Lost in Translation

Many of the hymns that we enjoy today were not originally written in English, and the different translations of hymns can tell us a lot about both the translator and the Church at the time. Sometimes they took pride in staying very close to the original text, and other times text was sacrificed for rhymes or rhythms. Take a look at some of these examples of early hymn translations. How are they different from what you’re used to singing? How are they similar?


“How Great Thou Art”, originally in Swedish, translated by E. Gustav Johnson in 1925:

O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of thine,
And how thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life with love benign,

With rapture filled, my soul thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God! (repeat)

When I behold the heavens in their vastness,
Where golden ships in azure issue forth,
Where sun and moon keep watch upon the fastness
Of changing seasons and of time on earth.


An early translation of “A Mighty Fortress”, originally in German, translated by Myles Coverdale in 1539:

Oure God is a defence and towre,
A good armoure and good weap[-]e;
He hath been ever oure helpe and succoure,
In all the troubles that we have ben in.
Therefore wyl we never drede,
For any wonderous dede
By water or by londe,
In hilles or the see do[-]se;
Oure God hath them all in his hod.*

*A hod is a long-handled tray for carrying a load, often bricks or mortar.


“Be Thou My Vision”, originally written in Old Irish, translated by Mary Byrne in 1905:

Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart
None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.
Be thou my meditation by day and night.
May it be thou that I behold even in my sleep.

Be thou my speech, be thou my understanding.
Be thou with me, be I with thee
Be thou my father, be I thy son.
Mayst thou be mine, may I be thine.

Be thou my battle-shield, be thou my sword.
Be thou my dignity, be thou my delight.
Be thou my shelter, be thou my stronghold.
Mayst thou raise me up to the company of the angels.

Be thou every good to my body and soul.
Be thou my kingdom in heaven and on earth.
Be thou solely chief love of my heart.
Let there be none other, O high King of Heaven.


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