History of Estonian Bible Translation

by Kristiina Ross

History of Estonian Bible translation
Kristiina Ross

    In the history of Europe’s Christianisation, the territory of the current three Baltic countries was one of the last pagan enclaves at the border of the sphere of influence of the Christian Eastern and Western Churches. Through the Slavs, Estonians probably came into contact with a Christian mission from the East before the 13th century. However, beginning in the second half of the 12th century, the impact of the Western Germanic mission strengthened, culminating in a crusade in the early 13th century, in the course of which Estonians were forcibly Christianised. The Christianisation of Estonians and Latvians occurred, on the whole, according to more or less the same pattern, and what was essential from the point of view of future cultural history was the fact that, as a result of the forced change of faith, both Estonians and Latvians turned out to be inferior nations in their own lands, without aristocracy or clergy of their own linguistic background.  When the Catholic Church, in the 15th century, began gradually emphasising the necessity of spreading the Word of God in vernacular languages, the developers of the clerical discourse, both in Estonian and Latvian, were in most cases clergymen whose mother tongue was (Low) German (Plattdeutsch).


Through the German clergy, Martin Luther’s reformation ideas quickly reached the Baltic area. After the Reformation, the need for Estonian-language sermons became ever more pressing, and the question of translating the Bible emerged. Due to the previous logic of development, the only potential translators were German pastors, the majority of whom had their first contact with the Estonian language only in their adult years and certainly did not have a full grasp of it.


    Taking into consideration the described historical factors, it was only to be expected that the first Estonian Bible translation appeared rather late (compared with other Protestant nations). Its language was relatively distant from the spoken Estonian of the time, and showed a strong German influence. The first full Estonian Bible was only published in 1739 – about 100 years later than the first Finnish translation (1642) and about 50 years later than the first Latvian translation (the title page of which has the year 1689, although it was actually published in 1694). The fact that the Estonian translation appeared so much later than the Latvian one, was largely because the Estonian language area was divided between two Church powers, and the administrative division was supported by the dialectal segmentation of the language. The northern part of the Estonian language area constituted ‘Estonia’ (Estland) and was subjected to the Consistory of Estonia, with its headquarters in Tallinn; the southern part of the linguistic area (together with Northern Latvia) was a part of Livonia (Livland), and the High Consistory of Livonia was domiciled in Riga. In the administrative region of the Estonian Consistory, a version of a literary language developed that was based on the dialectal language around Tallinn. In the Livonian territory, the same version was partly used as well, but already beginning in the 16th century (i.e. at the time when the written Estonian language first emerged) another version developed in south-eastern Estonia which relied on the southern dialects of the language. Instead of making use of the quite modest potential of translators into Estonian and joining forces in translating the Bible, the Estonian and Livonian consistories wasted a lot of time and energy in the 17th century squabbling and bickering in order to obtain the sole right from the Swedish king (to whom Estonia and Livonia then belonged) to translate the Bible into Estonian.


    Reading the 17th century pericopes in printed books and the surviving Bible translation manuscripts, we can, nevertheless, claim that the disagreement between the two consistories and the subsequently long completion period of the Estonian-language Bible actually turned out to be beneficial to the whole cause. The first serious attempt to publish the Bible in Estonian was made by the Estonian consistory in the 1640s. The New Testament in the North-Estonian language was reputedly indeed completed. Although the work has not turned up anywhere, it is pretty certain that the language must have been hopelessly wooden and heavily relied on German grammar. This kind of Estonian was vigorously promoted in 1630–1640 by the indomitable and enterprising pastor and dean Heinrich Stahl, who published the first Estonian grammar (1637), a four-volume church handbook (1632–1638) and a two-volume book of sermons (1641, 1649) with Estonian-German parallel texts. To modern-day Estonians, Stahl’s Estonian is partly understandable only with the help of the parallel German. It is quite likely that, had the first Estonian-language Bible appeared in the Stahl version of the language, today’s Estonian would be much more deviated than it already is from its Finno-Ugric foundation towards Indo-European languages.


In the 1680s, the translation activities centred in Livonia when Johann Fischer took over as superintendent of the local consistory. Being energetic and resourceful, he organised a Bible translation in Latvian (the New Testament was published in 1685, and the full Bible, as mentioned above, in 1694) and managed to print the New Testament in the South-Estonian language – the translation of father and son Andreas and Adrian Virginius was published in 1686. The king of Sweden appointed Fischer to coordinate the translation in North-Estonian as well, and in the 1680s Fischer duly organised two famous Bible conferences, where Estonians and Livonians sat down to discuss the manuscript of the New Testament in North-Estonian that had been in the process of being edited for decades. However, all plans for cooperation came to nothing, and Fischer seized the initiative: he commissioned the same Virginius family to translate the Old Testament into North-Estonian. He also asked Johann Hornung, one of the initiators of the language reforms at the time and the author of a new type of Estonian grammar, to edit the translation of the New Testament that had been under discussion. Unlike the opinions of the Estonian Consistory, the translators of Fischer’s team preferred to translate from the original languages (although they also used Martin Luther’s German translation in their work) and wanted the result to be as close to spoken Estonian as possible. This view has been in theory supported by many translators at different times (inspired by Martin Luther’s texts on translation); their efforts, however, have often yielded vastly different results. Still, as a copy of the manuscript of the Old Testament translation by father and son Virginius has survived we may maintain that its language is (compared with Stahl’s) indeed remarkably fluent and natural.


    Unfortunately, Fischer’s initiative failed to produce a printed version, and the Great Northern War (1700-1721) postponed the completion of the Old Testament translation for a long time. As for the New Testament, things developed quite differently – in the turmoil of the war, some Estonian and Livonian pastors met in Tallinn and decided to tackle Hornung’s translation. Several copies were made of the new version, one of which is preserved in Tartu, while another, especially grand illustrated manuscript, bearing the year 1705 on its title page, found its way to Sweden during the war and is currently kept in the Royal Library of Stockholm. Getting the manuscript to print in conditions of war proved too difficult and so the first North-Estonian New Testament appeared only in 1715, after the Estonian territories had been transferred from Sweden to tsarist Russia.


    After the Northern War, the situation in the Estonian language area was rather dismal. War and the subsequent plague destroyed more than half of the population, and a large part of the clergy had been killed or had left the country. Still, by the 1720s a new, energetic intellectual group of pastors emerged in Tallinn and its vicinity, and undertook to develop the Estonian-language scripture. A large number of these men had studied in Halle and held pietistic or Moravian views. One of the leading figures of this group was Anton Thor Helle, pastor of the Jüri congregation near Tallinn. Thor Helle was born in Tallinn and studied at Kiel University in Germany, and although he did not have direct contacts with the leading Halle Pietists, he was soon embraced by the local Pietist movement. It was him whose contribution to the development of the Estonian-language scripture became essential. In the 1720s, he organised a new version of the four-volume church handbook (1721), and the publication of the new edition of the edited New Testament (1729). In addition, he also began compiling the translation of the Old Testament. The manuscript, with the editor’s comments, has survived and we can see that there were quite a number of translators. It is not clear whether Thor Helle himself actually translated some parts or whether he only acted as an organiser and editor in the process. However, in the legend of the history of Estonian Bible translation, he is the one who is regarded as the translator of our first Bible and there are tales of Thor Helle visiting slaughterhouses in order to make sure he got all the Estonian names of the animals’ internal organs.


On the basis of marginalia and translation analysis it can be claimed that the translators of the Old Testament tried to follow two (essentially opposing) principles: a) translations must be done from the original text, trying to follow it as precisely as possible so that, ideally, one Hebrew word would have a certain corresponding word in Estonian; b) the translation must be in fluent Estonian and only those expressions should be used that Estonians actually used in their speech. At the same time it is worth remembering that the translators were German and most of them had contacts with the Estonian language only in their adult years. Translating the Old Testament was therefore especially complicated for them, because they had to make up the necessary expressions as they translated in order to properly convey the Old Testament world in a relatively unfamiliar language. Still, they managed amazingly well and even successfully followed both translation principles.


    Their reliance on Hebrew is immediately confirmed by the obviously large number of crude Hebrew loans. All the animals, birds, fish and plants unknown in Estonia have mainly been described by a Hebrew word. In the draft manuscript, the translators tried to find approximate Estonian equivalents or used descriptions, but the final version presents Hebrew loans. For example the list of unclean animals (Lev 11: 30) was in the first version written down with Estonian own words Siil, Sissalik, KirjoMaddo, WaskMaddo, Müt (‘hedgehog, lizard, multi-coloured snake = adder, copper-snake=blindworm, mole’), but during the editing process Thor Helle replaced them with Hebraisms Anaka, Koah, Letaa, Homet, Tinsemet. With a slightly changed orthography these reached the printed version. The Estonian reader had naturally no idea what animals these were, and later most of similar Hebrew loans were again replaced by (more precise) Estonian words. Still, one Hebraism from the first Bible translation has found its place in modern Estonian. Namely the word jaanalind (‘jaana-bird = ostrich’), which copies the Hebrew original form bat-ya-na and sounds perfectly ordinary today. The Hebrew background can also be detected in some expressions translated word-for-word. For example, the manuscript shows how the expression tühi töö ja vaimunärimine (vanity and vexation of spirit) took shape in the course of editing. This appears seven times in Ecclesiastes, and although Martin Luther’s German translation offers various versions of the expression (eitel und jamer, eitel und mühe jms), the Estonian translation tries to convey it as precisely as possible. The translator obviously managed to find a wording that corresponds to the Hebrew original and at the same time suits the Estonian language system, because the expression is widely known in contemporary Estonian and sounds natural.


