Translating Musical Traditions

Translating musical traditions is a dangerous business, complex on so many levels. Musicians know that scores—written music—are incomplete translations of sound to sight. Performers must learn how to bring life to the marks on a page, recognizing that not all the breaths, swells, and emotions can be notated. Crossing cultural boundaries with musical transcription is even more fraught; ethnomusicologists from Western traditions have long agonized over how to visually represent non-Western music for performance and study. How can we write down notes that fall between the lines and spaces of a grand staff? How can we represent timbres, ornaments, and musical textures that readers have never heard? Crossing cultures with oral transmission is not necessarily easier, as it can still lead to appropriation and Westernization of texts and tunes.

Even within the same or closely related cultures, songs regularly change over time as they are shared and passed down—purposely or inadvertently simplified, ornamented, or otherwise varied. Some Mennonites who grew up singing the German "Gott ist die Liebe" have told me they know it more as a lullaby than the march-like English "For God so loved us" that I have internalized.[1] Once when I was singing this song under my breath a friend told me, "You're humming that in English." Of course, this is not a rigid distinction, as some German singers prefer upbeat renditions and vice versa. I don't know what histories or family traditions caused this divergence in musical practice; often, there is no clear answer to such questions. Sometimes people want to identify essential differences in cultures or languages that produce musical change over time, but that is another dangerous road (historically undergirded by pseudo-scientific racism). In addition to these musical differences, "For God so loved us" is an imperfect translation of the phrase "Gott ist die Liebe." The Voices Together hymnal committee is considering a new English translation that is somewhat closer, beginning with "I know God loves me." Is it better to bring these two texts into alignment in this way, or does the received English text have such a life of its own that it ought not be changed?

As the Voices Together committee considers adding new non-English and non-Western songs to a denominational collection, we face additional daunting questions of translating texts and tunes. Words, poetry, and images—set to music and meant to evoke an unimaginable divine—can become clunky when taken from their home culture and language. A new(-to-us) example the committee is discussing is a well-loved Chinese song "Golden Breaks the Dawn." If we were to sing a literal translation of the first line, 清早起來看, 紅日出東方, the poetry would be lost: "get up early in the morning to see the red eastern sunrise." The versified English "golden breaks the dawn/comes the eastern sun" is not very grammatical, but it presents a vibrant image that resonates with Westerners (who tend to call the sun yellow rather than red). The second Chinese line continues, literally, "majesty like a warrior, beauty like a bridegroom," images that are quite foreign to plain(ish) pacifist Mennonites. Furthermore, out of a desire for a rhyme, previous translators have tried "like a man of brawn" or "like a rider strong" for the warrior phrase. The rest of the first stanza is lovely in this metered and rhymed translation: "birds above us fly, /flowers bloom below. /Through the earth and sky/ God's great mercies flow."

The tune of "Golden breaks the dawn" is simple and sweet to my ear; others may also find it charming, or they may dismiss it as boring or even peculiar. Vocal and instrumental accompaniments could be rendered in a variety of ways that would accentuate either its Chinese-ness or its similarities to Western tunes. If the committee decides to include this song, we will have to determine how many cultural, musical, and linguistic translations are feasible and necessary to make it meaningful and useful for mostly-Anglo North American Mennonite congregations. And, of course, this would need to be done without obliterating or disrespecting the source material.

A Congolese version of "What a Friend We have in Jesus" carries another layer of complexity: this song, written by Charles Converse in 1868 and familiar to many North American Christians, is layered with African harmonies and vocal interjections in Lingala.[2] I have heard that this call-and-response version was common in France in past generations as well, so it is difficult to say which performance practices arose where. Either way, it is a reappropriation, a loop of colonizing mission (that expected converts to learn Western songs along with religion) leading to North American Christians receiving back this syncretic expression. Some might say this song is not "truly African," or that the Voices Together collection should include more authentic African music. However, choosing a narrowly defined "traditional" set of African music disregards huge sound worlds in that continent. It would be essentially just as colonial of us to define what another culture's music ought to be in this way—to patronizingly imply that it really would be better for them to reject any Western music they may have come to love.

