Book review: “The Canticles: A Faithful and Inclusive Rendering from the Hebrew and the Greek into Contemporary English Poetry, Intended Primarily for Communal Song and Recitation,” edited by Gabe Huck, illustrated by Linda Ekstrom

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Book review: “The Canticles: A Faithful and Inclusive Rendering from the Hebrew and the Greek into Contemporary English Poetry, Intended Primarily for Communal Song and Recitation,” edited by Gabe Huck, illustrated by Linda Ekstrom

Huck --- The CanticlesMany of the books of the Bible are like Hollywood musicals.

In Fiddler on the Roof, for instance, the narrative unfolds as characters interact, and, every once in a while, someone breaks into song, such as Tevye with “If I Were a Rich Man.”

The same sort of thing happens in the Bible.

The author of, say, Judith or Daniel or the Book of Revelations uses prose to tell stories or transmit teachings. But, at various points, the exposition is interrupted as one character or a bunch of people launch forth in a poetic prayer, called a canticle.

Many of canticles were originally hymns. On the page in the Bible, they became poems. And, frequently, these poems have been turned back into hymns for use in religious services.

That’s one of the purposes of this translation of 55 of the Bible’s many canticles, published in 1996 by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, as well as a similar edition of the Psalms, issued in 1995.

The translators wanted to find words and phrases that accurately reflected the original text and were easy to sing. They also wanted to make the language as inclusive as possible. For instance, they used a variety of strategies to avoid employing the male pronoun for God.

Another important goal was to render the canticles poetically in present-day colloquial English, avoiding words and sentence structures that may have been in use in Biblical times but not today.

 

Beautiful and, for some, jarring

The resulting canticles are fluid, accessible, deeply felt and, often, strikingly beautiful.

Even so, they will jar some ears, as they did mine.

Here’s the thing: Translation is not a science. Among translators, one school of thought is that, for example, an English rendering of a Russian novel should sound and feel like the original Russian. Others, though, feel that nothing is gained by making the English sound foreign.

The translators of these canticles belong to that second school. It’s not that one way or the other is inherently more correct. Any translation is an interpretation, and interpretation comes down, to some extent, to personal taste.

 

The mystery

In this book, the Canticle of Mary, also called the Magnificat — her song of praise after being told she would be the mother of Jesus — begins this way:

I acclaim the greatness of the Lord,
I delight in my savior,
who regard my humble state.
Truly from this day on
all ages will call me blest.

That’s much different from the translation I grew up with:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my savior,
because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid,
for behold, henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.

I prefer the older translation. Its phrasing seems more poetic to me because it uses words and word patterns (e.g., “handmaid” and “for behold, henceforth”) that I don’t run into every day. They are a bit disconcerting and unsettling which is what I expect from poetry.

The argument could be made that the first version is much clearer and to the point, more easily understood by a modern reader. I wouldn’t dispute that.

Still, I like the mystery of the second version.

 

“Magnifies”

I have to admit that I’m not completely sure about the meaning of “My soul magnifies the Lord.” In modern English usage, “magnify” isn’t used in this manner. It’s usually employed as in “magnifying glass” — making something small large.

In this case, Mary, who describes her own “lowliness,” is someone small who is what? — making God bigger?

No, that’s not what I hear. In that first line, I hear Mary, yes, “acclaiming” God’s greatness. But in a way that is deeper, wider and more mysterious than the simple word “acclaim.”

Perhaps this is all mumbo-jumbo, and I’m tricking myself. But I have to say that “My soul magnifies the Lord” is one of the touchstones of my faith. And, for me, “I acclaim the greatness of the Lord” is not an adequate substitute.

Similarly, I delight in the line in the older version: “and the rich he has sent empty away.”

In the new translation, this is rendered: “and [God] lets the rich go hungry.” When I read that, I miss the rhythm and quirkiness of the earlier wording.

 

Rapturous, ecstatic

Don’t get me wrong, though. I find these 55 canticles richly prayerful and well-worth studying and using.

Two of my favorites are from the book of Daniel. They come from the hymn that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego sing inside the fiery furnace where King Nebuchadnezzar has consigned them for refusing to renounce God.

The first canticle of six verses begins:

Blest are you, God of our ancestors,
praised and lifted above all for ever!
Blest your holy name, full of wonder,
praised and lifted above all for ever!

This rapturous, ecstatic song is addressed to God, and each statement about the Lord is followed by the phrase “praised and lifted above all for ever!”

The second canticle with its 33 verses is the rest of that furnace hymn. It ratchets up the rapture, not speaking directly to God anymore, but exhorting all of creation to recognize the power and goodness of the Lord. Its rhythms are faster and tighter, and its response line is “Give praise and glory.” Here’s how it starts:

Bless God beyond the stars.
Give praise and glory.
Bless God, heaven and earth.
Give praise and glory.

Bless God, angels of God.
Give praise and glory.
Bless God, highest heavens.
Give praise and glory.

These canticles are what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego sang in the fiery furnace, and they came out unscathed.

 

A glimpse of God

At its heart, religious faith confronts the unfathomable. That’s why so much of the Bible is poetry.

God is beyond our understanding. Certainly beyond our language. So we push language to its limit and beyond to try to get a glimpse at God and at our relationship with God.

Here are some examples of startling poetic images from these canticles, grappling with the mysteries we can’t fully understand:

Isaiah 66:12-13: “I will carry you on my shoulders,/cuddle you on my lap./I will comfort you/as a mother nurses her child.”

Exodus 15: 8: “One blast from your nostrils/and the waters pile high,/the waves pull back/to stand firm as a wall.”

Isaiah 33: 7-8: “Look! Heroes weep openly,/messengers of peace cry bitterly./ Highways lie desolate,/travel comes to a standstill./People break contracts,/disregard witnesses,/care about no one.”

Ephesians 1: 7-8: “By Christ’s blood we are redeemed,/our sins forgiven,/through extravagant love.”

Isaiah 40: 10, 12-13: “Look! the Lord comes…./Who can scoop up the oceans/or span the heavens with one hand?/Who can hold the earth in a measure,/weigh the mountains on scales,/the hills on a balance?/…The Lord lifts up islands like sand.”

Wisdom 16: 20: “You hand-fed your people/with food for angels,/heaven’s bread,/ready to eat,/richly satisfying,/pleasing to every taste.”

Isaiah 9: 4: “Every soldier’s boot/every blood-soaked uniform/will be burned as fuel for fire.

Judith 16 15: “Mountain peak and ocean depth/quake to their inmost core./Rocks melt like wax when you appear,/while you spare those who stand in awe.”

Isaiah 38: 13: “God like a lion,/tears my bones apart./I groan until dawn./Day and night I face death.”

Tobit 13: 1-2: “Blest be the living God,/reigning for ever,/who strikes, then heals,/casts deep into the grave,/and raises up from utter ruin;/no one eludes God’s hand.”

These canticles record and express faith in its myriad dimensions, including doubt and fear, trust and courage, wonder and affection.

Bless God.

Give praise and glory.

Patrick T. Reardon
3.6.15

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