Our God He Is a Castle Strong: on translations of hymns, among other things

"Our God He Is a Castle Strong"

Our God he is a castle strong,
A good mail-coat and weapon;
He sets us free from ev'ry wrong
That wickedness would heap on.
The old knavish foe 
He means earnest now;
force and cunning sly
His horrid policy,
On earth there's nothing like him.*

Perhaps you recognized this first stanza from a very famous hymn.  Or perhaps, like me, you didn't.  I happened upon it one evening as I was searching through our copy of Luther's Works: Liturgy and Hymns checking to see if a certain hymn I like happened to have been written by Martin Luther. It did not, but while I had the book open I noticed that it provided commentary on each of the hymns.  Excited, I decided to look up my Lutheran favorite: A Mighty Fortress is Our God.  It was nowhere to be found.  I knew that was impossible, so I kept looking until the light-bulb came on.... A "mighty fortress".... a "castle strong"...

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate, 
on earth is not his equal.

Comparing all the verses carefully, it gradually became clear that I was indeed looking at the same song.  And so I became very curious as to why a modern (1965) collection of Luther's works and hymns would have selected such an obscure and, well, clunky translation.  So I began to investigate. 
The popular translation, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, I learned, was rendered by the Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and teacher of German literature, Frederick Hedge.   As happens, though, all of the hymns in my volume were translated by a near contemporary of Hedge's, George MacDonald (yes that George MacDonald).  Thankfully, the collection's editor, Ulrich S. Leupold, explained his choice:
"Unfortunately little of the original ruggedness of Luther's poetic style survived in the translations of his hymns that have found their way into modern English and American hymnals.  With the mighty resurgence of English hymnody during the nineteenth century, many poets tried their hand at rendering Luther's verse into English.  But most of them took considerable liberties with the originals.  Frequently they changed irregular verse forms into more accepted meters.  Usually they aimed at a more polished and elegant style than was really justified in view of Luther's angularity.  They tried to make him speak in the mellifluent accents of a Victorian churchman, with the result that both the literal sense and the original style often were lost.
"...In this edition faithfulness to the original wording, style, and meter seemed more important than a completely idiomatic English rendition.  Perhaps the most felicitous attempt to translate Luther's hymns without loss of their original ruggedness was made by the Scottish theologian and writer George MacDonald (1824-1905).  MacDonald's translation, used in this edition, has been completely passed by in common use, presumably because he consciously, and often successfully, tried to express Luther's robust lines in an English idiom of similar character.  Obviously he took for a pattern the older English verse.  He sought to preserve the vivid metaphors, metrical irregularity, and folk-song quality of Luther's hymns.  He imitated Luther's preference for monosyllables by using mostly Anglo-Saxon words. Due to the prevalence of feminine rimes in German poetry and their scarcity in English with its lack of suffixes, many hymn translations from the German suffer from a tedious repetition of rimes on "-ation." such as creation, salvation, foundation, and justification.  These words tend to make the English style more academic and pompous than the German.  MacDonald almost completely avoided them." **
Additionally, referring specifically to Our God He Is a Castle Strong, Leupold adds:
 "He did not write it to express his own feelings, but to interpret and apply the 46th Psalm to the church of his own time and its struggles...."
Suddenly I found I'd gained profound respect for that clunky rendition!  Now I read it fondly, and yet, truth be told, I don't think I would like singing it. Which led me to begin puzzling, "What are the characteristics of good translation?"  After much consideration, I'll say, "It depends on what you mean by "good".  

In undertaking the translation of a document, whether it be a hymn, a work of literature, or even the Scriptures, any serious translator begins with a set of principles by which he or she operates, and a set of priorities and goals for what he or she is hoping to accomplish. In short - a philosophy.  Whether this philosophy is carefully delineated, or merely intuited, it is there like a conscience, guiding decisions, providing a sense of direction.  It, along with the skill of the translator, determines the nature of the finished product, not only whether it is "good" or "bad" but how those terms are defined.  It will also dictate what, as is almost inevitable, will get lost in translation. 

A Mighty Fortress is Our God, our case in point, is considered an excellent translation according to one philosophy, and yet is found lacking by another.  One standard values its poetic beauty, rich language, and melodic flow.  Another appreciates these qualities and is yet disappointed that some of Luther's original attitude, style, simplicity, and scriptural parallels were sacrificed on the altar of euphoniousness.  The fact that we find A Mighty Fortress is our God and not Our God He Is a Castle Strong in most of today's hymnals testifies to a certain set of values which prevail in modern hymnody.  This is not, I would argue, a necessarily bad thing. Hymns, after all, are meant to be sung.  It would be a greater loss, in my opinion, to produce an awkward translation - one that is difficult to sing or understand - and see it lost to history or fade into obscurity simply because nobody liked to sing it, than to produce a lovely one but without a bit of its original oomph.

I think MacDonald's translation stands beautifully as poetry, and provides a priceless glimpse into the heart and soul of Luther - that rough-hewn tool forged by God to hammer a message of reform into the doors of the medieval church.  In this sense I and the editor of Luther's Works, Vol. 53, wholeheartedly affirm it is a good translation. I am glad it exists and delighted that I own a copy of it.

