Author Interview: Haroldo Camacho

Dr. Haroldo Samuel Camacho Cardozo is the translator of Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians (1531) in Today’s English. Haroldo is Colombian born, he’s 68 years young, father of 4 children, and married to Mercedes Camacho, also Colombian born. Haroldo earned his PhD from The California School of Theology at Claremont in Personality and Theology in 1994. For more than 25 years, Haroldo worked as a Certified Court Interpreter for the Judicial Council of California. He has also preached and taught the gospel in Perú, Ecuador, Colombia, and in the Coachella Valley.  

Q. How did you get started in translation and interpreting? 

I was 10 years old. My family migrated from Colombia to Takoma Park, a suburb of Washington, D.C. We later arrived in Miami on August 25, 1960. Twelve days later, I was starting school at a private school. I hated English, and didn’t know more than a word or two. I walked into a 7th grade classroom totally scared and intimidated. No one knew any Spanish. That was before English as a Second language. For the first two weeks I went home crying every day, and all day long I held back my tears. I didn’t get the sympathy I wanted from my parents. Instead, I got a University of Chicago English/Spanish, Spanish/English Dictionary. My mother would wake me up at 5:00 a.m, and she had me look up every single word of the textbooks in the dictionary and translate it in between the lines.

At the end of the assigned reading, there were the homework questions. I translated those too. Then I would write out the answers in Spanish using the text I had translated between the lines. That was just the start, though. I would then reverse translate from Spanish into English, the best I could. My mother made sure I never missed any homework. Eventually, I was at the head of my class, speaking and writing English probably as well as most of my classmates. I still can’t believe it. This Commentary was translated from the Latin into Spanish and English pretty much the same way. Using biblical terms, I would say, “translating precept upon translating precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). Every line, paragraph was checked and double checked for accuracy, tone, register, and readability in today’s American spoken English.

Q. What possessed you to take on this massive translation project? 

That’s a good way to pose the question, for it was indeed a matter of being possessed by the project. It was also a task from which I struggled many times to get dis-possessed. Only the subject matter drove me. It constantly spoke to my heart.

With all confidence, we can say that we are justified not by our own works… but through relief provided outside of us. That relief is none other than God’s only Son. He has redeemed us from sin, death, and the devil and has given to us the gift of eternal life.

My religious upbringing was in a cult-like denomination that prides itself in the rigorous observance of the law. Even though I came to the gospel without Luther, this Commentary was my confirmation, baptism, and sacrament all in one. I often translated paragraphs from the commentary to both Spanish and English to respond to social media inquiries as to why I had left the denomination in which I had been raised, pastored, and even had an important leadership position.

Sometime in the spring of 2009, I came across Theodore Graebner’s 1949 abridgment of the commentary. In there, he translates “imputed righteousness” as “a transfusion of righteousness.” I stopped, thinking I had misread. But there it was, “transfusion of righteousness.” That was precisely the concept of justification that Luther had opposed, that righteousness is somehow “infused” or “transfused” into the believer for justification. That definition lined up not with Luther but with the Council of Trent. That was the moment the idea of a modern translation of the complete commentary was born. I had been reading Graebner’s work translated into Spanish.

So I did some research. Luther’s Commentary on Galatians (1535) had never been fully translated into Spanish. It was only available as a Spanish translation of Graebner’s English abridgement. So not knowing what I was getting into, I began translating the whole thing into Spanish. I tried to interest various publishing houses in the project, and it was either rejection letters or no answer at all. My take was that no Spanish Christian publisher was willing to put itself on the line for anything Luther, let alone Luther’s Commentary on Galatians. I finished it about 2 ½ years later, in November 2011. I self published, utilizing the services of Palibrio, a US based Spanish New Age publisher which was the only publishing house that would give Luther the time of day. It is available today on Barnes & Noble and Amazon. However, I was not altogether satisfied with how the project turned out, for reasons I will mention later. So my Spanish translation is the only Spanish translation of the entire commentary in today’s Spanish.

I did not want to do the same in English. When I finished the Spanish translation, I was burned out, fatigued, and angry. Fortunately, my wife was not sympathetic and began to encourage me just to try translating again into modern English. Every time I answered that enough versions already existed in English, although I well knew that most were incomplete abridgments, such as Graebener’s, with the problems I mentioned. I had not heard of Jarislav Pelikan. Not one of the many online searches I did on Luther’s Commentary yielded Pelikan’s edition, and I did many. For an outsider such as myself, not having had any direct contact with the Lutheran church, Pelikan’s Commentary is buried somewhere either in virtual space or in libraries out of reach to the general public. One has to have gone to a Lutheran seminary or been a member of a Lutheran church somewhere to know of Jarislav Pelikan’s 1963 translation of the Commentary. I did not find out until 1517 took on the project. However, when I read portions of Pelikan’s work, which is excellent, I thought my translation was more representative of Luther’s intent as found in the original Latin, for reasons I will explain later.

