Primož Trubar – The Protestant Reformer Who Fashioned a Language

            On June 28, 1586, the Slovenian Reformer Primož Trubar died in Derendingen, in the Holy Roman Empire. Almost unknown in the US, he is a national hero in Slovenia. His portrait has appeared on banknotes, coins, and postage stamps, and his life has been told and retold in books, articles, and even a TV series.

            The year 2008, marking the 500th anniversary of his birth, was celebrated in Slovenia with a busy schedule of exciting events and proclaimed “The Year of Primož Trubar.” Two years later, June 8 (the supposed date of his birth) was declared “Primož Trubar’s Day.” In 2013, Google celebrated Trubar’s birthday with a Google Doogle.

In a country where most of the population is Roman Catholic (57.8%) and only a small minority is Lutheran (0.8%), why is a largely unknown Protestant Reformer receiving such a massive recognition?

            The answer lies in his literary contribution as founder of the Slovene language. Let’s see how he got there.

From Priest to Pastor

Born in June 1508 in the village of Rašica (just north of Ljubljana in modern Slovenia), he studied in two cities of the Holy Roman Empire with the goal of becoming a priest (his father’s ambition). In 1524, he moved to Trieste (now in Italy) to study under the tutorship of the 66-year old Roman Catholic bishop Pietro Bonomo, who ordained him priest in 1529. In 1535, he moved to Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he performed his ecclesiastical duties.

            As he gradually came in contact with Protestant writings, his preaching began to indicate their influence, gaining the disapproval of both political and religious authorities. In 1547, he was banned from Ljubljana and excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

            His first appointment as Protestant pastor was in Rothenburg, Germany, thanks to the support of a nearby pastor, Veit Dietrich (a close friend of Martin Luther). It was there that the abundance of Protestant writings in German made Trubar painfully aware of the disadvantage of the majority of Slovenians who were largely unable to read, let alone other languages.

First Works

Faithful to the Protestant vision of educating the masses in their local language, he decided to write two small booklets in Slovene: a 250-page catechism with songs, prayers and a sermon on faith, and a 28-page booklet including an abecedary, a shorter catechism, and a few prayers for those who were learning to read. Both booklets were fashioned after German works (the shorter catechism was a translation of one published by the German Johannes Brenz). Trubar’s preface included a Bible verse: “Every tongue shall confess to God” (Romans 14:11), which became the motto for early Slovene publications.

            As simple as this project might seems today, it was an extremely challenging task. Slovene was not yet a structured language. It had rarely been used in print and lacked both a literary tradition and established rules of spelling and grammar. Besides, different regions of Slovenia spoke a slightly different dialect. Trubar had to create a unified language, based on the type of Slovene he knew best - the one spoken in the region of Ljubljana.

            Finding someone to print the books was the next hurdle. Charles V had recently imposed strong limitations on the publication of religious literature in the empire, promising harsh punishments for transgressors. Finally, Trubar found a Protestant printer who was willing to run the risk: Ulrich Morhart, in Tübingen, about 160 miles south-west of Nuremberg. He kept the book anonymous, including a fictitious address: “Printed in Transylvania.”

The Bible in Slovene

            In 1555, Trubar met a man who pushed him even further: the Italian Pier Paolo Vergerio, a former Roman Catholic bishop. Vergerio was a powerhouse of energy and ideas. Having spent some time in Trieste and Venice, where he had met many people from Slovenia and Croatia, Vergerio was consumed by a desire of translating the Bible in the languages of those countries, where the people had no chance of hearing the Scriptures, if not in limited and extemporaneous translations by local, often unprepared ministers.

            He didn’t understand the challenges. He didn’t know that Slovene and Croatian were two different languages, let alone that Slovenians didn’t speak a unified tongue. He also didn’t seem to care that Trubar had never studied Greek and Hebrew (an impediment Trubar found deeply troubling).

            An able publicist, Vergerio spoke to influential people in several countries, gathering supporters, raising money and generating interest. Encouraged by these efforts, Trubar started to translate the New Testament from the Latin Volgata, taking however advantage of Erasmus’s Greek/Latin New Testament, and comparing his translation with Martin Luther’s German version and Antonio Brucioli’s Italian translation. Vergerio, who knew Greek, acted as consultant.

            Printing the book was a challenge for Morhart as well, who had to set characters in a language he couldn’t understand at all. In spite of these obstacles, a Slovene translation of the four gospels and Book of Acts was published in 1555.

            Trubar’s works gave him instant popularity in Slovenia, especially in Lubjiana, where he received financial support and encouragement to publish more. With this money, he was able to publish independently from Vergerio (who was busy evangelizing other areas) a larger version of his translation (900 pages), with an index and some commentaries by Melanchton, Luther, and Brenz. To accomplish this work, he stayed in Tübingen a whole year. This is the first work that bears Trubar’s name.

Other Works

            From then on, Trubar continued to write and oversee translations, including the translation of a Bible in Croatian, while maintaining his duties as pastor. This meant frequent trips to Tübingen and a busy correspondence with the printers and translators. He pastored the church in Ljubljana until 1564, when his publication of a Lutheran Church Order angered Archduke Charles, heir of the Austrian provinces which included Ljubljana. In the Holy Roman Empire, documents like this were usually published by rulers, not by a pastor. The book was banned and Trubar exiled again.

            The 56-year old Trubar moved for the last time in his life, settling in Drendingen (a small town near Tübingen), where he pastored the local church while continuing to oversee the publication of books. He died there in 1586, leaving an unpublished translation of Luther’s Haustafeln (New Testament Domestic Codes - one of Trubar’s favorite books), which was published posthumously in 1595.

His Influence 

Besides his New Testament translation, Trubar authored 24 books, 22 in Slovene and two in German, paving the way for other translations and publications both in Slovene and in Croatian. Today, he is considered the founder of the Slovene language. What’s more, since a unified language brings unity, his contribution is deemed essential in the development of a unified Slovene identity and culture.

            In the long run, the Protestant Reformation didn’t take hold in Slovenia, but one wonders if the multitudes who hold yearly celebrations in Trubar’s name remember what motivated him to create the language they hold dear – a love for the gospel and a desire for Slovenians to read it and believe it.

Simonetta Carr