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Translating Lutheran Hymns

The best hymns ever written, with the exception of some from the early church and a few good ones from the Middle Ages, werJohannes Olearius, D.  Digital ID: 1504448. New York Public Librarye written by Lutherans between roughly 1520 and 1700.  Almost everyone who knows anything about hymns would agree with this.  Or at least I think anyone who knows anything about hymns would admit, without questions, that Lutherans have the best hymns. 

Sadly, many American Lutherans strongly dislike the best hymns ever written.  Mainly that’s because we didn’t learn to sing them and we’ve left our German-ness behind several generations ago. 

I think part of the reason they aren’t known and loved by Lutherans is that American musical taste finds the music of the chorales hard to appreciate.  There is also the problem that the Lutheran hymns, which are so rich in their meditation on the incarnation of Christ, His passion, etc., speak a language that is foreign to us, being biblical and catholic.  But that can be overcome.  I think it may be harder to overcome the fact that the music of the chorales is really not an American idiom.

So for years now I’ve said that I need to contribute something to rectifying this problem.  I doubt I really have the talent to accompllish something where others have failed.  But I was somewhat successful at writing poems before I went to seminary.

Here’s my two part plan  for contributing something to a truly rich American hymnody that breathes the spirit of the Lutheran confessions:

a. Try to write hymns that can be set to the tune of the corpus of American protestant favorites and steal the tune–at least for our people. 

b.  Try to translate some German Lutheran hymns from the time period mentioned above into English.

Of course, this presupposes that I am able to proclaim the theology of the Lutheran confessions clearly.  That is a big assumption in itself.  This project also really necessitates that I become proficient in German and maybe Latin so that I can read Lutheran orthodoxy in the original and actually become conversent with it. 

But I can’t wait around until I can really read German.  So what I’m deciding to do is start with B. 

The nice thing about B.  is that there is a big website with all kinds of old Lutheran hymns in German, containing hymns I’ve never heard.  http://www.gesangbuch.org/

This weekend, when I had eight million other things to do and was depressed at the way my sermon came out on Sunday, I tried to translate two hymns I didn’t know.  Now, truthfully, I have a very rough understanding of some of the basics of German, but not enough to translate accurately.  But I tried anyway, and the next step is to actually make the rough translation into verse that can be sung. 

But before I do that, I want to submit my crummy translation to the scrutiny of some other people.  Once I’m satisfied that I’m catching what the text says (more or less), I will try to versify the translation. 

In the end I’m not sure I care that much if I write an accurate translation, since my goal is more to practice composing some hymns. 

So first of all, I’m going to post these two hymns.  The first is by Johann Gottfried Olearius, who wrote some of my favorite hymns.  The second is by a guy named Herman Bonnus, whom I had never heard of before.

Hermann Bonnus, Superintendent of Luebeck

Secondly, I’m going to try to get Rev. Mark Preus to tell me how far off my translations are.  He has been writing American Lutheran hymns for some time now, and maybe one day God will grant us through him some Lutheran hymns in English that can nourish piety the way the German ones did. http://revivelutheranhymns.blogspot.com/

Then eventually I will try to make them rhyme.


Wunderbarer Gnadenthron
Johann Olearius, 1611-1684               meter:7 7 7 7 7 7 7

Wunderbarer Gnadenthron,
Gottes und Marien Sohn,
Gott und Mensch, ein kleines Kind,
Das man in der Krippe findt,
Großer Held von Ewigkeit,
Dessen Macht und Herrlichkeit
Rühmt die ganze Christenheit.

2. Du bist arm und macht zugleich
Uns an Leib und Seele reich,
Du wirst klein, du großer Gott,
Und macht Höll und Tod zu Spott.
Aller Welt wird offenbar,
Ja auch deiner Feinde Schar,
Daß du, Gott, bist wunderbar.

3. Laß mir deine Güt und Treu
Täglich werden immer neu.
Gott, mein Gott, verlaß mich nicht,
Wenn mich Not und Tod ansicht,
Laß mich deine Herrlichkeit,
Deine Wundergütiglichkeit,
Schauen in der Ewigkeit.

1.  Most wonderful throne of grace/mercy seat

God’s and Mary’s Son

God and man, a little child

That one finds in a manger

Great hero from eternity

Whose might and grandeur/glory

The whole of Christendom praises.

  1.  You are weak and make at the same time

Us in body and soul rich. 

You are little you great God

And make a mockery of hell and death.

It is clear to all the world

Yes, even to the company of your enemies,

That you God, are wonderful.

  1. Let your love and faithfulness

Be daily to me always new.

God, my God, forsake me not

 When I face anguish and death.

Let me your glory

Your wonderful lovingkindness

See for eternity.

Ehre sei dir, Christe
Herman Bonnus, 1540

1. Ehre sei dir, Christe, der du littest Not,
an dem Stamm des Kreuzes für uns bittern Tod,
herrschest mit dem Vater in der Ewigkeit:
hilf uns armen Sündern zu der Seligkeit.
Kyrie eleison,
Christe eleison,
Kyrie eleison.

2. Wäre nicht gekommen Christus in die Welt
und hätt angenommen unser arm Gestalt
und für unsre Sünde gestorben williglich,
so hätten wir müssen verdammt sein ewiglich.
Kyrie eleison,
Christe eleison,
Kyrie eleison.

3. Darum wolln wir loben, danken allezeit
dem Vater und Sohne und dem Heilgen Geist;
bitten, daß sie wollen behüten uns hinfort,
und daß wir stets bleiben bei seinem heilgen Wort.
Kyrie eleison,
Christe eleison,
Kyrie eleison.

  1. Glory be to you Christ, You who suffered anguish

On the tree/stem of the cross for us bitter death

Who reigns with the Father in eternity,

Help us needy sinners to your blessedness.

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, kyrie eleison.

2.  If Christ had not come into the world

And had not taken on our pitiful image

And for our sins willingly died,

We would have had to be damned forever.

Kyrie eleison

Christe Eleison

Kyrie Eleison.

3.  Therefore will we laud and thank always

The Father and Son and the Holy Ghost

Praying, that they will watch over us henceforth

And that we ever remain with His holy Word.

Kyrie Eleison

Christe Eleison

Kyrie Eleison.

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