a false negative in Luther’s 95 theses

by Eric Daryl Meyer

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?

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