Theologian Karl Barth, widely considered to be one of the great Protestant theologians of modern times, wrote volumes challenging the theological systems of his day. Yet most of his central texts have never been translated from the original German into English.
There’s a reason for that, says Dr. Kaitlyn M. Dugan, director of the Center for Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Barth was both prolific and complex. The Swiss Reformed theologian wrote billions of words in dozens of volumes, which include his sermons, lectures, letters, and shorter works. He used a very particular vernacular and made countless references to very particular events and themes of his time.
In other words, translating Barth is a tough task.
It’s a task the Center for Barth Studies is enthusiastically pursuing under a prestigious Scholarly Editions and Translations grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency and one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States.
The three-year, $300,000 grant is the second the NEH has awarded to the center. The first, awarded in 2018, funded translation of three volumes of Barth’s shorter writings from 1905–1921. The new grant will support translation of the next three volumes of Barth’s shorter lectures written between 1922 and 1933.
The center has championed all things Barth since its founding in 1997. In 2007, a small group of translators gathered composed of scholars who were dissatisfied with the quality of translation of certain Barth works in English.
The early work was slow.
“It’s hard for a small group from around the world to translate such complex writings by phone or during a meeting or two after our annual conference in Princeton,” says Dugan.
"These are critical texts, not just for Christians or for those in theology, but for the humanities more generally."
The center exists to provide leading resources on Barth’s theology and legacy. It hosts programs and events, provides research resources, and tools, and facilitates constructive theological conversation in order to educate, equip, and empower scholars, students, pastors, and citizens worldwide for engagement with the Reformed theological tradition and its public significance today.
The scholars group worked for over almost a decade without formal institutional support until 2014. Yet even with the generous support of the seminary, more resources were needed to meet the scale of the project.
“It became very evident that we needed more funding to make this a viable long-term project. So, in 2018, in partnership with my colleague Dr. David Chao, now the director of the Center for Asian American Christianity at Princeton Seminary, we applied for the first NEH translation grant,” Dugan says.
“When they accepted us, we were over the moon. The grant allowed the translation team to meet twice a year and do the work in a quarter of the time going forward. Even a year’s delay caused by COVID didn’t stop our work.”
When the center learned its second application, submitted last December, had been accepted, “it was almost more meaningful because it meant that the NEH looked highly upon the work we had already done and wanted to continue investing in this project.”
The center is the only entity now actively translating Barth’s work and is in it for what Dugan calls “not just the long term, but the long, long term. This project will probably extend beyond my lifetime.”
For example, Barth’s magnum opus, Church Dogmatics, has been translated into English, but the center’s translation team would like an opportunity in the coming years to take a closer look. That would take some time—it’s about 6 million words long and covers more than 9,000 pages.
Barth died at age 82 in 1968. At least two-thirds of his Collected Works remain to be translated, and more volumes — often up to 900 pages each — are being added to the Collected Works as time goes on. Many of his sermons, short essays, and lectures have been translated into numerous languages, from Japanese to Afrikaans to Mandarin. But there remains a lack of access to his most central texts, Dugan says. For instance, Barth’s Church Dogmatics has never been translated into Spanish.
For now, the grant work will focus on Barth’s extensive commentaries on social, cultural, religious, and political themes in Germany, including the outbreak of World War I and the rise of the Third Reich.
“These are critical texts, not just for Christians or for those in theology, but for the humanities more generally,” Dugan says. “At one point, Barth was a household name in the United States. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1962. Everyone knew his name.”
Anyone who cares to delve deeper into Barth’s work, can readily access the center’s collection—the largest in the world—in person or via its digital library. The collection is open to faculty, students, visiting scholars, and the general public. Visit the Center for Barth Studies website to learn more.