Magazine article The Spectator

Lost in Translation

Magazine article The Spectator

Lost in Translation

Article excerpt

My interest in ridiculous sacred words began with a Victorian edition of Verdi's 'Requiem', which I met at school. At the unbelievably splendid, and brassy, 'Tuba mirum' we were asked to sing the translation: 'Hark! The trumpet sounds appalling'. I later discovered that there is a very enjoyable subculture of these things, mostly hidden away in our more traditional hymns.

Unlike the psalms, which in the King James translation have a linguistic robustness managing to avoid or transcend this kind of embarrassment, the hymns we sing have the most diverse backgrounds.

Shifts of meaning over time have been matched by changes in what is thought to be appropriate sentiment in religious worship.

Publishers of hymn books for the modern market have to make some tricky decisions, as Kevin Mayhew, publisher of Hymns Old and New, made clear in a recent letter to the Church Times. Presumably Charles Wesley's penchant for the word 'bowels' as an image for the mercy of Christ won't do now; but what about 'gay'?

Let me in season, Lord, be grave, In season gay; Let me be faithful to thy grace, Just for today What would the bigoted luminaries of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (Foca) do about that?

In his resumé Mr Mayhew missed the questionable opening lines of the fourth verse of 'Of the father's love begotten' which run:

O how blest that wondrous birthday, When the Maid the curse retrieved so full of double meanings I can't work them all out, but he did quote the suppressed last verse of the 'National Anthem':

Lord, grant that Marshal Wade May by thy mighty aid Victory bring.

May he sedition hush And like a torrent rush Rebellious Scots to crush: God save the Queen.

All this is in a quite different league from those extreme moments in the psalms when the whole endeavour equally teeters on the edge of absurdity, but never quite goes over it:

Moab is my washpot over Edom will I cast out my shoe quaint, but it doesn't make you squirm.

Equally the punctuation of the psalms, so sui generis when it works, seems to matter little when it doesn't. Hymns don't escape so easily.

I discover from Mr Mayhew that 'Hark!

the herald-angels sing' should be written just so, with a hyphen between 'herald' and 'angels', when in the New English Hymnal it is missing every time the words are given. …

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