HERE’S AN OLD SAYING: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Much wisdom is contained in that phrase; and those who create hymnals understand well its meaning. The best hymns are often in Latin, but how can they be translated? A literal translation is the best way to capture the meaning of the original—but a literal translation cannot be sung. Many have attempted to create “rhymed” (i.e. metered) translations, but even the most skilled—Neale, Fitzpatrick, Knox, Caswall, and so on—often miss the mark, because it truly is an impossible task. For this reason, the Brébeuf hymnal includes a literal translation as well as numerous “rhyming” translations from which the competent choirmaster can choose.
A Free Lunch? Sometimes, hymnal editors attempt to “have their cake and eat it, too.” They will use metered translations that don’t rhyme. At first, this certainly seems like a brilliant solution! And one could get away with non-rhymed texts when it comes to lengthy, melismatic, complicated hymns such as Decora Lux Aeternitatis.
Fulton J. Sheen Missal: Many years ago, Corpus Christi Watershed made available for free download the remarkable “Fulton J. Sheen Sunday Missal,” published in 1961. This was one of our most popular PDF files, and it was downloaded close to 45,000 times. It has been out-of-print for more than half a century…and largely forgotten. In the past, we have talked about how the references to authors of the hymn translations were completely bonkers—no doubt through an editorial oversight. So we will never know who created the following translation, although it might have been Father Philip Caraman.
Non-Rhyming Hymns: Here is how the “Pange Lingua” of Bishop Fortunatus appears in the Fulton J. Sheen Sunday Missal—and notice it does not rhyme, yet does match the meter of the original Latin:
What’s The Point? What is the point of this translation? One would assume it was done for singing. After all, several other attempts at “non-rhymed” hymns have been made: (1) The new ICEL Breviary hymns are supposedly non-rhymed; (2) The 1970s translation by the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Cecilia in Ryde on the Isle of Wight—just off the south coast of England—uses non-rhymed translations. The Ryde hymns were adapted for the 2007 Mundelein Psalter by Douglas Martis. In my opinion, such translations don’t work, except in the very limited case we spoke of earlier: viz. complex, melismatic, lengthy hymns. In other hymns, our ears are accustomed to hearing the rhyme; we desire strongly to hear the rhyme. Without the rhyme, the piece seems unfulfilling.
An Example: Here is how the translation above—from the Sheen Missal—would sound if set to music. Do you agree this is ghastly?
Liturgical Snobs: We should desire the best for the sacred liturgy. There is nothing wrong with examining liturgical publications and soberly discerning that some have missed the mark, perhaps in an effort to make money. At the same time, we should be on our guard against becoming a “liturgical snob”—and each of us has met such a person. The liturgical snob is so consumed by rage, hatred, and pretentious liturgical “knowledge,” we can’t help wondering if he even believes in God. I believe the priest mentioned in Saint Luke, chapter 10, was most like a liturgical snob:
And Jesus answering, said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, who also stripped him, and having wounded him went away, leaving him half dead. And it chanced, that a certain priest went down the same way: and seeing him, passed by.”
Snobs Cont’d: Some authors clearly possess authentic love for God and a deep desire to share knowledge about the sacred liturgy. Other authors seem obsessed with proving to everyone what an “expert” they are when it comes to liturgical subjects. A liturgical snob would rather suffer death than admit that someone knew something before he did. And the liturgical snob would suffer death 1,000 times before admitting he was incorrect about something.