National treasure: The first Bible in Latvian

The first Bible in Latvian, translated by Ernst Glück and published in the late 17th century, was a great event for Latvian culture, Gustavs Strenga, leading researcher at the Latvian National Library looked at the book for the Latvian Radio strand showcasing six Latvian books from six centuries.

"What's most important is that the text printed in this book is part of our cultural code," said Strenga.

As the Protestant Reformation accelerated in northern Europe and Martin Luther became an authority in the Protestant Church, he emphasized the word of God in his teachings.

The Bible was translated into the languages of the larger northern countries in the early 16th century, however the Bible was translated fully into Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian only in the 17th century.

In 1682, a theologian named Johann Fischer from Lübeck arrived to Latvia and set off to have the Bible translated into Latvian. He turned to the King of Sweden who provided considerable sums for translations into Latvian, and two dialects of Estonian.

The Bible was translated into the three languages simultaneously, and Ernst Glück had translated parts of it by 1689 when the New Testament was released, albeit not made available to the general public. 

The full translation of the Bible was finished in 1694. It was by all means a doorstopper, spanning 2,500 pages.

"The Bible is not only the first large text corpus in Latvian, but also a huge event for Latvian culture, as a text was made, [..] which we have used and are partially using now for almost three centuries now," said Strenga.

Upon arriving in Rīga, Fischer not only had the Bible translated into three languages, but also established the royal printing house. There, the Latvian Bible was printed in 1,500 copies, of which 250 were given to churches and schools in Vidzeme, while 800 were bought by Latvian peasants.

"It shows that despite the unavailability of a translation of the Bible, there were favorable circumstances in Vidzeme for people to be able to read longer texts," said Strenga.

Thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people here learned to read the Bible, gospels and song books that were a great part of people's lives up until the late 19th century.

On its 97th anniversary on August 29, the National Library of Latvia will unveil a permanent exhibition "Book in Latvia", a story about the Latvian book trade in a global context.

Below is a video of Strenga describing the book, which seems rather thick indeed.

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