Our Hymnal, Grant me, God, the Gift of Singing

About Translating Hymns for ‘GGG

by Folmer E. Johansen, 2004

Shortly after our arrival in Canada I was honoured to be invited as a member of the editing committee for Grant me, God, the Gift of Singing, even if it was at a late stage of the process before printing. We discussed—among many other things—the contents: which hymns should be included? And which ones should be deleted from the previous hymnal? As the Church in Denmark was in the process of publishing a new Danish hymnal, I suggested that we also included some modern hymns written after the latest edition (1953), as well as creating translations of great classic hymns that were not to be found in our then present hymnal.

Hymns translated by Folmer E. Johansen:
  1. Tænk, at livet koster livet
  2. Der sad en fisker så tankefuld
  3. Det var kun en drøm
  4. Påskeblomst! hvad vil du her?
  5. Kærligheds og sandheds Ånd
  6. Talsmand, som på jorderige
  7. Stiftet Guds Søn har på jorden
  8. Himlene, Herre, fortælle din ære
  9. Alle mine kilder skal være hos dig
  10. Beder, og I skulle få!
  11. Du, som gi’r os liv
  12. Vi skal se dig, som du er
  13. Lysets engel går med glans
  14. Nu vågne alle Guds fugle små
  15. Gud ske tak og lov
  16. Du, som har tændt millioner af stjerner
  17. Nu går solen sin vej
  18. Det er så yndigt at følges ad
  19. I blev skabt som mand og kvinde

I was hooked! Of course I thought a lot about what the implications might be for my wife and myself, but finally I promised to try my best. My ideas went like this: we need to follow the trend in the Danish hymnal-to-be. And we need to fill in the gaps in our present English hymnal—including loved hymns by Grundtvig, Ingemann, and others, hymns that at least I had been missing in our English Church services.

The first part of the job was to select the hymns, and then translate them with due respect to the situation we faced: we had to work under time pressure. Next part: ideally the translations should follow the original hymn texts as closely as possible, and the format be the same in both languages as far as rhymes and rhythm goes. Also it was very important for me to end up with singable hymns where stressed syllables hit the beat of the tunes.

Fortunately my wife, Else, was ready to support the work in every way possible—and as she plays the piano I could listen to the tunes where difficulties in the rhythm arose. Even during our weekends off we worked on the translations, we brought a baby toy piano, and outside our tent Else played, and I wrote.

Soon I realised for a fact, what I had sensed all along: you cannot translate poetry—but you can re-create poems and hymns in another language. When the work was finished I had a wonderful letter of approval from Jørgen Gustava Brandt, who wrote the hymn Tænk at livet koster livet (translated: What a thought that Life….). He said, “We all know that poetry cannot be translated; however, where you found it necessary you didn’t translate—you acted as my co-poet.” Grundtvig never wrote me a letter like that, maybe because his verses and his metaphors are very difficult to transform into another language and into another cultural background than the Danish one.

In addition to the hymns listed, Folmer also provided eleven missing stanzas in nine other hymns, and he improved the translations of 106 more hymns—principally by eliminating Thou/Thy etc, which in many cases affected rhythm and rhyme leading to extensive rewriting.

I think that all of us who were involved in creating Grant me, God… were both proud and relieved when the printed edition was there ready for use. We were happy about the result, and happy that our guess work concerning new hymns was a winner: all of our new Danish hymns presented in GGG have been included in the new Danish hymnal introduced in Denmark in the autumn of 2002.

Looking back, I realise that we in the editing committee went through a lot of hard work. But I must admit that personally I enjoyed the challenge, learned a lot, and have no regrets except that I might have been able to make better translations in some cases without the time pressure. Also I might have been able to translate additional hymns that are still missing for the English Church services. However, we had a welcomed addition of original English hymns, so the balance is even better, in that respect, than it was before.