Lutherans Making a World of Difference: Translators of the Word

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Did you know that every time you read your Bible you’re having an international experience? Has it ever occurred to you that each time you gather for worship and crack open your Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) you’re taking a trip around the globe?

How can this be? It’s because neither book is a made-in-America product. The Bible in its original form was not written in English. Rather, it’s a gift to us from the ancient Near East: Israel where Hebrew and Aramaic were spoken and the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea where Greek was the official language of the Roman Empire. Likewise, your hymnal contains words and music from around the earth, available to you in 2017 in English.

These two precious books—our Bible and our hymnal—have been put together with the help of authors, composers and (as we’re focusing on this month) translators.

Most of us spend hardly any time pondering the critical role translators have played in bringing the riches of the past—scriptures and songs and poems—into earshot for us in the 21st century. We’re about as conscious of translators as we are mindful of all the unknown folks who labor behind the scenes so that we can have decent roads, reliable electricity, and clean water.

Were it not for these unsung heroes and heroines, we would be lost. Without translators, so many literary and musical treasures from our Christian history would sound like gibberish to our ears.

Putting the Scriptures Within Earshot

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was the first and one of the most prolific of translators in our Lutheran family tree. A brilliant student of the ancient biblical languages Luther realized that for the evangelical faith of the 16th century Reformation to come alive in the hearts and minds of his people they needed to hear the Gospel, not in the Latin language of the Sunday Mass, but in the German language of daily life. So Luther worked tirelessly to render the Bible in the mother tongue of his neighbors—the “low German” of the common people.

Luther began translating the New Testament when, following his condemnation by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, he hid out in 1521 and 1522 in the Wartburg Castle under the protective custody of his territorial prince, Frederick the Wise. By 1534 Luther (with the assistance of other leaders of the Reformation) added his translation of the Old Testament. Luther released a second edition of his German Bible in 1545, working to improve his translation for the rest of his life.

The influence of Luther’s Bible was profound, as ELCA Bishop R. Guy Erwin observes: “The very act of choosing German words to represent religious ideas he knew only from Latin, Greek, and Hebrew texts was daring. Luther’s skill and insight led him to create a translation that still has power and grandeur today, and which was instrumental in the formation of the modern German language.”[1]

To this day new translations of the Bible continue to be produced. There are an estimated 5 billion Bibles in the world, with about 100 million new Bibles sold annually—making the Bible the world’s #1 best-seller. To date the Bible has been translated or is now being translated in over 4000 of the world estimated 7000 languages. Christians of all stripes participate in the ministry of Bible translation and Lutherans continue to value this critical work.[2]

Singing Global Songs of Faith

But the Bible isn’t the only literature the translation of which has mattered to Lutherans. Starting in the 16th century the works of Martin Luther, including his Catechisms, have been translated in countries where the Lutheran movement has spread. Songbooks and hymnals are some of the most commonly used publications that bear the mark of translators, like Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878)[3] whose translations of beloved German hymn texts showed up 30 times in the Lutheran Book of Worship and 19 times in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

Winkworth was born in London, England and dedicated her life to the higher education of young women. Well-versed in the German language, as well as good English verse, Winkworth translated hymns in ways that were faithful to both the text and spirit of the German original. Her Lyra Germanica was first published in 1855 and 1858—and it subsequently went through multiple editions. She published her Chorale Book for England in 1863.

Translating in the Midst of Church-Planting

It’s tempting to picture a translator as a bookish person who works quietly in the solitude of his or her study. But many translators have done their important work in the hurly-burly of evangelistic outreach in far-flung mission fields.

On June 21 each year, our church remembers one such evangelist-translator, Onesimos Nesib (1856-1931) who helped establish what is now the world’s largest Lutheran church body, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus—with around 8 million members.

Early in his life Onesimos was captured by slave traders and taken from his home in western Ethiopia to Eritrea where he was bought and freed by Swedish Lutheran missionaries. Recognizing his gifts, the missionaries converted, baptized and educated Onesimos—sending him to Sweden for five years of theological study. Upon his return to Ethiopia he preached the gospel and worked on translating the Bible into Galla—the language of one of the largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

Onesimos Nesib pursued his translation work in the midst of harrowing missionary travels including a twelve-day trek through the Nubian Desert by camel, opposition from both Muslims and Orthodox Church leaders, serious illness and the death of one of his children. Despite these challenges, Onesimos was able to publish his translation of the Bible in 1899. His biographer writes: “This remarkable work of translation has been used for more than seventy-five years and a group of experts just recently undertook to revise it.”[4]

For Reflection and Discussion

  • Page through your hymnal and notice the hymns that Martin Luther wrote (see the index on p. 1191 in ELW), or the hymns that Catherine Winkworth translated (see the index on p. 1194 in ELW). If your congregation uses the Lutheran Book of Worship (LBW), see the index p.942 (Luther) and p. 945 (Winkworth). Which of these hymns would you miss the most if they had never been written or translated?
  • Ponder the gifts that a good translator must possess. Is the work of translation an art? Or a science? Or both?
  • Learn more about organizations that foster translation of the Bible and other Christian resources, such as the American Bible Society:
  • Pray: “God of majesty, whom saints and angels delight to worship in heaven: Be with your servants who make art and music, as well as those who translate ancient texts into living languages of today. Inspire their creative work so that with joy we on earth may glimpse your beauty, and bring us to the fulfillment of that hope of perfection which will be ours as we stand before your unveiled glory. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”[5]

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.


[1] R. Guy Erwin, “Read the Bible With Luther,” in Together by Grace: Introducing the Lutherans (Augsburg Fortress, 2016), p. 37.


[3] Although not herself a Lutheran, her affinity for translating hymns of the Protestant Reformation makes her, for our purposes, a worthy “honorary Lutheran.”


[5] Based on the prayer for “Church Musicians and Artists” in Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 46.