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Wolfgang Stegemann (Translated and edited by Susanne Scholz)

During the past year a new Bible translation, the Bibel in gerechter Sprache, has led to enormous disputes in Germany. Published in October 2006, this translation has become a bestseller and is currently in its third edition.[1] Despite the positive response by the larger public, theologians and other experts have been highly critical of this translation. Almost all reviews in scholarly journals, major newspapers, and weekly magazines have been negative and have mostly rejected the translation. Even the charge of heresy has been made, and church hierarchies quickly prohibited the liturgical use of this Bible in the worship setting. It was justified with the general hermeneutical argument that this is not a translation but an interpretation of the Bible.

But really, what is so challenging about the Bibel in gerechter Sprache? The actual intention of this Bible translation is quite traditional. It aims to translate the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament on the basis of contemporary scholarly-exegetical standards. The traditional, text-oriented, and philological translation ideals that value closeness to the original text lie at the center of this translation, and the translators want to do “justice” to this principle. At the same time, the total of fifty-two translators have been guided by three additional criteria that are beyond traditional translation categories. These are: first, a gender-just language; second, a just recognition and consideration of the social context and background of the biblical texts; and third, developing a Bible “that is accountable to the Jewish religion” (K. Wengst). The editorial team articulates this third criterion in the negative. The translation wants to ensure that especially the New Testament, as it “developed on Jewish ground,” is not anymore “translated based on anti-Jewish prejudice and thus skewed.”[2]

These three translation criteria are in line with convictions and ideals of modern Western culture as they developed during the second part of the twentieth century. They indicate that this Bible translation does not want to offer solely a terminological transfer of the text from one language into the other. Rather, the translation aims for a cultural transformation, for a process of negotiation between the source text that is located in the ancient Mediterranean culture and the translated text that aims to transfer the source text into the modern Western culture of the early twenty-first century. I therefore believe that the strong reactions to the Bibel in gerechter Sprache are part of a struggle over fundamental translation principles, although of course the participants on both sides are not always aware of this underlying problem. While the critics hold on to more traditional translation principles, the inclusive Bible translators aim for the translation ideal of cultural transformation that is based on the notion of the “translational turn.” Susan Bassnett describes quite poignantly this “turn,” which is both a consequence and part of the translational turn; she states:

Today the movement of peoples around the globe can be seen to mirror the very process of translation itself, for translation is not just the transfer of texts from one language into another, it is now rightly seen as a process of negotiation between text and between cultures, a process during which all kinds of transactions take place mediated by the figure of the translator.[3]

The application of the criterion of gender justice (Geschlechtergerechtigkeit) has received the harshest criticism; it has also created enormous disagreement among German-speaking feminist theologians.[4] Especially the change from exclusive language—i.e., the fact that the Bible uses mostly male grammar for gender-mixed groups of people—has raised many questions and led to numerous disagreements. For instance, many people find it quite acceptable that the Greek text using “brothers” (adelphoi) to address all members of the Christian congregation is translated with the German term “Geschwister” (siblings; e.g., Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:10). The Pauline letters make it clear that the congregations include both men and women so that inclusive language (“Geschwister”) in the translation seems to be justified in the source text. Yet massive resistance occurs when the groups of the Pharisees or scribes (even the tax collectors) that appear only in the grammatical masculine form in the New Testament are translated inclusively. In the public debate the following translation of Matt 23:2.25 is often quoted and debated:

(2) Auf dem Stuhl Moses’ sitzen toragelehrte und pharisäische Leute. . . . (25) Wehe, ihr Scheinheiligen unter den toragelehrten und pharisäischen Männern und Frauen! Ihr reinigt Becher und Schüsseln von außen, doch innen sind sie mit Raub und Gier gefüllt.

(2) On the chair of Moses sit the people who study Torah and are of the Pharisees. . . . (25) Woe, you pretenders among women and men who study Torah and are of the Pharisees! You clean cup and plate from the outside but on the inside they are filled with robbery and greed.

