Today, an old book helps us to see things whole.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In 1534 Martin Luther
finished translating the Bible into German. It
wasn't the first time that'd been done, but it was
the first time anyone had applied a new concept of
translation to create a Bible for the people.
Earlier Bible translations were word-for-word,
usually Greek or Hebrew into Latin. Now Renaissance
scholars said: You can't go word for word from one
language into another. Language doesn't work that
way. You have to find the sense of the words in the
first language, then recreate that sense in the
Luther spent twelve years making his translation
and the rest of his life revising it. He pointed
out that, since you must make subjective sense of
the words, any translation is subject to error,
including his. German Protestants still use
versions of Luther's so-called Wittenberg Bible.
But first editions are rarer than hens' teeth. We
know of only two in the United States.
Now Van Lesley tells how the Soviet Army looted a
private German library and shipped its books off to
a Lithuanian warehouse in WW-II. There they sat
until 1987. Finally the base commandant ordered
those useless old books thrown out -- pitched into
an open field. A year later, the head of the
Lithuanian Library heard about it and asked the
Russians for the books.
The officer in charge said, "Take them, they are
...." Well, he used the barnyard term for
excrement. After a year in rain, sleet, and snow,
they were indeed decaying into organic waste.
And there, in the pile, lay a 1534 Wittenberg
Bible, its pages torn and waterlogged, its binding
destroyed -- the hopeless wreck of a once beautiful
and overwhelmingly important book. Along with it
were other treasures -- an edition of Mozart's
string quartets inscribed to "his friend Josef
Van Lesley shows us the tired, and proud, face of
Brone Snitkiene -- a Lithuanian book conservator.
Snitkiene wept as she first tried to wash the mud
from the Bible's pages. For five years she's
literally rewoven ruined paper.
As she holds the rebuilt pages we realize that she
offers her own subtle trick of translation -- her
own sense beyond literal words. For she is a
Catholic in an intensely Catholic country. This
book was as basic to the Protestant Reformation as
Luther's 95 theses were. And she has made it whole
This has been an act of love -- for a fine old
book, for Lithuania, for the cause of healing and
repair. She sends a message about reintegration.
She utters the sense of it -- not word for word,
for the message cannot be said word for word. She
has translated evil into good -- in the surer
tongue of action.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds