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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

A Swiss Romansch Bible

Front pastedown endpaper, with manuscript annotations, and decorative title pageLa Sacra Bibla, 1679Romansch is a language of Latin origin still spoken today by some 35,000 people in mountainous areas of south eastern Switzerland. Until the Reformation it was largely a spoken language only, but in the second half of the 16th century printers began to meet the Romansch-speaking population’s demand for religious texts in their own language.

The first book published in Romansch was a catechism, printed in the small Alpine town of Poschiavo in 1552. This was followed by a Romansch translation of the Psalms printed in Basel in 1562, far away from the parts of Switzerland where Romansch was actually spoken, and this became the pattern for the next hundred years, most Romansch texts being printed in centres of the book trade such as Zurich, where the printers were not themselves conversant with the Romansch language.

This naturally led to errors and delays in production and in 1661 two Protestant ministers, Joan Pitschen Salutz (ca 15951663) and Jacob Dorta (ca 1630ca1697), established a printing press in their native valley, the Lower Engadine. To fund the purchase of the press they organised a collection, asking the Protestant parishes and every Protestant in the valley to make a financial contribution. The day of the arrival of the press in the valley is recorded to have been marked by widespread celebrations.

In 1664 Dorta, by then sole owner of the press, joined forces with his brother-in-law Jachen Anton Vulpi (1629-1706) to produce a complete translation of the Bible into the local Vallader dialect of Romansch (Romansch is an umbrella term for a language that exists in a number of quite distinct dialect forms). Relying heavily on the excellent Italian version of the Bible produced by the Protestant scholar Giovanni Diodati (1576-1649) in Geneva in 1607, they laboured for ten years over their translation.

It was finally completed in 1674 and approved by the synod of Chur. Five years later the first copy came off the press. A contemporary account records that the publication of the Romansch Bible was as important to the inhabitants of the Lower Engadine as that of Luther’s Bible had been to the Germans over a century earlier.

Our copy, shown here to display the attractive decorative title page, contains on the endpapers a manuscript account, dated 1772, of natural disasters – rock falls, a fire and a flood which had recently afflicted the Lower Engadine.

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