Linguistics and Theology at a Crossroads

Professor Artūras Ratkus presented his discoveries concerning the translation of the Gothic Bible, demonstrating that the translation process was much more complicated than previously believed.

IMG_6357PROVO, Utah (December 11, 2015)—The Bible has traveled a long road to reach the various translations that exist today. That journey has included even more translations, some of which are entirely lost. The Gothic Bible – the translation used by the Eastern Germanic tribes – exists now only in fragments, but those fragments are giving scholars valuable insight to the early history of Germanic languages and the work translators dedicated to bringing their people the word of God.

Speaking at the Student Symposium on Germanic Languages and Philology, Artūras Ratkus – professor from the University of Vilnius, Lithuania – shared how his research suggests the Gothic Bible’s translation was even more complicated than scholars had previously thought.

According to tradition, the Bible was translated from the Greek to the Gothic by Wulfila, a fourth-century Gothic bishop and missionary. But Ratkus’ research calls this narrative into question. “This belief that we’ve entertained for the last 15 hundred years is actually wrong,” he said. “Chances are there were more translators.”

Ratkus’ argument is built on how the Greek word ἀρχιερεύς, meaning “first/highest priest,” was translated in the Gothic. In the Greek text, the word is consistently used in the same manner without making distinctions of meaning. But for every time ἀρχιερεύς appears in the Greek, the Gothic uses one of seven different variations to translate the word, carefully drawing distinctions between the singular “high priest” and the plural “chief priests.”

To be fair, the variation in translation is in large part due to the fact that ἀρχιερεύς has no direct equivalent in the Gothic language; Ratkus identified the Gothic noun ufargudja, meaning “over-priest,” as being the closest. But rather than go with a single word that was structurally closest to correct, the translators decided to use whatever they felt worked best in the context.

Ratkus explained, “I argue that, in the absence of a linguistically convenient Gothic equivalent for ἀρχιερεύς, the variants are due to the exegetical and creative inputs of the translator, motivated by the need to draw important referential distinctions and construct a clear narrative.”

Translation is rarely a linear process; routinely translators have to make judgment calls. While translating ἀρχιερεύς, which is a compound word, translators had to decide between being faithful to the syntax or the meaning. “The translator can be seen to be torn between two tensions,” Ratkus said. “Do I translate both components and violate the syntax of the Greek Bible by inserting an additional word in the Gothic text, or do I honor the syntax, using only one word, and leave out the first component of the compound?”

The fact that different judgment calls are made in seemingly the same context (for example, within the same story told among the four Gospels) strongly suggests that the Gothic Bible couldn’t have been the work of one man. At least two translators would have been necessary to account for the level of variation that takes place among the Gospels and the decisions in translation.

This discovery potentially turns over a new leaf in the study of the Gothic language, allowing scholars to observe and consistently account for various linguistic peculiarities of Gothic that have so far escaped notice or been misinterpreted. Ratkus concluded, “As scholars of the Gothic Bible, we must always bear in mind that many assumptions that reach us are dogmatic assumptions, and there are many benefits to be gained from a dissociative approach to certain dogmatic truths.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the German and Russian Department for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.