a false negative in Luther’s 95 theses

Preparing to lecture on Luther’s 95 theses to a hapless bunch of sophomores, I found several of the theses more impenetrable than I’d remembered. My suspicion that it might have something to do with the translation I was reading out of was confirmed pretty quickly when I dug up the German text. Number 89 is particularly awful; does this sound like Luther?:

“What the pope seeks by indulgences is not money, but rather the salvation of souls; why then does he not suspend the letters and indulgences formerly conceded, and still as efficacious as ever?”

Somehow the translator managed to slip the negation (in bold print) into a sentence where it is totally lacking in German, rendering the English sentence pretty much incomprehensible—at least historically. Here’s the German:

“Wieso sucht der Papst durch den Ablaß das Heil der Seelen mehr als das Geld; warum hebt er früher gewährte Briefe und Ablässe jetzt auf, die doch ebenso wirksam sind?”

Some of the other errors are equally egregious, and this is a fairly standard collection of Luther’s writings (Martin Luther: A Selection of His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger). How does this happen? And why is a translation this bad still being anthologized?

7 Replies to “a false negative in Luther’s 95 theses”

  1. A better translation would be: “Since the Pope seeks the salvation of souls rather than money through the indulgences, why has he now cancelled prior letters and indulgences, which are nevertheless still effective?”

    1. John,

      Good catch. I think you’re definitely right—typo rather than translation error (and I should have seen that!). Still, it made it past several copy editors in order to make it into this anthology!

      Here’s another one that blew my mind, lest someone think I’m just picking at nits:

      “65: Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets which, in former times, they used to fish for men of wealth [die Besitzer von Reichtum].

      66: The treasures of the indulgences are the nets today which they use to fish for men of wealth[den Reichtum von Besitzenden].”

      66 should clearly read, “the wealth of men” (or “citizens,” actually]. The rhetorical punch of the pairing hangs on the reversal of the genitive. How could you pave over that glaring difference!?!

  2. I remember being sort of confused by some of the theses when I read that translation–this explains why, I guess. Is there a better one that you’ve found, Eric?

    1. Catherine,

      Franklin’s students are using this book, which has a much better translation in it. I don’t have that book here, and I can’t seem to find out who did the translation using Amazon’s “looker” (i.e. I don’t know whether this is a fresh version, or the anthologization [ack!] of another).

  3. Eric,
    good news from our friend Adam. He just retook the GRE today and scored 800 on the verbal! He is definitely stoked about the extra push this might give him in terms of getting into the PhD programs on which he has his sights. I’m sure he’d appreciate a congratulatory email if you get a chance.

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