Translation is an act of hope. We believe that a story can leap between contexts and cultures and from one language into another. To translate is to trust that truth will travel with you.
Let’s begin this Advent journey with translation. And let’s take Jean de Brébeuf as our guide. Our cousins in the Catholic Church already call him patron saint of Canada, and Canada is full of translations.
Brébeuf was a seventeenth century French Jesuit with terrible conversion rates. The Church sent him in New France because he seemed to have a flair for languages, but he spent most of his time getting to know the Wendat people and not enough time baptising. He was interested in the strong parallels between spiritualities from different places and in the way that metaphors worked in diverse settings. Throughout his ministry, he carefully recorded rituals and traditions, and used what he learned to reach out meaningfully to those around him. But he is most famous for writing the Huron Carol, the first Canadian Christmas Carol. Using a traditional folk tune, Brébeuf used indigenous images and the Wendat language to translate the Christmas story. It’s haunting and holy.
The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.
I learned Brébeuf’s story and his song as a child, and I’ve shared it with congregations throughout my travels. But what I only learned recently is that we sing the wrong words. The English words aren’t a translation; they are a reimagining. In 1926, Jesse Edgar Middleton, a Methodist choir director, reworked the carol for English-speaking congregations who knew little about indigenous culture. The lodge of broken bark, the wandering chiefs, even the ragged robe of rabbit skin were all cut from whole cloth. Brébeuf’s song is simpler and perhaps stranger to English listeners. The spirits call listeners to be “on top of life” and to “make a name” for the young child, whose scalp will be greased many times. Rejoice and praise rings differently here and Gitchi Manitou is not mentioned at all. The song ends with this statement:
It is the will of the spirits that you love us, Jesus, and we wish that we may be adopted into your family.
But that is the heart, isn’t it? That is our wish, too.
None of this is new. Some of you probably heard this story back in the early 90s when Bruce Cockburn recorded Jesous Ahatonhia in Wendat. Cockburn worked with John Steckly, a University of Sudbury linguist who helped him with the Wendat pronunciation and gave him a more accurate translation of the original text. Cockburn was, at the time, quite judgemental about the English words, calling them “atrocious” and “a bad copy of Tennyson.” I’m not sure I agree – maybe I learned these words too young to be able to dismiss them as kitsch – but I do think I know what he means.
Cockburn was reacting against a reimagining of native culture. Who was Jesse Edgar Middleton to invent that lodge of broken bark? Why did he have to complicate Brébeuf’s elegant simplicity with stereotypes? Why should we perpetuate this kind of thing?
But there is something more complicated going on here. Middleton’s version of Brébeuf’s song showed English Canada that translation is possible. A French Jesuit could reshape the nativity so that it could be heard in a wholly different context. Language doesn’t confine the story. Nuance might shift, understandings differ, but the heart of the story can travel. Middleton’s own reshaping is just an illustration of the process. Regardless of how inaccurate and sentimental his translation might be, Middleton obviously valued Brébeuf’s translating work and sought to share the fact of it with an English audience. And if the story can be translated in all these new ways and still hold up the light of Christ, then what place can truly remain dark?
There is hope in that. Abundant, light-filled Advent hope.
I started thinking and making notes about the idea of translation and this Canadian carol long before I heard about the end of the Presbyterian Record. This felt like such a good, hope-filled story for the beginning of Advent. Now it feels like a fitting close, too.
In January, I will be moving the Messy Table over to the Christian Courier, an independent biweekly with roots in the Christian Reformed Church. I hope that you will drop in and keep in touch there.
You can still find me on Twitter @messy_table
May this Advent be a good journey for you and those you love and may your words and your work always carry Christ’s light.