Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen V. Wiberg

I recall from the earlier years of my ministry—when there were still some first generation Swedes around—that whenever we sang a Swedish translation someone was bound to say after the service: "It just isn't the same in the original." I felt the same response last December in Sweden when the Immanuel congregation sang "Dagen är kommen, kärlek triumpfera" meaning "The day has come, love triumphs." This is the Swedish translation of the first line of "O Come, All Ye Faithful." A nice thought but it just wasn't the same as the original.

Having done a little translation of Swedish hymns myself, I know the problem of the translator who is torn between being faithful to the literal meaning of the text and the challenge of matching words with music. I spent many months and not a few sleepless nights in my efforts at translating "Jesus of Nazareth Passes By" (Hymn 351). The first line of the original is "Jesus från Nasaret går här fram" which translated literally is "Jesus from Nazareth goes here onward (or forward)"—a bit more energetic than "passes by now as in ancient time" as I ended up translating it. My apologies to the hymn's author, a great hymn writer and priest in the Church of Sweden, Anders Frostenson!

In a chapel talk at North Park College some years ago, Wesley Nelson made reference to a much-loved hymn with text and music by Nils Frykman translated by E. Gustav Johnson, "I Sing With Joy and Gladness" (Hymn 498). E. Gustav Johnson (1893-1974) was one of the finest translators of our heritage music. He taught English language and literature in both North Park Academy and College and Swedish in the College. Through my class from him in World Literature, I gained an interest in early Norse mythology. Though only ten of his translations are included in our present hymnal, there were 23 in the Hymnal of 1950. The second verse of the English version reads:

My former resolution to lead a better life
Were only vain delusions—my soul was still at strife:
Now on the love of Jesus completely I rely
For me he was willing to die.

Wesley made a discovery in the original Swedish that says literally:

I formerly went and thought on repentance, prayer and faith,
But that did not give the heart comfort and rest.
Now I think on Jesus, how tenderly he loves me
With the love by which he offered himself.

What a translator's nightmare but what a treasure of insight into Mission Friend theology and experience

Another example. Aaron Markuson and I collaborated in the translation of another Frykman hymn, "How Great the Joy." (Hymn 552). Verses 1, 3, 4, and 5 were relatively easy and we could keep quite close to the original. On Verse 2 we hit a snag. Most of the verse went smoothly.

It is so good to love the Lord
who gave his life for all.
So good to trust his living Word
be lifted when we fall
When earthly pleasures…

But then the original says: "Når vårldens fröjd en ände tar, so har vi bästa vinet kvar" which means literally: "When earthly pleasures reach their end we have the best wine still." That's what Frykman intended referring to the first miracle of Jesus at Cana of Galilee when he turned the water into wine. That the best wine was kept until the last is taken as a metaphor for the future blessedness of the children of God. But how do you translate that? In 1950 the Swedish Covenant hymnal excised the wine for water and God's overflowing well. Now in the common Swedish hymnal of 1986, even the Lutherans, along with their free church colleagues on the commission—Covenanters, Pentecostals, Methodist, Salvation Army, and several other churches, turned chicken and eliminated the entire second verse. Better be safe than sorry! But the compromise Aaron and I made was not too bad.

When earthly pleasures reach their end
our feast of joy will just begin.
Hallelujah…

At least it might be more understandable for those who cannot connect with the miracle at Cana.

How bereft of the songs of our forebears would we be without the translations of E. Gustav Johnson or the little lady in the North Park Church, Signe Bennett (1900-1996), who carried translations around in her heart and in a little brown book. She gave us another Frykman song: "The Highest Joy That Can Be Known" (Hymn 533) which has been sung among our people for decades. She also translated, with a collaborator, the Mission Friend song: "O How Blest to be a Pilgrim" (Hymn 758).

But even more, think how much the poorer the whole English-speaking Church would be without the numerous translations of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), an English woman who went to live with her father in Germany. She mastered the language and gave us great translations of German hymns such as "Now Thank We All Our God" (Hymn 31), "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" (Hymn 61), "Jesus Priceless Treasure" (Hymn 459), and many other majestic hymns we would not want to live without.

At a hymn sing in which Martin Marty provided the commentary, he quoted—with tongue in cheek—from an Italian source that all translators are liars, meaning, most likely, that if you are going to sing or listen to an Italian opera or art song you should do so in the original language. Don't mess with translations, for those who try will end up as liars. But I propose that in our hymnody it is not a matter of lying or truth-telling or even being literal (which is almost impossible) but in catching the spirit of the song. Without the efforts of translators in whom the song lives our hymnody would be greatly impoverished!

Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg