Singing with Martin Luther: A Model for Cultivating Hymns in the Language of the People

Luther emphasized the need for congregational hymns in the language of the people.

As good as translated hymns may be, they’re often not in the “voice” of the people. For example, I’ve traveled several times to Brazil and had conversations with missionaries and native speakers about this problem. Brazilian churches have many hymns that were translated from English to Portuguese. These have provided a good repertory of Christian songs. But more often than not, singing Portuguese lyrics to melodies that were written to be sung with English lyrics is awkward.

 

Cross-cultural issues are always challenging for missionaries. When new churches are being planted in cultures that don’t have any tradition of Christian songs in the native language, one of the difficult questions missionaries face is what churches should sing during worship.

It takes a long time to cultivate new hymns in the people’s language using music that is good and fitting to Christian worship as well as the local language and culture. Missionaries could, of course, translate good hymns from English into the target language, retaining the original tunes. This is a quick way to provide hymns for worship in new churches that have no hymn tradition in their own language.

The problem is that as good as these translated hymns may be, they’re often not in the “voice” of the people. For example, I’ve traveled several times to Brazil and had conversations with missionaries and native speakers about this problem. Brazilian churches have many hymns that were translated from English to Portuguese. These have provided a good repertory of Christian songs. But more often than not, singing Portuguese lyrics to melodies that were written to be sung with English lyrics is awkward.

Differences between various languages affect the rhythm and cadence of poetry. This in turn affects the rhythm and cadence of music used to accompany poetic lyrics. This is one of the fundamental differences between the music of different civilizations. Although missionaries have been successful in translating English hymns into Portuguese, the result just doesn’t feel natural to native Brazilians.You see, Portuguese is a Latin-based language in which every syllable is essentially the same length, giving the language a certain cadence and rhythm. English, on the other hand, is a Germanic language. The natural rhythm of the language is based on a stressed vowel sound and syllables of varying lengths.

Creating new hymns in local languages is a challenge, but it’s not a new challenge. The great Reformer Martin Luther gives missionaries a perfect model to follow in cultivating a truly indigenous body of hymns.

Translation: The First Step toward Hymns in the Local Language

As part of Martin Luther’s theological and ecclesiastical reforms, he emphasized the need for congregational hymns in the language of the people. The Roman Church had retained Latin as its exclusive ecclesiastical language, so all hymns used in worship were in Latin.

Luther, however, wanted to cultivate German hymns. The first natural step in that direction was to begin translating available Latin hymns into German. Translation, however, produced somewhat awkward hymns that didn’t feel right with the original Latin tunes. But Luther recognized that this is where the process must begin.

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