“No translation can express the beauty and force of the Original”

But perhaps we could try a bit harder.

For Holy Week this year we had printed booklets with all of the newly translated prayers for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, plus a selection of hymns. I don’t know where the booklet came from, but it bore a ‘Concordat’ (signifying, I guess, that the prayers matched the official texts) and an ‘Imprimatur’ from a Scottish bishop.

The translation of the Roman Missal was what it was, and I wasn’t particularly surprised by it. But some of the hymn translations were truly dreadful. And they were not modern translations but old ones.

The first howler I noticed was in a verse of the office hymn Ad regias agni dapes (usually translated ‘At the lamb’s high feast we sing’), set for Vespers from Low Sunday to Ascension Day. This was heavily revised under Pope Urban VIII. Today, only three lines remain from the original, which was titled Ad coenam agni providi (translated by J.M. Neale as ‘The lamb’s high banquet we await’).

Ad regias agni dapes has been translated many times, including one beginning with the charming line, ‘In garments dight of virgin white.’ The translation most commonly used is by Robert Campbell, a lawyer who translated Latin hymns ‘for relaxation’. He published this translation in 1850. Two years later, aged 38, he converted from the Episcopal Church of Scotland to the Roman Catholic Church.

I don’t recall hearing the sixth verse before. Here is how it was printed in the booklet:

Now thy banner thou dost wave;
Vanquished Satan and the grave;
Angels join his praise to tell—
See o’erthrown the prince of hell.

My first, shocked thought was that the angels were praising Satan, since his name is nearest the pronoun. That, of course, could not have been the case. So why in the world didn’t Campbell render it ‘Angels join thy praise to tell’?

In earlier years, this hymn was published with capitalized pronouns – e.g. in Hymns of the Breviary and Missal (Benziger, 1922), where it appears as

Now Thy banner Thou dost wave;
Vanquished Satan and the grave;
Angels join His praise to tell—
See o’erthrown the prince of hell.

At least in this case you can tell that the angels are praising Christ rather than the devil. But of course this wouldn’t be clear when the hymn was sung.

Is there anything in the Latin that would lead to such a strange translation? The verse is as follows:

Victor subactis inferis,
Trophaea Christus explicat,
Caeloque aperto, subditum
Regem tenebrarum trahit.

This is, literally, ‘Triumphant over the vanquished of hell, Christ displays his victory monument and opens heaven; he drags behind him the conquered king of the shadows.’

No need to fool the listener into thinking Satan was being praised.

But there was worse to come. Here is an excerpt from the same booklet, a translation of Victimae paschali laudes, the sequence hymn for Easter Day:

That guiltless Son, who bought your peace, alleluia
And made His Father’s anger cease, alleluia.
Then, life and death together fought, alleluia
Each to a strange extreme was brought, alleluia
Life died, but soon revived again, alleluia
And even death by it was slain, alleluia

This was lightly adapted from a translation by Sir Walter Kirkham Blount (d. 1717) in a book called The Compleat Office of the Holy Week : With notes and explications published in 1687. Blount’s original translation is no better:

That Innocent Son who wrought your peace,
And made his Father’s anger cease.
Life and Death together fought;
Each to a strange extream were brought;
Life died, but soon revived again,
And even by death’s self has slain.

The Latin isn’t especially difficult:

Christus innocens Patri
reconciliavit peccatores.
Mors et vita duello conflixere mirando:
dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus.

Literally, ‘The innocent Christ has reconciled sinners to the Father. Death and life have clashed in a marvellous duel: the leader of life has died, but now reigns, alive.’ No purchased peace here, no angry Father, no strange extremes or extreams.

Blount dedicated his translation to ‘The Queen’, and I can only guess that he was referring to Mary of Modena, also known as Maria Beatrice Anna Margherita Isabella d’Este (1658 – 1718), Queen consort of England, Scotland and Ireland as the second wife of King James II and VII. A devout Catholic, she reigned from 1685 to 1688 but lived in France.

His ‘epistle Dedicatory to the Queen’ reminds Mary that she, herself had no need of a translation, but perhaps her subjects would:

A Translation is such a kind of present to Your Majesty, as a bad copy to one who has an excellent original. ‘Tis true, you are an absolute mistress of our language, as well as hearts, but you would never pray in an unknown tongue, though there were neither English nor Italian in the world; and translating is but telling you a story or news, which you know already, and here when you please much better told.

But since what is useless to Your Majesty may be beneficial to your subjects … Your Majesty will have the goodness to reflect, that no translation can express the beauty and force of the Original …

Perhaps not, Sir Walter, but surely you could have done better. And surely the compilers of modern service booklets could give us better translations of these beautiful Latin hymns.


  1. My Father Steadman Missal has a similar translation of the Easter Sequence to the “Father’s anger” version you post:

    That guiltless Son, who wrought your peace,
    and made His Father’s anger cease.
    Life and death together fought,
    each to a strange duel was brought.
    Life died, but soon revived again,
    and even death by Life was slain.

    I like the translation in my Baronius Missal better:

    Christ, who is only sinless,
    reconcileth sinners to the Father.
    Death and life have contended
    in that conflict stupendous:
    the Prince of Life, who died,
    deathless reigneth.

  2. I have also long suspected that many earlier modern English verse translations of Christian Latin hymnody and classical poetry were novel paraphrases loosely modeled on the original composition. English rhyme has taken priority over translation fidelity in these paraphrases, and the Latin meaning has suffered greatly as a result. Also, Latin poetic meter cannot be duplicated within the rhyme and stress of English verse.

    The death of Dido in the 17th century [John] Dryden Aeneid is an example of Latin semantic distortion outside of Christian Latin hymnody. Vergil:

    Illa, graves oculos conata attollere, rursus
    deficit; infixum stridit sub pectore vulnus.
    Ter sese attollens cubitoque adnixa levavit;
    ter revoluta toro est, oculisque errantibus alto
    quaesivit caelo lucem, ingemuitque reperta.

    (4:688–692, ed. J.B. Greenough, Perseus)


    “Thrice Dido tried to raise her drooping head,
    And, fainting thrice, fell grov’ling on the bed;
    Thrice op’d her heavy eyes, and sought the light,
    But, having found it, sicken’d at the sight,
    And clos’d her lids at last in endless night.”
    (4:688—692, ed. Dryden, Perseus)

    A more literal prose translation might read: “She [Dido], having tried to lift up burdened eyes, fell back again. A wound planted inside the chest suppurated. Lifting herself up three times, straining she arose by an elbow. Three times she has been returned to the deathbed. She sought the light from high heaven with wandering eyes, and perceiving it she groaned.” (my trans., addition)

    The very free verse of earlier modern classical and Christian Latin paraphrases hinders their presentation as literal liturgical translations. Then again, paraphrases of Latin hymns have appeared in both Catholic and Reformation heritage churches. The distortion of the literal meaning of Latin hymns in vernacular paraphrase might not be as important as the sentiment conveyed.

  3. Having only recently both discovered the old Latin hymns of the Church, and also learning how to translate from Latin into English at the same time, I cannot find much to complain about that would be worth bothering about. I am very aware of the variety of versions of the Hymn in question and have settled upon a copy from an old hymnal which I found in an old used bookstore which I bought that hasn’t yet arrived. It lists this hymn as an Ambrosian Hymn, but then says the author isn’t known? Hello? If it is Ambrosian, doesn’t that tell a simple mind that it came from either the pen of Saint Ambrose or one of his immediate disciples? I’m too new at all this Latin stuff to even think I know for sure, but just sayin’……I’ll wait till the book arrives and translate freshly from it. God bless. GF.

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