A New Translation of “Silent Night”

My husband hates the song “Silent Night.” He mostly thinks the music is boring and sleep-inducing (fitting for a lullaby, of course), but this year he posted a longer facebook rant about the lyrics. Here’s just a snippet from his list of complaints against the song:

2 – Stop and think about the words. I know we only like this song because it sweeps us away in the nostalgic embrace of recreating Christmas scenes from cheesy movies (and I know I’m not supposed to point that stuff out), but really think about it. The song goes on about Jesus being quiet. Also, He’s “mild,” which is a pretty disappointing superlative. Like the similarly terrible ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,’ the fact that Jesus (or a whole freakin’ town) is being really quiet doesn’t entertain my mind. How is that the centerpiece of so many services? “Hey, guys, let’s sing a song about how Jesus was really quiet and then went to sleep!”
3 – Three words: Round. Yon. Virgin. For cryin’ out loud, people have no idea what that means and
they sing it anyway.
4 – All is calm? This is not how anyone on the streets of Bethlehem would have described the scene, and animals don’t take too kindly to women and babies screaming through childbirth while they’re trying to sleep, but whatever…

A hearty facebook debate ensued. Though I generally agree with his complaints, I felt obliged to defend “round yon virgin” from a grammatical perspective. Then, one friend weighed with her own happy memories of singing the song in German, so another friend posted a literal, non-versified translation of the song’s three most popular verses. To my surprise, there was no “yon virgin,” no “calm and bright” night, and no “tender and mild” infant to be found. The first verse of the translation she found goes like this:

Silent night, holy night
All is sleeping, alone watches
Only the close, most holy couple.
Blessed boy in curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!

What a difference! It’s not that everything is supernaturally calm; it’s that it’s the middle of the night, so everyone is sleeping! It’s not that everything is bright around “yon virgin” over there; it’s that mom is awake to take care of her new baby. And it’s not that the holy infant is “tender and mild;” he just has curly hair!

So why did the translator make such odd choices? I don’t know much about the Episcopal priest, John Freeman Young, who wrote the English translation we all know and love/hate back in 1863. I do know that he strove to maintain the rhyme scheme and meter of the original German – a must when translating song. Since the first line of every verse ends with the word “night,” the rhyming options for line two are fairly limited; hence choices like “calm and bright.”

I suspect, too, that the original translator was influenced (as we all are) by his own cultural context. I’ve often observed that several descriptions of the manger scene in “Silent Night” resemble the familiar iconography of centuries of church art. The lines from verse three, “radiant beams from thy holy face” remind me of golden halos often painted around baby Jesus, and if that’s what the poet wanted to evoke then all that calm, quiet mildness makes sense. 

But that verse, too is quite different in the German. Instead of “radiant beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace,” the original features a laughing baby, from whose divine mouth love pours forth as “the hour of salvation strikes.” It’s a lovely connection – the baby’s peals of laughter chime out with love just as the bells of a clock ring out the hour of salvation.

Our English verse about the shepherds and angels also has the quality of a still life. The shepherds are forever frozen in fear as they “quake at the sight” of angels who sing “alleluia” as “glories stream from heaven afar.” The German, by contrast, is all about action: the angels’ “alleluia” is no placid, passive praise song, but a message that the shepherds are called to share: “Christ the Savior is here!”

So, I’ve decided to offer my own take on the carol. Now, I’m not a translation expert. I did some poetic translation for my doctorate, but that was not from German, so I’m relying heavily on Google for this translation. I’m trying to preserve the original meter and rhyme scheme and to render the language as literally as possible within those constraints. I’d love to know what you think, especially if we have any German speaking readers out there. And while we’re at it, here’s a link to many other English translations. 

1863 English Translation Literal German New Translation

 

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

Silent night, holy night
All is sleeping, alone watches
Only the close, most holy couple.
Blessed boy in curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds just informed
By the angels’ hallelujah,
It rings out far and wide:
Christ the Savior is here!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, oh how laughs
Love out of your divine mouth,
Because now the hour of salvation
strikes for us, in the birth of Christ!

 

Silent night, holy night
All the world is sleeping tight.
But the holy couple wakes
To brush a curl from baby’s face;
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night, holy night
Shepherds see the angels’ flight
As Alleluias fill the air,
Spread the good news everywhere:
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night
Love rings out, clear and bright
In the laughter of God’s son;
Now salvation’s hour has come
In the birth of Christ!

Copyright 2017 Christine Hand Jones, all rights reserved

 

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    • Dr. Christine Hand Jones

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