Monday, September 7, 2009

A Mighty Fortress

A friend recently recommended the Steve Green rendition of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," that you can listen to in the post below. This is one of my favorite hymns for a number of reasons, I love the music and the words and I also love the history of it. The most popular English version is the Frederick H. Hedge translation of 1853. After I listened to Hedge's translation sung by Steve Green I decided to listen to the German version and right away I noticed some differences. I decided to try to do a literal translation of Luther's German version into English without concern for making it sound poetic. I minored in German in college but my vocabulary is somewhat rusty so I will admit to using google's translation tool here and there.

I found the result to be interesting. In the beginning of the second stanza in Hedge's English we have one of my favorite lines, "Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing." This line conveys the great truth which was once again revealed as central to the gospel during the Reformation, that no good work from us is efficacious in gaining for ourselves salvation. But I think this truth is even more blatantly stated in Luther's original which says, "Mit unsrer Macht ist nichts getan, Wir sind gar bald verloren," which I translated as, "With our power nothing is done, We are soon completely defeated." Also in the second stanza I liked a line that we miss in the English version which says, "Und ist kein andrer Gott," which literally is translated, "And is no other God." And the last line of the second stanza has a more specific military connotation than in Hedge's English version. In the German this line is, "Das Feld muss er behalten," which I translated as, "The field He must hold," while in the popular English we have "and he must win the battle."

The fourth stanza was also interesting to translate and I think Luther's original better conveys his situation during the Reformation when his brothers were being burned at the stake for standing for the pure gospel freed of the innovations of Rome. In Hedge's English we have, "Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also, The body they may kill: God's truth abideth still, His Kingdom is forever." In Luther's original we find,

"Nehmen sie den Leib,
Gut, Ehr’, Kind und Weib:
Lass fahren dahin,
Sie haben’s kein’n Gewinn,
Das Reich muss uns doch bleiben."

Which I translated as "They take the body, Property, honors, child and wife: Let them go away, they have no profit, the Kingdom remains ours."

I think Hedge did a masterful job at translating this hymn. For the most part he stayed very close to Luther's original meanings and succeeded in writing a hymn that is musically and poetically pleasing. Below you'll find Luther's original german and my attempt at a translation along with Hedge's translation. If anyone with any skill in German and English reads this I'll appreciate corrections to my attempt in the comments.

Ein Feste Burg (Luther’s original):

Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott,
Ein gute Wehr und Waffen;
Er hilft uns frei aus aller Not,
Die uns jetzt hat betroffen.
Der alt’ böse Feind,
Mit Ernst er’s jetzt meint,
Gross’ Macht und viel List
Sein’ grausam’ Ruestung ist,
Auf Erd’ ist nicht seingleichen.

Mit unsrer Macht is nichts getan,
Wir sind gar bald verloren;
Es steit’t für uns der rechte Mann,
Den Gott hat selbst erkoren.
Fragst du, wer der ist?
Er heisst Jesu Christ,
Der Herr Zebaoth,
Und ist kein andrer Gott,
Das Feld muss er behalten.

Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär’
Und wollt’ uns gar verschlingen,
So fürchten wir uns nicht so sehr,
Es soll uns doch gelingen.
Der Fürst dieser Welt,
Wie sau’r er sich stellt,
Tut er uns doch nicht,
Das macht, er ist gericht’t,
Ein Wörtlein kann ihn fällen.

Das Wort sie sollen lassen stahn
Und kein’n Dank dazu haben;
Er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan
Mit seinem Geist und Gaben.
Nehmen sie den Leib,
Gut, Ehr’, Kind und Weib:
Lass fahren dahin,
Sie haben’s kein’n Gewinn,
Das Reich muss uns doch bleiben.

My Translation:

A Mighty Fortress is our God,

A great shield and weapon;

He freely helps us in every adversity,

That now concerns us.

The old evil enemy,

Now means serious business,

Great power and much cunning,

Are his cruel armor,

On earth there is none like him.

With our power is nothing done,

We are soon completely defeated;

But the right man fights for us,

Whom God himself predestined.

Do you ask who he is?

His name is Jesus Christ,

The Lord Sabaoth,

There is no other God,

And He must keep the field.

And though the world is full of devils,

Who want to completely devour us;

But we don’t fear too much,

It should work out for us alright.

The prince of this world,

As angry as he is,

Does nothing to us,

Because he is judged,

One little word can fell him.

That Word they shall let stand,

And no thanks to them;

He is with us in the plan,

With his Spirit and gifts;

They take the body,

Property, honors, child and wife;

Let them go away,

They have no profit,

The Kingdom remains ours.

A Mighty Fortress (Hedge’s translation):

A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing;
Our shelter He, amid the flood Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and pow'r are great, And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, The Man of God's own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth is His name, From age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And tho' this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us;
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim -- We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly pow'rs -- No thanks to them -- abideth:
The Spirit and the gifts are ours Thro' Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God's truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

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