Tag Archives: Reformation

Martin Luther: ein Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen – An Open Letter on Translating (1530)

500 years ago, on 31st October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church (known as the Castle Church) in Wittenberg; this became known as the start of the Reformation.

Not many years later, in 1522, Luther finished his Bible translation into German, thus making the Bible accessible to people who did not know Latin. They could now read the Bible for themselves, and were no longer solely dependent on explanations and interpretations given by priests. Not only was this Bible translation hugely important in the breakthrough of the Reformation; it also was the deciding factor in determining the main language used in Germany. Since Luther wrote in his own High German dialect, this – rather than Low German – became the main language of Germany.

It was not just the fact that Luther had translated the Bible that was important: it was also the way he did it. Like others before him, Luther cultivated a sense-for-sense, as opposed to a word-for-word, approach. His great innovation was a translation style close in register to colloquial speech, but with a simple eloquence that brought the original text alive. (Jones 2017: xiv)

Luther explained his ideas about sense-for-sense translating of the Bible in an Open Letter, Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen (Open Letter on Translating). This Sendbrief or Open Letter is one of the Luther pamphlets the Taylorian is fortunate to hold. These pamphlets were acquired from several University Libraries, notably Heidelberg, in 1878. The Sendbrief was chosen for re-publication on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Subsequently, it has been published online, and including a translation into English, and can be freely downloaded from http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/taylor/about/exhibitions-and-publications (print copies for sale in the library). Howard Jones translated the text into English, Henrike Lähnemann wrote the introduction and Emma Huber (German Librarian) prepared the digital publication.

Image of the Taylorian publication of Luther's Ein Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen - an open letter on translating.

The Sendbrief was read out in full on 25th May 2017 at the Taylor Institution by over 30 readers who read one or two paragraphs each. This reading event brought the text to life in a new way. The entire event is available on video from http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/sendbrief-vom-dolmetschen.

As an author, Luther came across as a witty person who knew how to engage with his audience of ordinary people. He criticised his opponents for being ‘Esel’ (donkeys), not clever enough to understand that the real purpose of the Bible was to be read by all, whether educated or not.

Luther’s thoughts about translation also became clear to me when I heard the letter read aloud.  His thoughts on how to translate in such a manner that the ordinary person could understand the text can be regarded as an early example of translation theory. One of Luther’s arguments against literal translation was illustrated by the angel’s greeting to Mary ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord be with you’. Luther goes on to say ‘Tell me, is this good German? Show me any German who says, ‘You are full of grace’. For that matter, what German will understand the meaning of ‘full of grace’? They’re going to think of a barrel full of beer or a bag full of money. That’s why I rendered it into German as ‘gracious one’, to make it easier for a German to actually work out what the angel means by his greeting.’ Luther’s concern was that the language of the Bible should not be a barrier to understanding for those listening to it read aloud, or reading it themselves.

The facsimile and transcription can be found on https://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/taylor-reformation/digital-library/ein-sendbrief-vom-dolmetschen/.



Martin Luther, translated by Howard Jones (2017) Ein Sendbrief vom Dolmetschen = An open letter on translating. Treasures of the Taylorian. Series one. Reformation pamphlets. Oxford : Taylor Institution Library.

Taylor Institution Library Main Stack BR333.L88 LUT 2017


Johanneke Sytsema, Linguistics Librarian

Shall I compare thee? Shakespeare in Translation Exhibition in the Taylorian

On 12 April, 6pm, Library Graduate Trainee Philippa Taylor pulled off the cover from the display case in the vestibule of the Voltaire Room and revealed to an admiring crowd of linguists, librarians and literature lovers four versions of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’: a Portuguese translation printed in Lisbon in 1977, Aimé Césaire’s adaptation pour un théâtre nègre from 1969, the typescript of the only Frisian translation with commentary extant and, as crowning piece, a wonderfully atmospheric large colour print from a French artist’s book based on the translation by A. du Couchet.


The Tempest arrangement forms the final case in a new exhibition in the Taylor Institution dedicated to Shakespeare in translation. The idea for putting this on was sparked by the lucky coincidence of a symposium on Ulrike Draesner, Writer-in-Residence at the German Sub-Faculty in 2015-16, and the Shakespeare 2016 events going on in Oxford. A few years ago, Ulrike had published her “radical translations” of 17 Shakespeare sonnets, set in a post-modern world of reproduction not via nature as in Shakespeare’s sonnets but via cloning. This had inspired German lecturer, translator and poet Tom Cheesman to venture a back-translation in which he “Englished” her versions again. Emma Huber as German Subject Librarian and Henrike Lähnemann as Professor for Medieval German, working together on the Reformation 2017 project, were just looking for a test case to trial a new form of library booklet as print-on-demand. They both thought that this would be the perfect copy: Shakespeare – put into German – returned to English in a literature-generating movement characteristic for Modern Languages in dialogue.

The exhibition spirals out from the display cases in the centre of the Voltaire Room. Standing high, the oldest cabinet which has seen many a distinguished publication from first editions to brand new research publications shows the genesis of ‘Twin Spin’, the Shakespeare x Draesner x Cheesman sonnet version.

Central case

The largest cabinet next to it is needed to show at least a fraction of the over 180 attempts to render Shakespeare sonnets in German, starting with Dorothea Tieck’s take on it as part of the classic ‘Schlegel-Tieck-Ausgabe’ which made Shakespeare – at least in the eyes of nineteenth century Germans – a truly German author. A special focus is on the early 20th century bibliophile versions of Stefan George and Friedrich Huch, which provide an eye-catching display in contrast to the typescript aesthetics of the 1980s and 1990s, when Shakespeare was in vogue with the likes of the singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann.

Spiralling outward from the central cabinets are two cases crammed with again just a small selection of sonnet translations into other European languages, from Sorbian to Yiddish, emphasising – as an Italian dissertation on display claims – that Shakespeare speaks ‘da poeta a poeta’. The rich material on literary engagement with Shakespeare is then taken beyond the sonnets in samples of translations of his plays across the languages – and across the media to visual material and DVDs. The Tempest display case mentioned at the beginning provides a final case study of how much more could be explored.


The exhibition was curated by Henrike Lähnemann (Professor of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics), together with Emilia Henderson and Philippa Taylor and the help of the Taylor Institution staff. Special thanks go to Lydia Pryce-Jones who designed the cover image, to Emma Huber for master-minding the operation, and to Clare Hills-Nova for her curatorial expertise! So this is an exhibition that invites visitors on a journey to discover more of the astonishing treasures of the Taylorian while engaging with Shakespeare. The catalogue of the exhibition can be downloaded here; the full edition of ‘Twin Spin’ can be bought in the Taylorian at the Issue Desk or ordered from online retailers (ISBN 978-0-9954564-0-2). This first pamphlet from the Taylor Institution Library is published on the day of Shakespeare’s 400th death day, showing that he is very much alive – not least through the constant renewal in translation.