For about a year now our congregation, in addition to our old hymnal, has been using a supplementary collection of gospel songs. Sunday evening we sang one of those songs for perhaps the second time. The English words were not familiar to me, but the melody was. I realized it belonged to a familiar French hymn, but the words escaped me. Today it all came back. The hymn was originally written in German and has been translated into both English and French. The English title is Day by Day, and With Each Passing Moment, in French it is Chaque instant de chaque jour qui passe.
It is not really accurate to say it has been translated into French. Because of the difference in language structure between French and English (or German), a word for word translation is often not possible. In most cases the French version conveys much the same meaning, but not in quite the same way. For instance, the third line of Day by Day says: Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment, and the second line of Chaque instant says: En Jésus je puis me confier. The idea of trust is there in both languages, in English it is trust in the Father, in French it is trust in Jesus. This is not a difference in theology, simply a difference in what works poetically to fit the same melody.
A few hymns have come into English from French: Les anges dans nos campagnes became Angels We Have Heard on High; Minuit chrétien became O Holy Night, and Gloire à Dieu notre Créateur became Praise God From Whom all Blessings Flow. Angels We Have Heard on High is pretty much a direct translation; O Holy Night not so much, but still has the same basic themes; Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow uses the melody written by Louis Bourgeois many years ago in Geneva, but the words bear very little resemblance to what he wrote.
Sometimes it seems that when the original was in a language other than French or English the translations into the two languages are closer in meaning that when translating from English to French, or vice versa. How Great Thou Art is the English translation of a Swedish Hymn and the French version, Comme tu es grand, is very similar. A Mighty Fortress is Our God, the English translation of Martin Luther’s hymn Eine Feste Burg, and it’s French counterpart, C’est une rempart que notre Dieu are also very close.
There are also cases where a totally new hymn has been written in French and set to the melody of a familiar English hymn. This can lead to some complications when a minister who knows only English speaks in a French-speaking congregation. He hears a familiar sounding hymn and when he gets up to speak, he starts by commenting on the spiritual message of the hymn that he heard in his mind. This places the interpreter in somewhat of a quandary: does he try to interpret what the minister is saying and add some explanatory remarks? or does he interrupt the minister and inform him that the congregation did not hear what he heard? Sometimes the latter course might be advisable, as the minister might seize on the one thing he thought he understood and refer to it several more times during his sermon.
I have an abiding love for French hymnody and regret that I am now living in a place where, if I want to hear them, I have to sing them myself. I doubt that anyone else would be blessed by listening to my singing, but I am blessed by the messages.