Ernst Glück’s Daunting Task
OVER 300 years ago, Ernst Glück took on a task that few men throughout history have dared to start. He decided to translate the Bible into a language that he did not know.
Glück was born about 1654 in the small town of Wettin, near Halle, Germany. His father was a Lutheran pastor, and the religious atmosphere in the home gave young Ernst spiritual leanings. At the age of 21, he finished his theological studies in Germany and moved to what is now Latvia. At that time, most of the local people lacked formal education, and few books were available in their language. Glück wrote: “When in my youth I arrived in this land, the first shortcoming I noticed was that the Latvian church lacked the Bible . . . This moved me to resolve before God to study this language and master it completely.” He was determined to give the Latvian people a Bible in their language.
Preparations for Translation
The area where Glück settled was then known as Livonia and was ruled by Sweden. The local representative of the king of Sweden was Johannes Fischer. He was interested in raising the standard of education in the country and also in making money. Glück spoke with Fischer about translating the Bible into Latvian. Fischer owned a printery in the capital city of Riga. By printing the Latvian Bible, he could further his work in education and, at the same time, hopefully turn a nice profit. Fischer asked King Charles XI of Sweden to authorize the translation. The king granted him permission for the project and offered to finance it. A royal resolution of August 31, 1681, allowed the translating work to begin.
Meanwhile, Glück was preparing himself. With his German background, he could have used Martin Luther’s translation as the basis for the Latvian Bible. But Glück wanted to produce the best version possible and concluded that this required translating from the original Hebrew and Greek. Glück’s knowledge of Biblical languages was inadequate, so he went to Hamburg, Germany, to study Hebrew and Greek. While he was there, a Livonian clergyman named Jānis Reiters likely helped him with the Latvian language as well as Biblical Greek.
Years of Work, Years of Waiting
Finishing his language training in 1680, Glück returned to Latvia and began serving as a minister. Soon he started his translation work. In 1683, Glück received a new appointment as pastor to the large parish of Alūksne, which became closely connected with his translation.
At that time, the Latvian language lacked words for many Biblical terms and concepts. Hence, Glück used some German words in his translation. But he did his best to put God’s Word into Latvian, and experts agree that his translation is of high quality. Glück even coined new words, and several words of his making are now widely used in Latvian. These include the Latvian terms for “example,” “feast,” “giant,” “to spy,” and “to testify.”
Johannes Fischer kept the king of Sweden informed of how the translation work was progressing, and their correspondence reveals that by 1683, Glück had translated the Christian Greek Scriptures. He finished the entire Bible by 1689, having completed his daunting task in just eight years.a There were long delays in publication, yet in 1694 he reached his goal—the government authorized public distribution of the Latvian Bible.
Some historians have questioned whether Glück’s Bible translation was all his own work. No doubt he consulted Luther’s translation and worked into his text portions of the Bible that already existed in the Latvian language. These parts, however, make up only a small portion of his translation. Were other translators involved? Glück did have an assistant while he was translating, and others helped with proofreading and quality checking. It seems, though, that their assistance did not include actual translating. So it is likely that Glück was the sole translator.
Glück’s translation was a milestone in the development of the written Latvian language, yet there was a far more important result. At last, the Latvian people could read God’s Word in their own language and take in its life-giving teachings. They have not forgotten what Ernst Glück did for them. For over 300 years, the people of Alūksne have cared for two oak trees known as Glika ozoli, or Glück’s oaks. Glück planted them to commemorate the Latvian Bible. There is a small museum in Alūksne that contains various Bible versions, among them a copy from the first printing of Glück’s translation. And the coat of arms of Alūksne shows the Bible as well as the date 1689, when Glück finished his work.
His Later Work
Soon after his arrival in Latvia, Glück started learning Russian. In 1699 he wrote that he was fulfilling another desire—to translate the Bible into that language. In a letter dated 1702, he wrote that he had started to revise the Latvian Bible. But the conditions favorable for Bible translation were ending. After many years of peace, Latvia became a battlefield. In 1702 the Russian armies defeated the Swedes and took control of Alūksne. Glück and his family were deported to Russia.b In those turbulent times, Glück lost the manuscripts of his new Latvian Bible and of his Russian translation. He died in Moscow in 1705.
The disappearance of those later versions in Latvian and Russian was a great loss. But to this day everyone who reads the Latvian Bible benefits from Glück’s original translation.
Ernst Glück is just one of many who have undertaken the immense task of translating the Bible into vernacular languages. As a result, almost every language group on earth can read God’s Word and thus take in its priceless waters of truth. Yes, by means of Bible editions in over 2,000 languages, Jehovah continues to make himself known to people everywhere.
a By comparison, 47 scholars labored for seven years to complete the English Authorized Version, or King James Version, in 1611.
b Glück’s foster daughter survived him and married Russian Czar Peter the Great. In 1725, the year Peter died, she became Catherine I, the empress of Russia.
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Jehovah’s Witnesses teach the Bible in the town where Glück translated it