The Mistranslation of the Cost of Discipleship

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship is a part of many preachers and ministers libraries as well as a part of seminary classes for students. When I encountered the Cost of Discipleship in my theological German class, I realized something immediately. When translated to English, the title and implications of the book changed.

In German, Bonhoeffer’s original language, the title reads Nachfolge, which means the following or the following after. This may not seem too far from the all too familiar English title, but there is a degree of difference between the two. Bonhoeffer’s original idea was not the costliness and discipleship could be separated out into two separate entities, but rather that costliness was the following after of Christ. The interpretation history that has arisen from this separation of the two has led to a false understanding that discipleship isn’t always costliness. And so, we have sermons about what true discipleship is because there is a discipleship that isn’t costliness.

Translation is always an issue in biblical studies and even as I prepare my summaries for class, I realize that I often am too far from the original text, but when I take the time to translate word for word, I get jewels like this from Bonhoeffer: “Der Weg, der Jünger zum Gesetzt geht über das Kreuz Christi.” The law goes right through the cross of Christ, which is the way of the disciples. You can’t get to discipleship without going through the cross. You can’t get to cross without suffering. There is no cost or payment involved. Suffering is discipleship.