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How many languages can you translate into English? If the answer is >0, I envy you. I’ve studied four,* and passed all the tests, but have an actual aptitude in none.

If I were thus gifted, I would be transferring some of the world’s literary wealth into my native tongue—and vice versa.

One of my granddaughters is currently fascinated by language. She wants to speak a dozen or more, and has begun some study in Spanish and Japanese. However, I attribute most of her dream to a young teenager’s excitement at having the entire world before them. In time, we all learn that finite concerns, such as time, finances and obligations, erode our options.

I’ve written about translation before, most extensively in “C.S. Lewis’ School of Translation.”⁑

This week, while writing an article about a Lutheran approach to ministry with the newly bereaved, I came across an entertaining reference to translation, in the letters of Martin Luther. Luther, of course, was the Reformation leader who, among other things, strongly believed the Bible should be accessible to lay people in their own language.

Translating the Holy Scriptures

Martin Luther was a scholar. Yet, even scholars lack expertise in all subjects. Thus, when translating the Bible into German, he welcomed the cooperation of others. This was particularly wise, since the so-called “Luther Bible” was the first German translation from the original languages rather than the Latin Vulgate. Unsurprisingly, the New Testament was published first. The longer Jewish Scriptures required more time.

The following letter was written in 1524 to Luther’s friend George Spalatin, another German theologian. Luther playfully explains how faithfulness to the original Hebrew text has delayed the publication of the final portion of the Bible.  

All is well with us. We have so much trouble in translating Job, on account of the grandeur of his sublime style, that he seems to be much more impatient of our efforts to turn him into German than he was of the consolation of his friends.

Either he always wishes to sit on his dunghill, or else he is jealous of the translator who would share with him the credit of writing his book. This keeps the third part of the Bible from being printed.

This casual identification with Job, one of God’s most faithful followers, appeals to me. The older I become, the greater is my sense of connection with the “cloud of witnesses,” the saints who have gone before us. In fact, I am also growing progressively more eager to fellowship with the angels. Though different from humanity in countless ways, we share the wonder of being beloved creatures of God.

In The Four Loves, Lewis writes that “friendship . . . This love, free from instinct, free from all duties but those which love has freely assumed, almost wholly free from jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed, is eminently spiritual. It is the sort of love one can imagine between angels.” In my mind, phileo is also the sort of love we will one day experience between angels and humans.

C.S. Lewis’ Work with the Hebrew Language

Lewis did not read Hebrew. That shortcoming is certainly quite forgivable, given the numerous arenas in which his talents excelled. In his Reflections on the Psalms, he acknowledges his limitation. At the same time, he notes that we have many accessible resources by those acquainted with the ancient language.

I have worked in the main from the translation which Anglicans find in their Prayer Book; that of Coverdale. Even of the old translators he is by no means the most accurate; and of course a sound modern scholar has more Hebrew in his little finger than poor Coverdale had in his whole body. But in beauty, in poetry, he, and St. Jerome, the great Latin translator, are beyond all whom I know. I have usually checked, and sometimes corrected, his version from that of Dr. Moffatt.

In his explanation, Lewis notes the value in referring to several authoritative sources. This is especially wise when words are rare or unclear in their usage. Even people fluent in various languages would be negligent to ignore such resources where there is a question regarding significant interpretations.

In the meantime, Luther’s reminder of Job’s “grandeur of his sublime style,” along with the book’s remarkable message, has me preparing to read that book once again. In translation, of course.


* Spanish in junior high, Latin in high school, classical Greek in college, and Hebrew in seminary. As the Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” I am quite impressed by the fact that many of Mere Inkling’s readers from outside the States are at least bilingual.

⁑ If you’re interested in the subject, you might want to also (re)visit “C.S. Lewis as a Translator.”