The Man from Neanderthal image

The Man from Neanderthal

Joachim Neander (1650-1680) was a fairly remarkable guy. He died of tuberculosis at the age of just thirty, by which time he had served as a tutor in Heidelberg, a Latin teacher in Düsseldorf, a pastor in Bremen, and the writer of sixty hymns, including one of the greatest written in any language: Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren (or, in English, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation). After his death he had a valley named after him - the Neandertal, in North-Rhine Westphalia - and then became an accidental household name around the world when the fossils of so-called "Neanderthal man" were found there in 1856. Not bad going for a man who was dead before he reached Avril Lavigne's age.

What I hadn’t realised, though, is how much better his most famous hymn is in German, as opposed to the English translation by Catherine Winkworth. I’ve written before on the liberties that translators can take with poetry; the rhythms and rhymes are impossible to convey in a second language without paraphrase, so there is plenty of room for adjustment or downright innovation. But Joachim Neander really got the rough end of it in places. Perhaps that comes from having a Victorian translator.

First, she took out the musical instruments. The version we know, in the first verse, runs:

All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.

Neander, however, had written:

Kommet zu Hauf! Psalter und Harfe, wacht auf!
Lasset den Lobgesang hören!

That might seem trivial, and certainly standard fare for Victorian hymnwriters, and it probably is (al-though removing the psaltery and harp does make the hymn quieter, somehow). The fourth verse, on the other hand, loses far more in translation. Neander’s version was full of lavish imagery about the love and blessing of God raining down like streams from heaven:

Lobe den Herren, der deinen Stand sichtbar gesegnet,
Der aus dem Himmel mit Strömen der Liebe geregnet.
Denke daran, was der Allmächtige kann,
Der dir mit Liebe begegnet.

The translation replaces Neander’s abundant “Strömen der Liebe” with a trio of “defending, attending, befriending”, which makes him sound less like a waterfall of affection and more like a Victorian manservant:

Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee.

But the most striking omission from Neander’s original comes in the last verse. Winkworth’s version, to be fair, is climactic, triumphant and beautiful:

Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him.

It leaves out, however, the glorious call to worship “mit Abraham’s Samen,” which although unsurprising - I mean, how many Victorian hymns you’ve heard contain the word “semen”? - strips one of Germany’s greatest hymns of its most powerful affirmation of the Jewishness of the gospel, as well as removing altogether a robust affirmation of the continuity of the people of God across the covenants. Winkworth presumably thought it was an incidental feature of the peroration, and in any case had no English equivalent for the marvellous Namen/Samen/Amen triple-whammy, but the fact that millions of people could sing the hymn without realising it had anything to do with Abra-ham’s seed, or anything close to it, is a minor tragedy. The original is far superior:

Lobe den Herren; was in mir ist, lobe den Namen.
Alles was Odem hat, lobe mit Abrahams Samen.
Er ist dein Licht; Seele, vergiß es ja nicht;
Lob ihn und schließe mit Amen!

Now traduttore traditore and all that, and I know that one day, I’ll meet Catherine Winkworth and thank her for making a beautiful hymn accessible to me through her translation. But in some places, it’s Neanderthal.

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