This translation suggests indeed (and the translator, Luise Schottroff, intended it so) that women belonged to the scribes und Pharisees. That is certainly disputed. The opponents of this translation maintain that these two Bible verses do not exemplify the usual linguistic exclusion of women in which a grammatically masculine word is used. They claim that here the androcentric language reflects an androcentric social reality because in the Jewish society of the first-century C.E. female Pharisees (or female scribes or female tax collectors) did not exist.

Of course, the problem is that we do not know exactly if the grammatically masculine noun pharisaioi, which is not a job title but a reference to group identity, also includes women in this group. Regardless of the answer, some commentators consider it already an important success of the Bibel in gerechter Sprache that long-held assumptions about the gendered composition of ancient Jewish society and its various groups are reexamined. Moreover, the strong criticism about the use of inclusive language has raised a fundamental question: Does language have only descriptive or “referential” character, or does it not always already construct reality or realities (“Wirklichkeit[en]”)? If we assume with Wittgenstein that “the boundaries of my language signify the boundaries of my world,” then it would be true that quod non est in lingua non est in mundo. Phrased differently: Repeating the Bible’s exclusive language in modern Bible translations would inevitably lead to repeating linguist reality as it is constructed in the source text; namely, a world in which women played almost no social role. One could therefore ask if the absence of women in a mere mechanical transfer of the Bible’s exclusive language into our language and culture would not lead to a similar absence today, as it did in the ancient society to which the biblical language belonged. I assume that the answer is “probably not.”

A particular concern of this inclusive Bible translation is the translation of biblical references to God. The tetragrammaton of the Hebrew Bible (YHWH), translated by the Septuagint as kyrios, receives various translations in the Bibel in gerechter Sprache. For instance, the tetragrammaton is translated with the female term “die Ewige” (the eternal). In general, the change between masculine and feminine terms for God has led to severe criticism. An important example is the translation of the prayer “Our Father” as follows: “Du, Gott, bist uns Vater und Mutter im Himmel” (Matt 6:9; “You, God, are for us Father and Mother in Heaven”).

Many believe that the text, “Vater unser im Himmel,” is a translation of Matt 6:9, whereas the text, “Du, Gott, bist uns Vater und Mutter im Himmel,” is an interpretation. Yet the term father, the equivalent in the German dictionary to the Greek noun pater, is already an interpretation of the Greek source text. The patriarchal and authoritarian connotations of the Greek word in the Mediterranean cultures of the first century CE are not reflected anymore in the German word Vater. Thus, those who insist on the term “Vater” in the biblical pater hemon would need to supply a term of comparable patriarchal and hierarchical status so that the cultural semantics of the Greek notion of father would be comparable. Yet such a word does not exist in German. In short, when I use the word Vater as the translation for pater, I change the source text by filling it with meaning from my own culture. By using the word Vater, I leave the culture of the New Testament and bring into the text the culture that is connected with that noun. Thus, even the literal translation of the Greek phrase pater hemon with the German “Vater unser” is already an interpretation and definitely a cultural transformation of the source text.

This means that a translation should not only consider the literal words, but also the cultural reality of a text and its words in the translation language. The question is, Can this be done and, if so, how is it best done? Will we ever be able to translate the Greek word pneuma without major cultural loss? The usual translation is the German word “Geist,” a grammatically masculine noun in German but neutral in Greek, and it has created many wrong connotations. The Bibel in gerechter Sprache gives it a try with the word “die Geistkraft.” The Greek pneuma is translated with a feminine noun and sounds less abstract. But even this equivalent does not give us connotations of matter and substance as implied in the Greek word. I also wonder why it is not more appropriate to capture the culture of the biblical languages with words from our own native language. The philological and text-oriented ideals of translation make us forget too quickly that they, too, are the results of cultural transformation because, like the source language, the terminology of one’s own language also has “thick” cultural contexts.[5]

Let me mention one other issue related to the false distinction between translation and interpretation. In German, the term “translation” indicates not only closeness between source text and translated text, but also objectivity. In contrast, the term “interpretation” suggests that translators add their subjective views into the translation. Even those critics who admit that every translation is an interpretation find this position obvious, but uphold that there are differences of degree among interpretations. Some are more precise and closer to the sentence structure of the source text, whereas others are more distant from the sentence structure and less literal. This position might make sense in theory but not in practice, as the following example demonstrates.

