27 December 2014

Fr Valentine Young, Fr Charles Wesley, and Mgr Andrew Burnham

Mgr Andrew kindly sent me a link to Views from the Choir Loft, in which sixteen Christmas Carols are rendered into Latin by a Fr Valentine Young (except that, I rather suspect, Adeste fideles may originally have been composed in the Latin!). They provide a very festive seasonal treat, even if quite a number of them are unknown to me in the original English (are they American?).

On a serious note: they demonstrate that translations can never express the real sublimity, or even the full sense, of an original (I might conceivably allow John Mason Neale's versions to come closest to being an exception to that generalisation). An example:

One of the most nearly perfect hymns ever written in any language is the Reverend Charles 'Anglican Patrimony' Wesley's Hark how all the welkin rings, usually sung in the impoverished version Hark! the herald Angels sing*. I have particularly in mind the stanza in which Wesley puts into our melodious mouths the Mystery of the Incarnation, and does it
firstly in the Teutonic dialect we learned at our Mothers' knees
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
and then in Latin
Hail the incarnate Deity
and finally in Aramaic/Hebrew
Jesus our Emmanu-el here.
It is as if the Poet is excavating downwards through our own crude maternal patois, and then penetrating the Latin in which the Gospel was brought to our land, right back to the raw data of first-century Palestine.

Most importantly, this is superb as dogma; and it is breathtaking in the apparently effortless ease with which it draws these three linguistic and cultural traditions into a harmony of joyous proclamation. But, to us literary types, it is also a first rate example of the sort of verbal and interlingual tropes enjoyed so much by S Ambrose and his admirers, and then by the poets of the Carolingian Renaissance and their followers such as S Peter Damian. It is, quite simply, classical Western Christian hymnography at its finest.

But it is impossible, totally impossible, to render Wesley's sublime English into Latin. Fr Valentine gives us the bare bones very well with
Carne tamquam obsitus,
Homo ex Deo factus.
(although perhaps a really pedantic dogmatician might pause for just a tiny moment over the ex). But you can't drag more than about 15% of it, at the most, out of the fine English original into a Latin crib.

So try to imagine this scenario. Up comes some benighted, arrogant, ignoramus, fluent in Latin but ignorant of English. He, posturing fool, announces to us (via the Google Translation Facility) "I don't have to learn English in order to understand or appreciate Wesley's hymn. Latin translations are just as good as the English originals. Latin is just as good a language to address God in as English is. I've got Father Valentine's Latin translation. That's all I need".

Compelled by the truth to be brutal, we would simply have to say (again using the Translation Facility), "No, Sunshine, you jus' gotta learn English, otherwise you're deceiving yourself. Only the English original does the job. As we English love to put it, Traduttore traditore."
* Personally, I object to the ruin later meddlers, from Whitefield onwards, have made of this exquisite poiesis. "Rise the Woman's conquering Seed,/ Bruise in us the serpent's head" is a sad typological loss, and the echo of the Christmas antiphon O admirabile commercium, which Wesley worked into his last stanza, was clever; perhaps too clever, or, indeed, too Catholic/Orthodox in its assertion of Theosis, for some eyes.


  1. "Our own crude maternal patois?!" You don't mean that surely, father? I'm sure Tolkien woudl take exception to that.

    But I expect that since three out of the five words used here are not a bit English then we ought to raise our glasses to the great King William who so beautified our antient English tongue!

  2. Did I not read somewhere that the Wellesley family, progenitors of the Iron Duke, had changed its spelling from Wesley, thinking to recover the original? Also, an exegesis of Christ the Lord is Risen Today,,which I well remember from my Methodist days, would be much appreciated. Best wishes for a happy and holy New Year, Father.

  3. If Knox had written a blog (and this is prompted by the the new series on rhetoric as well), I wonder if it wouldn't have looked like Mutual Enrichment.

  4. Compare the version by Mark Mortimer (Latinised Hymns, 2005)

    Ecce! tegmine Deus
    corporali praeditus,
    quem Esias nominat,
    nostrum unus habitat

  5. That would be Fr. Valentine Young, O.F.M., of the Cincinnati province. Fine priest, fine Latinist. He was teaching Latin before I was born--I'm 50-- and still teaches Latin at the archdiocesan seminary. He also says Mass in the E.F. at the seminary.

  6. Fr. Hunwicke, the unfamiliar ones are American. Fr. Valentine did try also to capture the original melodies where possible...