Translation cautions from Archbishop of Mainz

For we have seen how Christ’s books containing especially [material of] celebration of divine services, as well as works on divine matters and the most important principles of our religion, have been translated from Latin into German to be handled by the common people, which must inevitably be considered an offense to religion …

Would such translators claim, assuming that they care about the truth – irrespective of whether they carry out their translations in good faith or with evil designs – that the German language is capable of containing all that Greek and Latin writers have written, in the most careful and distinct way, about the highest thinking of Christian religion and matters of science? One must confess the poverty of our language, its inability to suffice these writers in the least, and that if these [translators] fabricate unknown words out of their bowels, or even if they do make use of some ancient [texts], they will inevitably corrupt the sense of the truth – something that we have reason to fear most in the case of holy Scripture because of the magnitude of the danger posed by this.

— Berthold, Archbishop of Mainz, 1485

(Vidimus enim Christi libros missarum afficia continentes et praeterea de diuinis rebus et apicibus nostrae religionis scriptos, e latina in germanicam linguam traductos nec sine religionis dedecore versari per manus vulgi …

Dicant translatores tales, si verum colunt, bono etiam siue malo id faciant animo, an ne lingua germanica capax sit eorum, que tum greci tum et Latini egregij scriptores de summis speculationibus religionis christiane et rerum scientia accuratissime argutissimeque scripserunt? Fateri oportet ydeomatis nostri inopiam minime sifficere necesse que fore, eos ex suis ceruicibus nomina fingere incognita, aut, si veteribus quibusdam vtantur, veritatis sensum corrumpere, quod propter magnitudinem periculi in literis sacris magis veremur.)

–Text and pages of original document here.


  1. I’m not exactly sure why this is posted under “humor”. There is little that is humorous about this… unless of course you are simply mocking the claim that translations are likely to distorting the meaning of the original, and that this is a particularly grave concern when translating scriptural or liturgical texts.

    Or is it that allowing the “common people” to have access to the “most important principles of our religion” and so be able to interpret them on their own is portrayed as an offense to religion….although, ironically, the translation from Latin into English of this passage is itself a bit disingenuous as it employs the more loaded term “common people” rather than simply “the public” or “the faithful” for vulgi…adding a dimension of condescension to the English translation where the Latin original implies no such meaning other than the assumption that the public may well misinterpret such “important principles” and thus corrupt the teachings…certainly a legitimate concern in a society with limited public literacy.

    1. What’s hilarious, of course, is having a German preside over and make decisions about translations into English.

      I mean, what if a German became Pope, say, (or a Chilean or a Nigerian head of CDW) and . . . oh wait . . .

      Well, thankfully, the most recent Ecumenical Council gave the say in such translations to the local conferences of bishops.

  2. It is rather funny given the high regard in which some later Germans held their language (e.g. Heidegger said that Greek and German were the only two languages in which one could do real philosophy).

  3. Perhaps one could argue that ancient Anglo-Saxon was not yet an adequate vehicle for full liturgical expression, but that the English language has now developed to the point that it can be as expressive as Latin or Greek.

    Just as the German language has developed rather nicely since 1485, when the archbishop was writing.

    1. I think the Enlgih language was at its best for liturgical purposes around 1600. It has evolved along very secular paths since then. English religious language tends to be musty or bloated.

  4. Fr. Ruff forgot to quote the next two paragraphs:

    Not only must one confess the poverty of the German language, but it also follows that those Germans who are ignorant of Latin and Greek, lacking the words to express prayer adequately, also necessarily lack the very means to think those prayers adequately, and so their claims to pray in church must be considered an offense to religion as well.

    Only by first mastering Latin or Greek can they hope to sufficiently develop their ability to pray as to be considered to have attained a sufficient understanding of our faith to receive communion.

      1. Here is what I could read, but that part of the manuscript is quite heavily damaged (maybe that’s why Fr Ruff omitted that section), so my deciphering is approximate in places.

        Hoc unum fateri oportet paupertati linguae Germanicae, sed etiam sequitur quod Germani expertes Latinae et Graecae, oratio satis verbis exprimere non desit, desit quoque necesse est ipsum sentire satis eis precibus, et sic Vestibulum ut oraret in ecclesia scandalum religionis putanda est.

        Primum graece vel latine solum vinco satis explicare possunt sperare posse sufficere ad orandum est ut sit intellectus fidei nostrae habere adepti communicent.

      2. Most scholars consider the part quoted by Claire to be a spurious interpolation concocted by the simoniac Archbishop who was successor to Berthold, Laurentius Pagina, or perhaps his devious scribe, Sergy Brinius.

      1. Last I checked, Christian have a rather different theological understanding of their scriptures than Muslim’s do of the Qur’an.

  5. The Archbishop’s snobbery must be answered! The Venerable Bede recorded the hymn (composed between 658 and 680) of Caedmon, an unlettered monk who wrote, in the Germanic Old English vernacular, “verse worthy of the deity”:

    Nū sculon heriġean heofonrīċes weard,
    Meotodes meahte ond his mōdġeþanc,
    weorc wuldorfæder, swā hē wundra ġehwæs,
    ēċe Drihten, ōr onstealde.
    Hē ǣrest sceōp eorðan bearnum
    heofon tō hrōfe, hāliġ Scyppend;
    þā middanġeard monncynnes weard,
    ēċe Drihten, æfter tēode
    fīrum foldan, Frēa ælmihtiġ.
    A recording by A.Z. Foreman, in which you can hear the alliteration, is at translated by A.Z. Foreman

    Bede’s Latin Translation with apology: “This is the sense, but not the words in order as [Caedmon] sang them in his sleep; for verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness”:
    Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis
    potentiam Creatoris et consilium illius
    facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille,
    cum sit aeternus Deus omnium miraculorum auctor extitit
    qui primo filiis hominum
    caelum pro culmine tecti
    dehinc terram custos humani generis
    omnipotens creauit.

    And in fairly literal Modern English from Wikipedia:
    Now we must praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian, the Measurer’s might and his mind-plans, the work of the Glory-Father, when he of wonders every one, the eternal Lord, the beginning established. He first created for men’s sons heaven as a roof, holy creator; then middle-earth mankind’s Guardian, the eternal Lord afterwards made for men earth, Master almighty.

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