    Against the background of keeping strictly to the original, the Estonian translation on the whole has few word-for-word idiomatic translations possible in the Bible, because the other principle was also vigorously observed, and the actual speech of Estonian peasants was by no means ignored. This is evident in the editor’s comments in the margins about whether Estonians, in fact, used an expression or not. It is unfortunately obvious that the pastor and his linguistic guide did not always understand each other. For example, the Hebrew expression mi-jiten, meaning literally ‘who gives’, which is used as a particle meaning ‘o that’, was originally translated in different places by different expressions, but in the end the literal translation kes annab was used everywhere according to the editor’s note on the margin that the expression was pure Estonian language (rein Ehstnisch). However, we can be pretty certain that Estonians knew this phrase only in the direct sense, just as they do today.


    The solemn and somewhat clumsy Estonian of the Old Testament with Hebrew elements, produced by the German pastors, and the slightly more polished New Testament language, with a Lutheran foundation, became the absolute norm of a correct and beautiful written Estonian beginning with the publication of the Bible in 1739. The correctness and beauty of that norm was questioned only in the early 19th century, when J. G. Herder’s ideas about a small nation and its language as a significant world of its own began spreading in Estonia, and the Finno-Ugric basis of the Estonian language was increasingly acknowledged (largely following the example of Finnish scholars). At that time, the first university-educated Estonians began to have an impact on Estonian cultural life, but it was still the Baltic-German pastor Eduard Ahrens who first demanded that the church and Bible language should be reformed. Ahrens also compiled the first Estonian grammar, following the example of Finnish grammars (1843, revised edition 1853). He noticed that when the peasants were talking to one another they used quite a different language, and when they talked to him they automatically switched to a German-type Church language. Ahrens was convinced that his Baltic-German pastors-predecessors, led by Heinrich Stahl and Anton Thor Helle, had ruined the Estonian language (although Hornung could have saved it had anyone listened to him) and the entire Estonian Church language had to be changed. Unfortunately, his views were too much ahead of their time and in the 19th century the Estonian church language no longer participated in the general development and lost its decisive role in shaping the Estonian literal language. The emerging Estonian literature developed in another direction and, although at first it was just as much influenced by German in its form and ideas as our Church language, it soon acquired fresh creative linguistic impulses from the popular language. Modest attempts to edit the Bible language to some extent were made in the 19th century in the clerical circles, but more serious reforms were undertaken only in the 20th century. On the 200th anniversary of the Estonian-language Bible, the ‘Big Bible’ was published (in separate volumes, 1938–1940), which was supposed to be the edited version of the first translation. However, as a result of the work done by the outstanding poet and theologian Uku Masing, several poetically more demanding texts were completely reworded. As the Big Bible appeared shortly before the war, followed by a specially complicated period in the history of the Estonian Church and culture, its impact on the literary language was practically non-existent. WW II split the Estonian intellectual elite into two parts: a large number fled from their homeland, and the other part was deported to Siberian prison camps. Those who managed to return from the camps, or those who were lucky enough to have avoided deportation, had no chance to have anything to do with the Bible translation during the Soviet occupation. As a result, the historically second Estonian-language Bible translation was completed by Estonian exiles and published in Sweden in 1968. Bible translation in Estonia was actively tackled only in the late 1980s; today the New Testament has been completed, while the Old Testament is still the slightly edited version by exile Estonians.


    As a summary of the briefly described history of the Estonian Bible translation, we can say that the Estonian literary language was created by Baltic-German pastors who, since the early 17th century, strove to change and enrich the meanings and syntactic expressions of the Estonian language that was, until then, mostly used as a spoken and ‘kitchen’ language, in order to be able to translate the texts of the Bible. The language of the Bible that finally appeared in 1739 was quite far from the popular language, and the increasingly vigorous Estonian literature in the 19th century created its own new means of expression. Despite the differentiation of the languages of literature and the Church in the 19th century, and the fact that the literature of the second half of the 20th century hardly had any contact with the Bible, the contemporary Estonian language of literature can still be regarded as an indirect offshoot of the language version created by the Baltic-German pastors. With its excitingly archaic and occasionally incomprehensible alien style, the language of the first Estonian Bible translation also directly influenced the language of various Estonian writers. For example, the work of the greatest 20th century Estonian prose writer, Anton Hansen Tammsaare, contains (although in a somewhat nostalgic/humorous tone) quite a bit of Bible-language phraseology.



The article was completed thanks to the support of the Estonian Science Foundation grant no 6067.