In many cases, key thoughts and insights are lost in translation. This is especially true when translating poetry while at the same time trying to maintain the original poem’s meter and rhyme scheme.
A case in point is Martin Luther’s popular Reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress,” of which there are numerous English translations. The first line is fairly easy to translate into English: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” literally means “A strong fortress is our God.” However, the very next line loses some deep insights in translation. In the German the next line is “ein gute Wehr und Waffen.” In some hymnals that line is translated “a bulwark never failing,” which really is just a reiteration of the first line of the poem and not close to the second line of the original German. In our hymnal, it is translated a little more literally: “a trusty shield and weapon” (see Lutheran Service Book #656).
However, a literal translation of the second line is “a good embankment and set of weapons.” You see, the word “Wehr” in German is not just a little shield, it is a huge embankment. Furthermore, the word “Waffen” is plural and means not just one weapon, but a whole set of weapons. “Waffen” might be better translated “weaponry.” That being said, this line brings to mind the imagery St. Paul uses in Ephesians regarding the armor of God:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.
So the word “Waffen” in the second phrase of “A Mighty Fortress” refers not only to a sword, but also a helmet, a breastplate, a belt, and shoes: all crucial equipment for any soldier of the Apostle Paul’s day and of Martin Luther’s day.
While you are singing “A Mighty Fortress” this weekend, note all of the battle imagery and think of Ephesians 6:10-18 and the whole armor of God. While singing Stanza 3 think of verse 12 above (“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”) Then be at peace because through Jesus Christ, the battle is won (“das Feld muss er behalten” or “He holds the field”).