Saturday, June 9, 2012

Learning from the Giants

In German: Biography of a Language, by Ruth H. Sanders, I read this quote:
...Luther's main interest was not even language itself; rather his first priority was the content...From the beginning, his compulsion for universal comprehension was a basic characteristic of Luther's German language creation.
-- Edwin Arndt,Luthers deustches Sprachstaffen,1962

The subject at hand is the task Martin Luther faced of translating the Bible so that could be read and understood by as many people as possible, in a social milieu in which every district had its own distinct dialect with variations not only in vocabulary and pronunciation, but in grammar and syntax. To do this he sweated every word, not once, but many times - revising his translation of the Bible until the day of his death - and in the process transformed the German language and wrote a masterpiece of clear, strong, literary style. And, oh yeah, had some impact on the spiritual life of millions of people down to the present day, but that's outside my present scope of interest.

You can't get better stylistic advice than to imitate Luther, not in what came out of his process, but in what goes into it: the attempt to communicate the content of the work, as clearly as you can, so that the maximum number of people can understand it. Strive to do that, whatever you're saying, and all the things people strain after in writing class will be there in the end result. Your personal literary voice. Style, grace, elegance, eloquence. Even humor - I can't count the times I've made people laugh, just by telling the truth as precisely as I can. (Face it, truth is absurd even when it's not strictly speaking funny.)

You should, of course, be prepared to be zen about the audience's ability to take your clear, lucid prose and derive from it interpretations with which you violently disagree. Luther wasn't expecting that and it drove him up a tree to find that people could read his Bible translation and still disagree with him theologically. Six hundred years of history give you at least that much of a head start on him.

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