A good translation, I think most would agree, captures not only words but feeling.  If the original is  gentle, or harsh, or graceful, or boisterous, that should not be lost.  If  it is clumsy but full of heart, then it would be best to preserve that special charm. If it is intended to be educational factual, specific, and precise, then it is best rendered so. Imagery, allegory, and metaphor should be clung to for dear life. 
So then, translation is both a skill and an art, which is guided by a philosophy which may differ from person to person based upon a number of factors, one of which is the nature of the work being translated.  A hymn, we've seen, may be translated in different ways based upon various priorities, and the same is true for just about any other written work.  It is true for literature, which can be rendered sublime or soporific by translation. Perhaps most significantly, it is true of the Holy Bible.  One might think the belief that the scriptures are the inspired Word of God would simplify matters, but in fact it only complicates them, as the hundreds of translations and versions currently available in English will testify.

The background and goals of the translator are also considerations.  Leupold, for instance, compiled his edition with an eye toward students of the works of Luther whose limited abilities in German and/or Latin would prevent them from reading his work in the languages in which they were written.  Since his focus was on Luther, the man and his message, it makes perfect sense that selected the MacDonald translations.  The editors of the Trinity Hymnal, on the other hand, were looking to edify the church at large.  In order to accomplish this, the hymns they chose had to be not only meaningful, but  embraced.  Similarly a translator cannot help but be influenced by his or her own intellectual or spiritual biases, goals, natural tendencies, areas of expertise or enjoyment, etc.  Whether a translator is a musician, a historian, a poet, a theologian,  or a linguist, his translations will undoubtedly be colored by the strokes of his particular art.

So my word of encouragement for today is to take notice of translations.  Remember that for most foreign works there are more than one. Surround yourself with them when you can. Compare them. Appreciate them as art and critique them as well.  When you find a work difficult, there is hope.  Look for another translation!  Learn about the translators of your favorite editions, and your least favorite ones as well. Discern their motivations, passions, and philosophies.  Occasionally this may illuminate some unexpected motivation.  Certainly it will enrich your understanding and appreciation of their work.

* For the piqued curiosity I've included the full text of MacDonald's translation below:

"Our God He Is a Castle Strong"

Our God he is a castle strong,
A good mail-coat and weapon;
He sets us free from ev'ry wrong
That wickedness would heap on.
The old knavish foe 
He means earnest now;
force and cunning sly
His horrid policy,
On earth there's nothing like him.
Tis all in vain, do what we can,
Our strength is soon dejected.
but He fights for us, the right man,
By God himself elected.
Ask'st thou who is this?
Jesus Christ it is,
Lord of Hosts alone,
And God but him is none,
So he must win the battle.

And did the world with devils swarm,
All gaping to devour us,
We fear not the smallest harm,
Success is yet before us.
This world's prince accurst,
Let him rage his worst,
No hurt brings about;
His doom it is gone out,
One word can overturn him.

The word they shall allow to stand,
Nor any thanks have for it; 
He is with us, at our right hand,
With the gifts of his spirit.
If they take our life,
Wealth, name, child and wife - 
Let everything go:
They have no profit so;
The kingdom ours remaineth.

** Leupold explains at greater length:
"To the modern ear Luther's verses sound awkward, if not uncouth. They lack the rich emotional overtones, the mellow flow of words, and the metric regularity that we commonly associate with poetry.  Some of them sound more like prose than poetry....The hymns of the nineteenth century that form the bulk of today's hymnals were written according to the artistic canons of Romanticism.  They use beautifully polished phrases and dance or march rhythms to create a certain mood and to give an ornate expression to personal religious feelings.  But Luther's hymns were meant not to create a mood, but to convey a message. They were a confession of faith, not of personal feelings.  That is why, in the manner of folk songs, they present their subject vividly and dramatically, but without the benefit of ornate language and other poetic refinements.  They were written not to be read but to be sung by a whole congregation....
"The language and vocabulary are therefore simple and direct.  Like the ancient Hebrew poets he knew so well, Luther used few adjectives and formed brief pungent lines consisting almost exclusively of verbs and nouns. Most of the words are monosyllables.  The thought is condensed and concentrated. Frequently every line forms a sentence of its own....A crowd sings a verse at a time, and so each verse must make sense as a unit.
"Again, our modern hymns are iambic, trochaic, or dactylic, i.e., they observe a regular succession of metrical feet.  The rhythmic structure, i.e., the succession of accented and unaccented syllables, is the same from stanza to stanza and often from verse to verse....But this tramping or tripping of metrical feet was foreign to Luther and was not in fact made a law of poetry until one hundred years later....Luther counted syllables, but the accents vary from line to line....Instead of fitting sentences into the rigid mold of metrical feet, Luther was able to stress certain words irrespective of the tyranny of 'light' and 'heavy' accents....Also in the matter of rime, Luther's hymns are much freer than those of later centuries.  Often there is more of an assonance than a proper rime. On the other hand, there are many alliterations."


Bach also wrote a cantata based upon 'Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott'. It certainly is a stirring statement of faith in melody and text and must be one of the most loved and quoted of all Hymns. Wikipedia has a lot of info about it but lacks your interpretative observations and good advice on how best approach translations of this Hymn.Thanks.
Laurie M. said…
Thanks to you Kevin! I'm going to look up that cantata right away!!
christov10 said…
I find I am edified by MacDonald's translation even more than by the translation I am used to singing. Thank you for posting this.
Laurie M. said…
I'm so glad you were blessed by it, Christov!
thenface2face said…
What an interesting article! I didn't have time to read this the last time I visited. I am so glad it caught my eye--it makes me want to dust off my German dictionary, and dive into Luther's hymns in the original.

So thank you for this gift of fresh understanding!

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