On preserving the distinction between bewahren and bewähren when tested: A note on the translation of Ernst Käsemann’s book On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene

Since this post will focus on an issue of translation pertaining to the work of Ernst Käsemann, let me precede the blog post proper with some links to other material pertaining to Käsemann’s life and thought (see here).

The gist of this blog post is simple: readers and translators of German texts must take care not to confuse the similar words “bewahren” and “bewähren”, since confusing these two terms can result in a significant shift of meaning. The two words can be defined as follows:

bewahren: According to dict.cc: “to preserve, to retain, to conserve, to enshrine [fig.], to safeguard, to save, to husband”. According to Linguee: “preserve, keep, retain, save, perpetuate, screen (from), enshrine, conserve”.

(sich) bewähren: According to dict.cc: “to prove oneself, to stand the test”. According to Linguee: “stand the test”, “prove”.

In order to develop the importance of this point, let me develop it further in relation to my interaction with the translation of Ernst Käsemann’s posthumously published essays.

The process of writing my 2011 RBL Review of Ernst Käsemann’s book On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene played an extremely important role in the development of my thinking. In short, it both confirmed and sharpened my conviction that “Every decent theology was, is, and will be a theology of liberation” (Ernst Käsemann; cf. Bob Dylan’s great song Blowin’ in the Wind). As often before, Käsemann helped to shake me from my theological slumber and for this I remain deeply grateful to him and to the editors (Rudolf Landau and Wolfgang Kraus) and translator (Roy A. Harrisville) of this volume.

Prior to reviewing Käsemann’s work, I had greatly benefited from David Way’s 1991 book The Lordship of Christ. Ernst Käsemann’s Interpretation of Paul’s Theology, as well as from John Barclay’s 1994 review of this work in Scottish Journal of Theology (Volume 47, Issue 3). With respect to Way’s monograph, I would want to affirm the validity of John Barclay’s criticisms, while placing greater emphasis than Barclay on the abiding strengths and value of this work. Among other things, David Way alerted me to the significance of Ernst Käsemann’s use of “bewähren”. In Way’s words (p. 147n.63; cf. 164 n. 87): “Käsemann’s repeated use of bewähren expresses his understanding of the connection between, on the one hand, the doctrine of justification and, on the other, Christian life and ethics: Christians are not called to do ‘works’ which might be held to earn salvation; nor, however, are they to remain inactive. By service and discipleship, they authenticate, verify, prove, or confirm that they have been transferred to a new lordship” (my emphasis).

Though it is difficult to be certain, I think it was this observation in Way’s book that alerted me to an uncharacteristic slip in Roy Harrisville’s otherwise excellent translation of In der Nachfolge des gekreuzigten Nazareners. In short, while reading the English translation I came across a number of sentences where it seemed to me that the German word “bewahren” lay behind the translation, but where I wondered if the word bewähren may have been present in the German edition. Fortunately, it proved possible to investigate and confirm this hypothesis, and I have attempted to document these findings at the end of my RBL Review.

While this observation may seem minor or trivial to some, for me it has a twofold significance. First, it represents a modest contribution to the study of Ernst Käsemann, since it alerts readers of the English version to a mistake that inadvertently introduced an emphasis on “preservation” that is not characteristic of Käsemann, while simultaneously drawing our attention to one of Käsemann’s more noteworthy emphases, namely his stress on the need for Christians to authenticate, verify, prove or confirm their transfer (and current allegiance) to a new lordship. (As indicated by my addition of the words “and current allegiance”, I wonder if Way’s formulation may be too exclusively backward looking in relation to Käsemann’s viewpoint). Secondly, the fact that a gifted and accomplished translator such as Roy Harrisville appears to have inadvertently mixed up these two terms, reminds the rest of us to remain especially vigilant in our efforts to keep these words distinct.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! In an effort to provide a sense of regularity and predictability for this blog’s readership, I plan on writing a new post each Monday. So hopefully I will ‘see’ you again in a week’s time. Best, Wayne.