King's College London
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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

The Halberstadt Bible

Hand-coloured woodcut illustration, depicting St. Jerome seated at a desk in his study, with text belowSt Jerome in his study, from the Halberstadt BibleEnglish was by no means theonly vernacular language into which the Bible was translated during the 16th century. German-speaking Europe had a particularly strong tradition of Biblical translation, a tradition strengthened immeasurably but not founded by the reforming zeal of Martin Luther.

On display is a copy of the Low German Halberstadt Bible. The last of the pre-Lutheran German translationsof the Bible, it was printed only two months before the publication of Luther’s first translation of the Bible, the September testament, and had been preceded, since 1466, by fourteen different printed editions of the High German Bible and three of the Low German Bible.

All these pre-Lutheran German Bibles shared two characteristics: they were translated not from the original Hebrew and Greek texts but from the Latin Vulgate and they were written in a stilted and sometimes incomprehensible German, far removed from the language spoken and understood by the German people. Because of this they never really entered into Germany’s religious and literary heritage, as Luther’s version was to do.

The Halberstadt Bible was itself heavily reliant in both text and illustration on earlier Low German Bibles printed in Cologne (14778) and Lubeck (1494). Many of the 136 woodcuts were taken from the same blocks as those used by the printers of the 14778 Cologne Bible, though some, including this charming depiction of St Jerome in his study, were specially commissioned from the illustrator Conrad Drake. The St Jerome woodcut appears nearly twenty times, functioning as a visual assertion of the primacy of the Vulgate text. The rather crude hand-colouring seen in our copy is probably the work of an early owner.

The timing of the publication of the Halberstadt Bible proved unfortunate for its publisher, Ludwig Trutebul. The appearance of Luther’s September testament, of which an estimated 5,000 copies were sold in two months, spelt financial disaster for Trutebul; the Halberstadt Bible was unable to compete and he did not recoup the investment he had made in its publication. He eventually sold his business and moved to Erfurt, where he printed a number of Lutheran pamphlets.

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