We are now sweating over the translation of the Prophets into German. O God, what a great and hard toil it requires to compel the writers against their will to speak German! They do not want to give up their Hebrew and imitate the barbaric German. Just as though a nightingale should be compelled to imitate a cuckoo and give up her glorious melody, even though she hates a song in monotone. (Dr. Martin Luther’s sämmtliche Werke in beiden Originalsprachen, Briefwechsel, Volume 6 [Stuttgart, 1895], Nr. 1348; 14. Juni 1528, Luther an Wenc. Link in Nürnberg.)
For the Reformers, translation was the first logical step of the doctrine of biblical perspicuity. God’s Word needed translated into the common tongue.
Luther set about this work immediately, if a bit begrudgingly.
Luther: always 100%. He seems to have been really suffering, but he felt it was a necessary suffering, because the Word of God had to be transmitted to the German farmer, the farmer’s wife, the pastor, and the merchant.
It was the profound insight of the Reformation to remove the wall of separation between the Word of God and the individual soul, to put the Scriptures’ clarity on display for all to see, through translation, yes, but also through preaching that explained the Biblical text on its own terms, in light of the whole counsel of God, and testified to by the Spirit.
This was a radical change in direction for the community of faith, and the church has not been the same since.
This belief, not only in the primacy of Scripture but the intelligibility, the clarity of Scripture, was foundational for the historical Reformed movement, and it is foundational for us today.
The Reformed tradition offers a constellation of doctrines and insights that are immensely important to the Christian church, but only insofar as they are clearly articulated to those who would seek to use them.
I have had the pleasure of teaching at a sort of seminary, first in Malta and now in Turkey. The students all hail from the region of North Africa, Egypt, and the Middle East. Like all seminary students, they come with a variety of theological commitments that have sprung up out of their distinct biographies.
My classes have to be translated, and I have come to realize that my translator is doing the bulk of the work. He is the one who negotiates technical words with the class, inquires of me when clarification is necessary, and anticipates my cultural cliches and adapts them. He does his job well, so that when papers are turned in, it becomes evident that the students have actually gained a right impression of what the class was about.
I am increasingly convinced that this sort of translation is the work of the pastor, just like those elders picking through the crowd in Nehemiah 8, making the Scriptures clear to the community from the youngest to the oldest.