Thursday, August 15, 2013

Luther's German Bible and Messy Translations

This first edition hardback copy of "Luther's German Bible" by M. Reu (1934) was found at The Church Mouse for only $2.00. 

Amazon is selling a used copy of this hardback book for 207 pounds or $805.

It's a very scholarly treatment, with excruciating detail that some might call obsessively exacting (but so refreshing compared to infographics and other forms of information that don't quote sources or give adequate substantiation of claims), of the versions and forms of sacred scripture circulating in the Middle Ages, prior to Luther's translation of the Bible, and how Luther came to publish his version.

It's rough going if you don't understand such terms as gloss, plenarium, pericope, lectionary, postil, and homily.

One of the most interesting facts documented painstakingly in this book is how the first printed High German Bible, appeared in Strassburg around 1466, and is called the Mentel Bible (published by Johann Mentel.)

This Mentel Bible is said to be full of mistakes, printer errors (later fixed and replaced by new errors), and faulty translations, yet was highly respected and enjoyed. What is interesting is that, in spite of alleged errors and mistakes, the meaning still comes through, often in dramatic manner.

For example, a supposedly bad translation of "Jesus in agonia factus" (Luke 22:43) is rendered "Jesus wurde in Streit gemacht" ("Jesus was made in conflict"). Again, in Isaiah 21:8 the phrase "Then the lookout called like a lion: O Lord I stand continually by day on the watchtower..." is rendered "The lion called out: I am over the mirror of the Lord."

To mirror is to reproduce a visible entity for purposes of observation and subsequent action, as in looking at your hair style in a mirror at the beauty shop. In a mirror, an exact reflection occurs for reflective pondering.

Words in the Bible often mean many different things, depending on the context, idiomatic usage, cultural characteristics, and other factors.

This does not mean that the text is confusing or impossible to understand. It means that there is a rich complexity that causes even simple, straightforward statements to contain hidden secrets that the studious person can pry into and enjoy, without contradicting the obvious truth being communicated.

As Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and others in the school of Deconstruction philosophy have pointed out, misunderstandings, misrenderings, and alternate interpretations can be very fruitful, as many words, in scriptures and street vocabulary, can mean both one thing and the opposite thing, simultaneously.

Western metaphysics is dominated by "either/or" thinking. This verse must mean this and cannot mean that. Eastern metaphysics allows for "both/and" thinking. This verse means both this and that, which may seem contradictory, but actually makes perfect sense if you contemplate it with inner stillness and broad experience in these matters.

For example, our use of the word "bad". If someone says, "that's a bad motorcyle", you feel complimented, not insulted, especially if the word is spoken with vowel prolongation containing vari-pitched elocution: "baaaaaad".

This is not to dispute literal accuracy or faithfulness to a text, but is a reflection of the richness of language, that even a "poor translation" can still contain the essence of a message, and may even expand upon it and cast it in a new light, albeit "accidentally".

It is good, for instance, to read a variety of translations and paraphrases of a text, to enrich your understanding of the underlying meaning, by viewing it from multiple points of view, for language is never frozen or paralyzed -- it is free and flowing and constantly evolving.

A text can have a single, simple, primary meaning -- but can also have multiple applications and layers of interpretation, as long as they don't contradict the literal meaning, its context, and the whole text body.

Luther's opposition to the classic Fourfold Interpretation -- historical (literal), allegorical (figurative), tropological (moral), and anagogic (future) -- of every scripture does not negate the fact that certain texts can point to a down to earth significance, plus additional ways of understanding it and implementing it in daily life.

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