Martin Luther and Functional-Equivalence Bible Translation

It is difficult for someone who does not know the German language or the literary, social, and political setting of Central Europe in the early 1500s to appreciate just how revolutionary Martin Luther’s translation of the German Bible was. Not that it always involves a radical departure from the original-in fact, Luther’s wording is often quite close. But this was his genius. He seemed to be able to sense just how far he needed to push his mother tongue in order “to make these Hebrew writers talk German,” as he put it (Koelpin 1977:3), and yet at the same time preserve the essential meaning of the Holy Scriptures. That is what functional equivalence and confessional fidelity are all about.

My aim in this article is to focus upon Luther’s translation principles from the dual perspective of modern translation science and confessional, or evangelical, integrity. While these two concerns may seem at first to stand in a certain tension, or even in an antithetical relationship with one another, they need not be seen that way if these goals are being attended to by a skilled, sensitive, and Spirit-led translator. Such was Luther.

I will begin with a brief historical summary to set the stage. Then follows an overview of Luther’s theory and practice of Bible translation, presented by means of what he himself had to say about it and of what may be observed in his translation into German. It will become clear that Luther’s policies, principles, and procedures embody the modern “functional equivalence” method employed today to a greater or lesser extent by Scripture translators the world over. I will conclude with an overview of present-day translation projects in Central Africa where these same methods and goals are still being applied.

We look back now to 1521. The theological revolution against Rome seems to be defeated. Only the final “sacrifice” of its instigator, Martin Luther, is yet to be accomplished. This, at the climax of his dramatic appearance before Emperor Charles V and the Imperial Diet of Worms in April 1521, was his magnificent confession of faith:
“Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning-and my conscience is captive to the Word of God-then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.” (Kittelson 1986:161)

In spite of these wonderful words, however, Luther’s powerful enemies were unmoved. The imperial assembly formally declared him to be a public outlaw, and all the might and resources of the empire were now ranged against him. But they failed to take into account the plan and purpose of God. So it happened that while Luther was on his way home to Wittenberg, he was “kidnapped” by agents of his political patron, Elector Frederick of Saxony, and taken to Wartburg Castle for safekeeping. Here Luther, dressed as a knight and armed with a sword, became known as “Knight George.” But he never used the sword; for, as he demonstrated throughout his life, the pen is far mightier (Nohl 1962:74).

At first, the ever-active Luther was not very happy to be confined in this place that he called “my Patmos.” “Here I sit,” he complained, “all day long, lazy and full of food” (ibid.:165). But Luther and laziness were incompatible. So it was that during his ten-month stay at Wartburg he wrote and published a dozen works. He also completed the first step of a crucial literary and theological endeavor that was going to occupy his attention periodically for the rest of his life-the translation of the entire Bible into German….

For the rest of this article, you may find the PDF file at

About ewendland

I am currently an instructor at the Lutheran Seminary, Lusaka, ZAMBIA (since 1968). My academic training has been in biblical studies (BA, Northwestern College; MST, Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary), Bible translation (several SIL courses), linguistics (MA, University of Wisconsin, Madison), and African languages (PhD, UWM). I am a “retired” translation consultant for the United Bible Societies (having worked with projects in Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). I currently still serve as an external examiner in Zambian languages (University of Zambia) and as visiting professor in OT, NT, and Ancient Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, with an affiliation to the Centre for Bible Interpretation and Translation in Africa ( My research and writing interests focus on the literary (structural, poetic, rhetorical) analysis of biblical texts and their oratorical translation, especially in southeastern Bantu languages (
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