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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive What is the Bibel in gerechter Sprache? Assumptions, Process, and Goals of a New German Bible Translation

 

Luzia Sutter Rehmann (Translated and edited by Susanne Scholz)

Although Martin Luther’s German Bible translation has long played a dominant role in contemporary Protestant churches in German-speaking countries, Bible translations keep being published every couple of years or so. Among them are “Die Gute Nachricht Bibel,” “Hoffnung für alle,“ “Die Elberfelder,“ “Die Einheitsübersetzung,“ “Wilckens,” “Stier,” “Berger/Nord,” “Die Zürcher Übersetzung,” and the revised versions of the Luther translation (1984) and the Zürcher translation (2007). All of them attract old and new readers to the Bible and assist those who do not read biblical literature in the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Although not all of them are of course useful in an academic context or intended as a replacement of authoritative translations endorsed by the mainline Protestant and Catholic Churches, they offer interesting and informative alternative linguistic options. They are usually appreciated for this very fact.

 Three Characteristics of this Inclusive Translation

German-speaking scholars of biblical studies developed Die Bibel in gerechter Sprache independent of any ecclesiastical requirements or assumptions. They published a Bible translation that followed only linguistic and hermeneutical translation principles guided by recent scholarship in the disciplines of Hebrew Bible and New Testament. It is also the first German-language translation that openly discloses linguistic and hermeneutical assumptions and clearly locates itself in the contemporary theological movements of our time: the liberation theology movement, the feminist movement, and the ecumenical and interreligious movements, especially the Jewish-Christian dialog. The goal of translating the biblical literature into inclusive, or rather “gerechte Sprache” (just language), embraces the following three theological discourses:

1.      Sensitivity toward political and social mechanisms that marginalize the “other”;

2.      Sensitivity toward gender relations and open acknowledgement of the contributions of women to society and religion;

3.      Sensitivity toward the problem of Christian anti-Judaism that has led to distorted depictions of Judaism in Christian Bible translations.

The editors of the new inclusive Bible translation write: “The title of this translation, Bibel in gerechter Sprache, does not claim that this translation is “just” (gerecht) and others are unjust (ungerecht). This translation accepts the challenge to deal with the foundational theme in the Bible, which is justice.”[1]

The editors recognize that translation cannot be reduced to a philological and historical task alone, but that every translation always entails theological accountability. Such a position is vulnerable to criticism because it asserts that every translation also involves interpretation and that one cannot be separated from the other. Actual examples from the text and its translation have to demonstrate whether this new inclusive translation is successful in making this theological responsibility visible for contemporary readers.

Let me illustrate this point with a passage from Gen 2. The creation of the woman from the rib of the man is inscribed in Christian iconography. The story has also justified the secondary status of women throughout the centuries. The new inclusive translation of this passage emphasizes three convictions: first, adam is not exclusively to be translated as “Mensch” (human), and thus cannot only be viewed as a male noun in German. Accordingly, the Hebrew noun is translated as “Menschenwesen,” which in German is grammatically neutral: “das Menschenwesen.” The translation signifies either a sexually undifferentiated creature (Gen 2) or an androgynous human being (Gen 1:27). Second, the translation of Gen 2 refers to God as “she,” which takes seriously that in Gen 1:27 God creates humans in the divine image as female and male. Third, the noun zela is not translated as “rib” but as “side,” similar to other biblical passages in which the noun refers to the side of the tabernacle in the desert, the ark, or the Temple in Jerusalem. The “side” is anatomically indispensable, whereas one can live without a rib.

Gen 2:21-22

Da liess jAdonajj, also Gott, einen Tiefschlaf auf das Menschenwesen fallen, dass es einschlief, nahm eine von seinen Seiten und verschloss die Stelle mit Fleisch. Dann formte jAdonajj, also Gott, die Seite, die sie dem Menschenwesen entnommen hatte, zu einer Frau um und brachte sie zu Adam, dem Rest des Menschenwesens.

 

The translation of these two verses indicates that the translator, Frank Crüsemann, attempts to do “justice” to the reception history of this passage in the original text and in the translation. It makes a big difference if the woman is created from one of the many bones of the man or from the side of the “Menschenwesen,” which only after the surgery is called “Mann” in Gen 2:23: “Sie soll ‘ischa’ heissen, denn vom ‘isch’ wurde sie genommen.” Only in Gen 2:23 do unambiguous terms appear in the translation (“Mann”); prior to v. 23, it is “ha-adam” in its double formation (“Menschenwesen”). This translation is based on the Jewish medieval debate that recognized the androgynity of the original human (“Urmenschen”). Also, a contemporary Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide, explains that the rabbis did not view the woman as the ruler over the man (then she would have emerged from his head) or his slave (then she would have emerged from his feet). Instead, God created her from Adam’s side because they are supposed to live side by side, because she should side with him and he with her.[2] In contrast, the rib makes for a senseless narrative.

