The challenge: finding translators for hymn texts

The Rev. Dr. Jon Vieker, left, traces textual strands of LCMS hymnody for international attendees of the “Fresh Hymns of Thankful Praise Arise” symposium at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind. (LCMS/Michael Schuermann)

The Rev. Dr. Jon Vieker, left, traces textual strands of LCMS hymnody for international attendees of the “Fresh Hymns of Thankful Praise Arise” symposium at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind. (LCMS/Michael Schuermann)

By Katie Schuermann

For nearly 500 years, Lutherans have been singing the faith in the language of the people, but not every Lutheran living across the globe today has the opportunity to sing the church’s song in his native tongue.

That ironic disparity is the impetus behind the LCMS Office of International Mission’s (OIM) first-ever symposium for hymnwriters and translators, titled “Fresh Hymns of Thankful Praise Arise,” that met Nov. 6-10 in cooperation with the Good Shepherd Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. The institute commemorated the 10th anniversary of Lutheran Service Book.

“Martin Luther, in his revision of the Latin Mass (Formula Missae) in 1523, was already looking forward to the day when the Church would have the liturgy and hymnody in German so the people could both understand and sing,” explained the Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, the OIM’s director of Theological Education, in his introductory remarks to the symposium’s participants. “Our goal in the LCMS today remains the same: to promote the translation of existing hymns and the composition of new hymns that are soundly theological in content and linguistically, poetically and musically able to enrich and edify the faith and piety of the worshiper.”

Translating hymns from one language to another, however, is not an easy task.

The most challenging part of developing a hymnal with a partner church,” said Deaconess Sandra Rhein, hymnal consultant for the OIM and member of the Task Force for Liturgy and Hymnody in Missions, “is finding someone who can translate hymn texts. The skill set required is enormous. This person must be fluent in at least English and his native language; he must know theology, poetry and music; and he must have a passion for the work and something that I can only describe as an innate talent for translating.”

“The pairing of text and tune in hymns, when done skillfully, is greater than a sum of its parts,” explained Rhein.

“This is how the people are going to learn their theology and internalize it,” confirmed Dr. Joseph Herl, professor of music at Concordia University, Nebraska, in his presentation on crafting beautiful, faithful and effective hymn translations. “Hymns are the folk songs of the church, and people will remember them far longer than they will remember sermons.”

Writers, pastors and church officials representing Argentina, China, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Tanzania, Czech Republic, Canada and the United States, as well as representatives of the Lutheran Friends of the Deaf of the Mill Neck Family of Organizations, gathered at the symposium to hear presentations by Herl, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Starke, Matthew Carver, the Rev. Dr. Jon Vieker, Dr. Rob Rhein and Rev. Sergio Fritzler.

Participants also were given an opportunity to share examples of their own compositions and translations and to be mentored by the experts.

“It takes time and energy and concentration to compile and prepare a hymnal for future generations,” said Tsegahun Assefa Adugna, head of the Department of Youth and Children’s Ministries of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus. “This symposium has given us insight and encouragement to go ahead.”

Vieker, who is senior assistant to the Synod president and former assistant director of the LCMS Commission on Worship, said, “I hope the participants go back with greater confidence in terms of their hymnwriting and translating, and that they will also continue to be encouraged by the connections they have made here with other hymnwriters and translators.”

Individuals interested in supporting the ongoing work of hymnwriters and translators in partner churches in other countries may contact Deaconess Sandra Rhein at sandrarhein52@gmail.com.

For donations, make checks payable to “The LCMS” and note that the gift is for “International Lutheran Hymnal Translations.” Mail checks to The LCMS, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.

Katie Schuermann (Katie@katieschuermann.com) is an author, musician and wife of the Rev. Michael Schuermann, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sherman, Ill.

Posted November 28, 2016

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