Q. What is unique about your translation of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians?

When I did my Spanish translation of the Commentary, I tried to do what translators normally do: we try to create a literary work. But when looking at the Latin, I realized that the text read more like a transcript of lectures than a literary work. Rörer and his assistants had found a way to take condensed notes that were faithful renditions of Luther’s spoken lectures. I explain that more fully in my own introduction to the Commentary. That is why I am not satisfied with the Spanish translation. But when I came to the English translation, I decided not to make the same mistake. I was going to translate it as a transcript, retaining Luther’s repetitious and argumentative style, with his punchy language and all. My translation is actually meant to be read out loud in English so that you can get the feel of Luther’s passionate spoken style. It is actually fun to read that way. It lends itself for reading at conferences, retreats, seminars, church groups, or just by yourself in the quiet of your own space. 

Another unique feature is that the Commentary is organized by lecture number and date. Tucked away in Rörer’s Latin notes, I found the date for each one of the 41 lectures. Thus when you read my translation, you can select a lecture or a group of lectures. You don’t have to feel like you have to read the entire work from the beginning. If you pick up on Lecture 23, it’s like coming into class in the middle of the semester. You can still pick up at lot from the instructor just by listening to the lecture. That my translation is organized by lectures is unique when compared to other editions.

Again, it is great for church groups, or retreats. The organizers may say, we will be taking up Luther’s Lectures 10-13 on Galatians and then will discuss the issues he raised, just like in a class. This is the first time any of the various English translations is presented organized by date and lecture number. In group reading, of course, various people may share in the reading, which makes the experience more participatory and fun.

Another unique feature is found in the footnotes. I have included many footnotes where you will find the original Latin word or phrase. I included these phrases for the advanced student who might have more than a passing interest in the original Latin phrase or word. Moreover, I looked to include the Latin phrases where you will find, in context, the five solas of the Reformation. Luther often used the five solas in the context of his lectures.

Q. How would you summarize Luther’s Commentary in a word or two?

 “Christ alone”. Luther also used the two words “propter Christus”, “on account of Christ” to describe the benefits we receive from Christ as our Savior. I think these two phrases, “solus Christus” and “propter Christus”, “on account of Christ,” sum up all the many words of the Commentary.

Q. After finishing this lengthy project, what is the next project you plan to undertake?

I want to redo the Spanish translation so that it reads more like a transcript. Also, I want to include all the Latin footnotes I included in the English, as well as the comments regarding the Latin text. However, I really can’t talk about my projects without mentioning the first translator of Luther’s works in Latin America. What any translator today may or may not do with regards to Luther’s works pales in comparison to this gifted French man by the name of Matheus Saladè, a French Lutheran, 1526-1573. Matheus traveled to Germany probably a few years before Luther’s death, where he picked up many of Luther’s books and tracts that had been published so widely. With these tucked under his arm, he travelled to Spain where he sailed from the port of Cádiz to Lima, Perú. Lima was founded in 1535, the same year Luther’s Commentary on Galatians was published in Latin, and the Holy Inquisition followed soon thereafter. Not much is known about Saladè’s history, except that he arrived in Lima some 30 years later. He was an eccentric and decided to live among the Incan ruins in the outskirts of the city. However, he spent his time and a small fortune translating Luther’s works into Spanish, and giving them to whoever would come to visit him at the ruins or in his forays into the city to get supplies. He lived under the radar of the Inquisition by passing off as a madman who lived in the ruins. But when the inquisitors started asking about the source of Luther’s works in Spanish, the trail led them to Mattheus Salade’s hideout in the Inca ruins. On November 15, 1573 the Inquisition held its first Auto da Fe in the Plaza Mayor of Lima, or burning at the stake of heretics. The first pyre to be lit was Matheus Salade’s, making him the first martyr of the Protestant Reformation in Latin America. His crime: translating Luther’s works. Catholic historian Toribio Medina records that Salade’s Auto Da Fe, states the reason for his execution. Besides translating Luther, Saladé told people that “Luther said he had been sent by God to say that God had suffered death and sacrifice on behalf of sinners.” That sounds like a line from Luther’s Commentary on Galatians – or anyone of his many works.

Saladé’s death puts into context the work of anyone of us who have taken on the task of translating Luther into any language. A few years ago when visiting Lima, I went to the Museum of the Inquisition in the Plaza Mayor de Lima, the same plaza where Salade was executed. There in the museum is a large mural that depicts the events of that day, and Matheus’ name is honored among the victims. Several more autos da fe were held in Lima, and on each occasion, at least one so called heretic is mentioned (not by name) but by his crime: “por luterano”. These were converts to the Gospel, no doubt the fruit of Matheus’s translating works. Salade’s legacy is humbling. We think we give up a lot when we take on these projects. We give up nothing. Salade gave everything.

The same year I visited Lima (2014), a group of Gospel believers in Lima, funded the re-printing of 1,000 copies of my translation of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, and these have been distributed all over South America. Only by coincidence did I find out last year that one of those copies came into the hands of my wife’s nephew, a Reformed pastor in northern Colombia. Andrés told me he often preaches inspired on Luther’s Commentary.

It is indeed an honor to follow in Matheus Salade’s work as a translator of Luther’s works, knowing that it’s only due to God’s grace in allowing that not just me, but many of us to live in an age when we could work and publish in relative peace and ease. Soli Dei Glori.

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