In the face of all of these complexities, how can a committee create a song collection primarily for white English-speaking Mennonites who want to acknowledge and live into world-wide Mennonite diversity? We know we cannot create a resource that will be useful to every linguistic group even in the United States and Canada—there are over two dozen languages used in Mennonite congregations in these two nations alone! However, we want to provide resources that enable worshipers to sing in a variety of languages with their church families at local, regional, national, and international gatherings. Each area conference has a different group of languages represented at yearly meetings. Each congregation has an internal makeup that may reflect linguistic and cultural diversity, or external connections they want to be able to celebrate through song.

With a culturally and linguistically diverse hymnal, individuals and congregations will inevitably encounter some familiar traditions, and some unknown to them. English speakers can learn about some non-English texts from native speakers in their congregation or area conference, but what happens when a songleader doesn't personally know a native speaker? Trying a new song from a different culture without help, grasping (or even guessing) at pronunciation and performance practice, easily becomes a caricature or worse. Furthermore, even when the intent is to experience God and share community, what does it really mean for a white U.S. American to sing a spiritual from enslaved people, or a song that was sung by Indigenous people in the context of removal and boarding schools? I agree with the argument that there are shared human emotions we can access across cultures through song, but we must also recognize that there are power structures making some performances more responsible and appropriate than others.

White North Americans like me need to think carefully about how to approach songs that have been translated into their musical language. White people are not accustomed to facing impossible situations—damned if you do, damned if you don't. As a white woman, even within the context of cisgender propriety, I do know this kind of tightrope—between coming across as too feminine (when people won't take you seriously) and too masculine (when people see you as bossy or rude). Or perhaps you've seen the cartoon diagram of skirt lengths, with a series of derogatory descriptions ranging from dowdy to slutty with no happy medium. Any individual from a stereotyped group has an analogous paradox of being seen as confirming a cliché or trying to be something they are not.

As a white person, though, I am not usually confronted by those kinds of confounding questions of identity. One place I do feel it is when I am choosing songs for my predominantly white Mennonite congregation, and even more acutely in reviewing songs for Voices Together. If our hymnal only contained music written by white European and North American people, that would be a ridiculous, incorrect representation of Mennonite identity and singing practices. Damned if you don't. However, in order to represent the world of sacred music sung by Mennonites and our ecumenical siblings, we will be pushed beyond our knowledge and experience. When we try to sing a culturally or linguistically unfamiliar song, we are bound to misrepresent and make mistakes. Damned if you do.

I don't have a way out of this paradox, but, speaking to white Mennonites here: my advice is not to let it paralyze us. Connecting with other cultures through singing allows us to encounter people who are different from us, but also the same. This is difficult work, but it is important for cultivating respect and enacting justice. We need to make the effort to learn about a variety of musical traditions in order to expand our worlds; an easy first step is to search out authoritative sources on the internet for language pronunciation and background about musical practices. Although we ought to engage with real people from other cultures, we also need to grapple with valuing diversity and finding common ground by ourselves—a native of another culture cannot simply make it ok for us to inhabit their music. In singing a song that is not "ours," that dialectic of ok and not-ok will always persist. In some ways, it truly is not right for me to sing a song about wanting to be free of slavery, and in other ways (and at the same time) it truly is ok. Songleaders can draw congregations into these questions, and singers can lean into the tensions, always aware that the line between replication and sonic stereotyping is thin. Even as we accept that we are going to make mistakes, we cannot let that inevitability allow us to be careless, uncritical, or immobilized. We must keep singing, holding lightly to the conflicting expectations of being humbled and finding holy ground.

[1]Both translations are included in Hymnal: A Worship Book #167.

[2]Jill Schroeder-Dorn discusses this and other songs in her article, "Letting a Version of Christianity Grow: The Importance of Musical Thought in the Congolese Mennonite Church."Hymn, 2015.

About the Author

Katie Graber

Katie Graber is an ethnomusicologist who studies race and ethnicity in a variety of contexts including Mennonite music, American music, and European opera. She has taught classes on Western music history and world music, and she accompanies Suzuki recitals and school choirs. She leads singing at her church in Columbus, Ohio, and chairs the Intercultural Worship committee for the Voices Together project.