Polyphony of This Inclusive Translation

One of the special characteristics of the Bibel in gerechter Sprache is that Bible scholars edited the volume and not a translation committee endorsed by any church. Indeed, as with any other edited book, the editors appear with their full names on the cover; they bear the scholarly responsibility for the publication. In addition, the translators are clearly identified, and their names appear at the beginning of each translated biblical book—each individual translator is responsible for her or his translation.

The transparency of the responsibilities has created a polyphonous Bible translation. It does not promote an elitist or simplified German Bible, but each translator uses her or his linguistic preferences so that each translated book sounds different depending on the translator. Does this very unusual approach destroy inner-biblical connections?

The editors recognized the linguistic danger and searched for solutions that would reveal the inner-biblical linguistic web among the different books. Connections are offered in the inner columns of each page’s layout, and, where appropriate, keywords appear on the margins that can be searched. A glossary contains references to the entire Christian canon and is not divided into Hebrew Bible and New Testament. For instance, the term “origin” (“Ursprung”) is marked in 2 Cor 1:2 and on the margin the word pater appears, the original Greek term used for the translated word “Ursprung.” In the glossary, an explanation on ab/pater explains the meaning of pater in more detail: sometimes the biological/social role of the father (e.g., Mark 15:21; Luke 15:12); sometimes the ancestors in general (e.g., Apg 22:1-3; Hebr 11:23); sometimes the place of origins, the “source” (e.g., Luke 11:13), the origin of a behavior (e.g., John 8:44), or the origin of a group (Rom 4:11).

In addition, the Hebrew and Greek terms on the inner column (in transliteration) indicate that the German text is a translation. Curious readers are invited to check the glossary and learn more about a particular term that has multiple meanings in Hebrew and Greek. The cross-referenced layout enables translators to provide further information on, for instance, the androcentric image of God. The Greek term, pater, is not always translated with the German “Vater” (father), but instead with “Ursprungsort, Quelle” (origin, source). For instance, Luke 11:11-13 offers a translation that goes beyond androcentric imagery for the divinity:

Oder ist unter euch ein *Vater oder eine Mutter, die ihrem eigenen Kind eine Schlange anbietet, wenn es um einen Fisch gebeten hat? Oder einen Skorpion, wenn es um ein Ei gebeten hat? Wenn ihr, die ihr doch nichts Besonderes seid, euren Kindern gute Gaben zu geben wisst, wie viel mehr wird die himmlische *Quelle denen die heilige Geistkraft geben, die bitten!

Furthermore, the new inclusive Bible translation is unusual for its canonical ordering of the biblical books. It follows the Jewish canon and includes the Apocrypha: “Tora—Prophetische Bücher/Nevvim—Schriften/Ketuvim—Apokryphen/Deuterokanonische Schriften.“ The Prophets are the center in the Jewish canon, connecting back to the Torah and forward to the Writings. Placed accordingly, the prophetic books cannot be read as christological foreshadowing of Christ, the messiah—a long and problematic tradition in Christian Bible interpretations. The inclusion of the Apocrypha is rare in Protestant Bibles and recognizes the inner-Christian dialog between the Protestant and Catholic churches. They are also included because aprocryphal books such as Judith, Tobit, and the Maccabees provide valuable social historical information that has been of particular interest to German biblical studies. The prayer of the remorseful King Manasse is the end in this canonical arrangement and hints at a hermeneutical attitude that challenges institutionalized socio-political and economic power.

Finally, the end of the comprehensive volume of 2,400 pages lists the editors and translators as well as the many donors who supported the publication financially. It is remarkable that individual and collective donors come from the wide spectrum of Christian congregational life in German-speaking countries. Among the donors are small and large congregations and church groups in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. There are Catholic nuns and feminist-theological organizations, the “Männerarbeit” of the Protestant regional church in Westphalia, and even the “Freundeskreis rheinischer Pfarrerfamilien.” The long list of donors indicates that enormous grass-roots support has enthusiastically endorsed the publication of this first inclusive Bible translation in the German language.

