed the 95 Theses. That's how central, for good or for ill, Luther is to German history.

6:05 — 6:33
Im Mittelalter gab es keine allgemeingültige, geschriebene, deutsche Standardsprache, sondern nur sogenannte Schreibsprachen, die in einem größeren aber regional begrenzten Dialektgebiet, wie dem Bayrischen, dem Alemanischen, dem Mitteldeutschen in Gebrauch waren. Die Bestimmung der Schreibsprache einer Handschrift bietet ein hervorragendes Mittel deren Entstehungsgeschichte einzugrenzen.

Mittelalterliche Handschriften mit dem Leipziger Handschriftenzentrum verstehen lernen
Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig | 5. Sept. 2022

I translate:

In the Middle Ages, there was no universal, written, German standard language, but instead only so called Schreibsprachen ["writing languages"], which were in use in a larger, but regionally limited Dialect area, like the Bavarian, the Alemannic, the Middle German ones. To determine the Schreibsprache of a Manuscript allows us an excellent means for circumscribing its history of composition.

This was still the case. Luther was not using an already extant German standard language, which everyone in all of Germany had learned in school, just that no one had made a Bible translation to it yet, Luther was using one among several other Schreibsprachen.

We can note that since the Thirty Years War brought Protestants from the North and Catholics from the South in very intense contact with each other (on the battlefield, in mutual prisoners of war exchanges, etc, etc), the German language tended to unify. This war started in 1618, 101 years minus a few months after the theses. Part of the unification was taken care of by the North already having a unified language through the Luther Bible. So, the modern German standard language certainly is daughter to Luther's German to some extent, but it's not ancestor of it. The other contributors do include Martin Opitz, born in Bolesławiec or Bunzlau, far closer to Breslau (present-day Wrocław) than to Wittenberg, a Lutheran, Angelus Silesius, born in Breslau itself, a Catholic, Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, born in Gelnhausen, in Hesse, who worked as a regiment secretary during the war, and who before writing his ultrafamous novel Simplicius Simplicissimus (something like a mixture of Don Quixote, Gargantua, and Candide) had also resided in Strassburg and in the Black Forest / Renchen / Baden-Würtenberg. So, Luther's dialect area is basically in for about half of the influences, and the other ones are on opposite sides of it. The result is closer to Luther's German than to Bavarian prior to Luther or Alsatian prior to Luther. That's why Luther's Bible seems so much more comprehensible now than the ones I have seen quoted on such occasions.

But this was not exactly the case for everyone back then.

Luther himself claimed that the Saxon Chancery had a Schreibsprache which was understood by all Germans. Well, some language pairs are assymetric in mutual comprehension, it is possible that back then a Bavarian would have been better off reading Luther's German, than a Saxon reading Bavarian written German. Luther's claim is not totally beyond the possible. But it was also not an obvious truth that everyone back then would have immediately realised when he started reading and writing, even before Luther made the claim. By now, we are no longer in a position to test the claim.

But distorting his claim into the proposition that everyone was able to read Goethe and Schiller, had they existed, but for some quirky reason Catholic clergy preferred to translate only for obscure dialect areas and leave most Germans out of a Bible of their own is just not true. It is as said possible that a Bavarian would have had an easier time reading Genesis 11:1 through 9** in Luther's Bible, than a Wittenberger reading it in an already extant Bavarian Bible. It is however certain that a Wittenberger would have understood it better in Luther's Bible, and a Bavarian better in a Bavarian Bible.

The English clergy's relation to Lollards and to Bible translations, as we have it reported from accounts of the Coventry trials, is absolutely an English thing, Germany had no Catholic problem with the vernacular, and the Catholic backlash Luther faced was not for a German translation, but for his German translation and specific translation choices. My first doubt about Luther's integrity as a Christian theologian actually came when reading his Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen, or extracts of it, in a German anthology for secondary education. In that sense, Luther not only made me a speaker of German (a language which would not have existed as it does without him), but also a Roman Catholic.

Hans Georg Lundahl
Quinquagesima L.D.

* See also:

"Deutschsprachige Bibeln vor Luther? Diese erstaunte Frage ist häufig zu hören, gilt doch der Reformator weithin als der Übersetzer der Bibel ins Deutsche. Doch bereits vor Luther wurden 18 deutsche Bibelausgaben gedruckt. Elf Jahre nach dem Erscheinen der Gutenberg-Bibel entstand 1466 mit der Mentelin-Bibel in Straßburg das Erste dieser Kleinode der frühen Buchdruckerkunst. Bis 1522 wurden Bibeln in Augsburg, Nürnberg, Köln, Straßburg, Lübeck und Halberstadt hergestellt. Sie fanden ihren Markt beim aufstrebenden Bürgertum der Städte, aber auch die große Zahl der »Leutpriester« brauchte Bibeln in der Volkssprache, denn Latein verstanden diese in der Regel nicht."

** I take a theologically neutral text as an example, the first mistranslation of it is in Charles XII's Bible, in which they removed "in the East" instead of "from the East" and it's only recently come to relevance.

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