In the revised Luther Bible translation (1984) the genitives of the phrases pistis Iesou Christou and dikaiosyne theou are translated as objective genitive. In addition, the word pistis is translated as “Glauben” (not in the sense of faith, but in the sense of belief). Consequently, Rom 3:22 is translated this way: “Ich rede aber von der Gerechtigkeit vor Gott, die da kommt durch den Glauben an Jesus Christus” (I talk about the righteousness before God which comes through the belief in Jesus Christ). In accordance with Lutheran theology, dikaiosyne theou is translated here as the expectation for humanity to fulfill it before God. The phrase pistis Iesou Christou is similarly viewed as an anthropological obligation; people have to believe in Jesus Christ.

I do not need to mention that the Lutheran perspective of Pauline theology present in this translation has been disputed for decades. A new translation tried to supplement, even substitute, it by translating both genitive constructs subjectively, so that righteousness becomes a characteristic or behavior of God and pistis is a description of Jesus Christ. The phrase pistis Iesou Christou turns into a christological statement about the salvation work of Christ. The translators of the Letters to the Galatians and Philippians in the Bibel in gerechter Sprache (Brigitte Kahl and Annette Merz) endorse this position when they translate the phrase pisti Iesou Christou with “from the belief of the Messiah” (Gal 2:16) and “through the belief of Christ” (Phil 3:9). In contrast, the translator of the Letter to the Romans (Claudia Janssen) interprets the phrase, for instance, in Rom 3:22 as an objective genitive (“trust in Jesus, the Messiah;” pistis is here translated as “trust” and not as “belief,” as in the Luther Bible translation).

These examples illustrate that the distinction between translation and interpretation is arbitrary. All of the various translations (including the revised Luther Bible translation) are interpretations of the texts because they eliminate grammatical ambiguities. The decision is based on philological and theological observations. Those who classify one variation (the Luther Bible translation) as translation but all others as interpretations leave the realm of scholarly discourse. They privilege one notion of the text for another, based purely on subjective preferences.

The Bibel in gerechter Sprache created an invigorating public discussion about the task, the possibility, and the boundaries of translation in Germany. Particularly vocal have been representatives of the traditional, text-oriented translation paradigm; they criticized this translation loudly. Yet it becomes increasingly clear that translation is a cultural process of transformation, one that translates words and translates cultures.[6] It has again made obvious that all translations are preliminary and as somebody said recently, like the building of cathedrals, the translation of the Bible is an eternal construction site.

Wolfgang Stegemann, Augustana Hochschule


[1] Ulrike Bail, Frank Crüsemann, Marlene Crüsemann, Erhard Domay, Jürgen Eback, Claudia Janssen, Hanne Köhler, Helga Kuhlmann, Martin Leutzsch, and Luise Schottroff, eds., Bibel in gerechter Sprache (3d ed.; Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2007), 2400 pp.

[2] On all three criteria, see Bibel in gerechter Sprache, 10-11.

[3] Susan Bassnett, Translation Studies (3d ed.; London: Routledge, 2002), 5-6.

[4] Several German-language feminist theologians published an anthology as a resource for pro and con positions, see Elisabeth Gössmann, Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Helen Schüngel-Straumann, eds., Der Teufel blieb männlich: Kritische Diskussion zur Bibel in gerechter Sprache (Neukirchen-Vlyn: Neukirchener Verlagsgesellschaft, 2007).

[5] Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Thick Translation,” in Translation Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Venuti (London: Taylor&Francis, 2000), 417-29.

[6] Lorna Hardwick, Translating Words, Translating Cultures (Bristol: Duckworth, 2000).

Citation: Wolfgang Stegemann, " Translation or Interpretation: Intense Controversy about the New German Translation of the Bible," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2008]. Online:


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