An observation about translation

I learned something today about “O Store Gud,” known in English as “How Great Thou Art.”

I had known that it was written in Swedish.  I had known that the dotted rhythms sung (99.5% of the time) in the chorus are not present in the musical notation.  And I had known George Beverly Shea sang it in Billy Graham crusades.

The main thing I learned was that the Swedish hymnic text passed through German and Russian before being translated, by a missionary in a Czech mountain village, into English.  An interesting journey, that:

Swedish ⇒ German ⇒ Russian ⇒ English

[Not that I think English is the end-all.  I try not to be English- or U.S.-centric; it’s as myopic as it is potentially offensive to think the world focuses attention on one language or country.  The point here would be the same if Cantonese or Cajun or Kalenjin had been the fourth entry.]

The point is this:  the words started in one language and were translated into two others before being rendered in a fourth, in which the words were the most widely disseminated.

And the follow-up question is this:  does it matter?  Does the process of translation of the words of “O Store Gud” matter?

I wonder whether Boberg, the writer of the Swedish text, would even recognize the English text that has become among the top five favorite Christian hymns in this country.  Unless great care were taken at every turn — and maybe still — it could have been a case of “whisper down the lane,” the game in which the end result barely resembles the initial message.

That “How Great Thou Art” was originally in 3/4 meter, not 4/4, is very important, musically speaking.  That the even eighth notes in its refrain are almost always sung as dotted rhythms is also worthy of note.  Neither of these items is as important as the words being sung, however.

And none of the above is as important as translation of scripture.  [Cut to one progression of translation.]

Greek ==> Early Modern English ==> Contemporary English

Why anyone would want to run the Greek original through what is apparently known as the “Early Modern English” of 1611 before attempting to render the thoughts in contemporary language, is beyond me.  If there is a better alternative, that is.  In some cases, I think the Latin Vulgate might have influenced English readers, too.

Why anyone would want to denigrate working with original languages is also beyond me.  On the rare instances in which I dig into a NT text enough to be able to translate it directly from Greek into my own language, I more closely approach the thoughts penned by the original authors.  This is why the act — perhaps more than the result — of continuing translation work is important to me.  Of course one doesn’t need to know Hebrew or Greek to be a fully accepted believer, one of God’s treasured children.  But one ought to value the original meanings, insofar as s/he can uncover and determine them, based on the tools available to each one.

In moving directly from one language to the current iteration of another (e.g., Greek to 2015 English), one is less likely to miss something important, and more likely to understand God.

B. Casey, 6/28/15


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