The Translation Process of the “BigS”

The wide support for this first inclusive German Bible is not only rooted in the discontent with the many androcentric translations that cement male-oriented language and history-writing. The editors have also been very successful in engaging many different people and organizations at the grass-roots level. Since the “BigS” was not commissioned by any ecclesiastical body, it is an independent academic project that grew out of the Evangelischer Deutscher Kirchentag, a Protestant lay and youth conference that takes place every other year in different German cities. Since the 1980s, some of the editors and translators have participated in the week-long conferences that include daily Bible study workshops, for which biblical scholars translated lectionary texts into inclusive language. This initial interest in an inclusive Bible translation developed later into the “BigS.” Individual translations were tried out during the Kirchentag, and the positive responses encouraged the scholars to work on an inclusive Bible translation.

After several years of pondering their options, several of these Bible scholars sent out a call to their colleagues to identify interest. In December 2001, the editorial board formed and announced the project. Fifty-two translators were invited to participate, and a board was created to support the project. It was decided that all translations were to be tested among grass-roots readers, who volunteered their time. About three hundred groups of committed grass-roots readers participated; they read drafted translations, made suggestions for change, and corresponded with individual translators about possible improvements of a translated passage.

For five years, the translators and the editors worked intensively. They met for several weekend workshops, assessed the status of individual translations, and discussed general translation issues. They formed subtranslation groups, read each other’s translations, and tried to identify solutions for the many linguistic and hermeneutical issues that constantly emerged. They decided to develop a glossary and to collect the keywords.

Among the biggest translation challenges was how to translate the name of God, the tetragrammaton. This problem became prominent during a conference on the work in progress in August 2003. The translators and editors decided to abandon the androcentric terminology “Herr” and follow the Jewish custom that addressed God with “adonai” whenever the tetragrammaton appeared in the Hebrew text. The debate was controversial, but eventually everybody agreed that the translated text would offer various translation options in the text and on the margin. Here are two examples for translations of the tetragrammaton:

Ex 3:14

Gott erwiderte Mose: „Ich bin da, weil ich da bin!“ Er sagte: „Das sollst du den Israeliten mitteilen: jIch-bin-dajhat mich zu euch geschickt!“

 Ps 5:2-4

Meinem Sprechen lausche, jha-Makomj,
mein Seufzen – nimm es wahr!
Höre doch meine Stimme, wie ich um Hilfe rufe-
 Mein Gott, du bist königlich! Ja, zu dir bete ich.
jHa-makomj, morgens hörst du meine Stimme,
morgens mache ich mich für dich bereit und halte Ausschau.

Other alternatives for the tetragrammaton include female and male substitute names: “der Ewige,” “die Ewige,” “Schechina,” “der Name,” “ha-Schem,” “der Lebendige,” “die Lebendige,” “DU,” “ErSie,” “SieEr,” “der Eine,” “die Eine,” “die Heilige,” “der Heilige,” “ha-Makom,” “GOTT,” and “Ich-bin-da.” Nonetheless, even these many names did not solve all problems, and the team decided that the substitutes should be highlighted in gray so that they would be easily recognizable. In the Hebrew Bible the highlighted substitute for the tetragrammaton would also be bracketed with “jod-jod,” the rabbinic abbreviation for the name of God. The markers would ensure that the diverse terms would be connected visibly with each other. The translators and editors also decided that each biblical book would contain only one substitute term for the tetragrammaton. Each translator was free to choose which terms to use in her or his translated book(s), so that a certain level of coherence would be guaranteed.

Since God is the same in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the translation of the name of God in the New Testament relied on the same idea. Each translated term is highlighted in the text, but in the New Testament each translation is bracketed with the first and last letter of the word kyrios: “k” and “s.” Since already in ancient Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible the name of God appears as kyrios, the God of Israel, the translators decided to connect their translation to this ancient tradition. For instance, 1 Cor 10:9 is translated according to these hermeneutical decisions: “Lasst uns auch nicht kdie Ewiges auf die Probe stellen.” Similarly, Luke 1:46-47 provides yet another option to translate “kyrios“: “Und Maria sprach: Meine Seele lobt die kLebendiges, und mein Geist jubelt über Gott, die mich gerettet hat.”

Raising Consciousness about Anti-Jewish Assumptions

The translators of the new inclusive Bible share a commitment to the Jewish-Christian dialog, and they have thus tried to raise consciousness about anti-Jewish assumptions in translating the New Testament into contemporary German. Their commitment goes hand-in-hand with feminist Christian theological convictions that learned to recognize anti-Jewish prejudices in painful debates during the 1980s.[3] Thus, in the last decade the emphasis has been on New Testament interpretations, as well as on the historical recognition that New Testament literature is part of an inner-Jewish conversation. For instance, the beginning phrases of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew are usually translated as “Ich aber sage euch. . .” (But I tell you. . .), as if Jesus rejected or opposed the Jewish tradition. However, when Luise Schottroff translates the text, she grounds her translation in the traditional Jewish formula of the rabbis; accordingly, she translates: “Ich lege euch das heute so aus. . .” (Today I interpret this text for you in this way). Jesus teaches Torah in the Sermon of the Mount like Moses; he stands in the tradition of Moses and his successors. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus interprets the Torah for his audience in his time; he does not reject the Torah, nor does he limit its validity or provide an alternative outside of this tradition.

The Gospel of John represents a difficult problem; it contains many phrases that contributed to the countless anti-Jewish assumptions in Christianity. How does the new inclusive Bible translation deal with these texts in John? Does it favor “political correctness” or does it plainly translate the difficult phrases as they appear in the Greek text? It needs to be noted that the term “Jews” includes a spectrum of translation possibilities in John that include the objective description of Jewish ethnic identity (e.g., John 4:9), references to specific customs in Judaism (e.g., John 2:13), and negative judgment about Jews (e.g., John 6:41). The translators of the Gospel of John, Judith Hartenstein and Silke Petersen, made certain that the Jewishness of Jesus and Jews in general is visible in their translation of the Gospel, so that anti-Jewish prejudices cannot be easily attributed to the Jewish people alone and not include Jesus. Here is an illustration from the translation: “Andere jüdische Menschen sagten dem Geheilten. . .“ (John 5:10; Other Jewish people told the healed person. . .); “Deshalb verfolgte die jüdische Obrigkeit Jesus, weil er dies an einem Sabbat getan hatte.Der Jude Jesus aber antwortete ihnen. . .“ (John 5:16-17; Therefore the Jewish leaders persecuted Jesus because he had done this on a Sabbath. Yet Jesus, the Jew, told them. . .). The context of these passages demonstrates that Jesus, his friends, and followers are all Jewish. The translation tries to make this fact visible by highlighting the Jewish identity of Jesus, although the Greek text does not say so explicitly.

This solution does not work for perhaps the most problematic verse in the Gospel of John. In John 8:44 the German translation is not sugarcoated: “Ihr kommt vom Teufel als *Vater her, und seinen Begierden wollt ihr entsprechen“ (You come from the devil as Father, and you want to correspond to his desires”). The translation is as harsh in German as it is in the original text. Those who want help get it from the margins of the translated text; they may look up the term pater in the glossary and learn there that pater also refers to the “source of a behavior.” Readers may also look up the text, John 4:22—referenced on the margin—that locates salvation in Judaism. Thus, keyword references and biblical cross-references attempt to guide readers into an inner-textual conversation. Yet the translated text itself is plain and literally represents the Greek text.

 Post-Publication Work is Ongoing

The German inclusive translation has indeed reached the general public, and many major daily papers and weekly magazines have reviewed it, some of them even prior to the publication date in October 2006. The critique was largely negative, even reaching an astonishingly hostile tone that characterized the translation as “unscholarly” and a theological sellout. Yet some reviewers also view the Bibel in gerechter Sprache as “historic” and a huge accomplishment that changes contemporary German theological discourse.

The editors and translators have already arranged for a revision that not only includes obvious corrections, but also provides a structure for ongoing conversation in the form of workshops and worship experiences with the translation. Supporters of the translation recognize that more work needs to be done, especially regarding the various ways of addressing God, the dismantling of anti-Jewish assumptions, and the ongoing struggle against male-dominated theological discourse. The new Bible translation has opened up the debate.

Luzia Sutter Rehmann, University of Basel

Notes

[1] Bibel in gerechter Sprache, 10.

[2] Pinchas Lapide, Ist die Bibel richtig übersetzt? (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2004), 162-63.
[3] Luise Schottroff and Marie-Therese Wacker, eds., Von der Wurzel getragen: Christlich-feministische Exegese in Auseinandersetzung mit Antijudaismus (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

Citation: Luzia Sutter Rehmann, " What is the Bibel in gerechter Sprache? Assumptions, Process, and Goals of a New German Bible Translation," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2008]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=761

 
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