This time of year I spend a lot of time doing textual criticism of Christmas carols. Tracking down the “authorized version” of the songs we have sung for generations can be quite challenging. And it’s interesting how many similar issues pop up that we face in Bible translation.
Even in those cases where we know the correct words errors can slip in. I was looking through a songbook my wife and I made fifteen years ago and it contains this shocking statement of disbelief:
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see the lie!
Now, how did that error sit unnoticed for fifteen years?!
Last night during rehearsal for the Christmas service at our church, the daughter of our flutist was singing that second line, and I asked her, “What does THEE mean?”
She wasn’t sure. Which of course didn’t stop her from singing along with gusto. Finally her mother helped her out, “It means HIM.” To which I nodded, and then she shook her head and said, “It means YOU!”
There are of course many, many examples of strange lines in hymns that make absolutely no sense to modern speakers of English. What do cattle do when they are “lowing?” Is it the same as a “lowly manger?” And what is a “yon” virgin?” Young? Yawn? And why is she round?
The preacher for Christmas day requested that we sing, “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Measure.” It is a beautiful hymn based on a French carol:
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
The congregation where we worship is composed mostly of African college students and young families. So my wife was quite reluctant to try to lead them in singing strange things like “Thrones for a manger didst surrender.” Thankfully she discovered a very nice updating of the carol in modern language:
Lord, you were rich beyond all splendor,
Yet, for love’s sake, became so poor.
Leaving your throne in glad surrender
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Now, all the archaic language has been removed and it’s mostly intelligible. Notice that the plural “thrones” have been changed to “throne.” I think updating the language works on this carol because it’s not very well known. Imagine if someone tried to change the words to O Come, All Ye Faithful! Would you be able to enjoy singing something like, “Come, all you faithful ones?”
A final example of updating archaic songs is Corde natus ex Parentis, which you might know as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” The textual evolution of this hymn is fascinating. It started life as a 5th Century Latin poem. By the 10th Century it had become part of the church’s sacred music. It was translated into English sometime in the 1850s by JM Neale who was also responsible for giving us (afflicting us with?) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Good King Wenceslas.
My wife has been patiently teaching me and our children the parts for Of the Father’s Love Begotten. It is really beautiful and if you modernized the words I don’t think I would be able to sing it. In fact at one point I suggesting that we sing one of the Latin verses. The English is so strange sounding that Latin wouldn’t seem out of place!
Corde natus ex parentis
Ante mundi exordium
A et O cognominatus,
ipse fons et clausula
A final example of textual difficulty (Didn’t I already say “finally?”) is in a more modern carol, Amen (Mary had a baby):
Mary had a baby
Wrapped in a manger
My wife wanted to change it to something like “lying in a manger” but I put my foot down. Tradition! The 1965 Impressions version has “wrapped in a manger.” So of course that’s the way it needs to be. I’ve had a tough time tracing the original lyrics on this song. Sidney Poiter also sings “wrapped in a manger” in the 1963 movie Lilies of the Field. Here’s the scene:
I think looking at Christmas carols is a helpful exercise in thinking about Bible translation. It shows that there isn’t an either/or answer to the question, “Which is better clarity or tradition?” Traditional wordings are very important. But after a while we don’t “see the lie” which is hidden in obscure language. It makes sense to us old fogies but is giving wrong meaning to the younger generation or those who speak other varieties of English.