‘Cantique de Jean Racine’: French choral work -cum- English refurbished Christian rock/worship song? An exercise in stylistic translation, with critical analysis.

Translation of the poetry into English lyrics that might suit a contemporary Christian rock/worship song:

Word at one with the Most High, our only hope;
Eternal dayspring of heaven and earth,
We pierce through the dead of night with our cries:
“Holy Saviour, cast down on us your eyes!”

Pour out on us the fire of your mighty grace,
Let all hell flee at the sound of your voice;
Wipe away the sleep from our weary souls:
Don’t let it lead us to forget your ways!

O Jesus, smile on us your faithful ones,
Now gathered in this place to bless your name!
Receive our praise of your eternal glory:
And send us out filled with your gifts we pray!

Original French:

Verbe égal au Très-Haut, notre unique espérance,
Jour éternel de la terre et des cieux,
De la paisible nuit nous rompons le silence:
Divin sauveur, jette sur nous les yeux.

Répands sur nous le feu de ta grâce puissante;
Que tout l’enfer fuie au son de ta voix;
Dissipe le sommeil d’une âme languissante
Qui la conduit à l’oubli de tes lois!

Ô Christ ! sois favorable à ce peuple fidèle,
Pour te bénir maintenant rassemblé;
Reçois les chants qu’il offre à ta gloire immortelle,
Et de tes dons qu’il retourne comblé.

Hyper-literal ‘semi-English’ gloss of the French mimicking the grammar/syntax and word order of the original, with semantic/morphological amplifications and alternatives in brackets. This is not strictly a translation:

Word equal to the Most High, our only (+singular) hope,
Day eternal of the earth and of the heavens,
Of the quiet night, we break [or, ‘we are breaking’] the silence:
Divine Saviour, cast on(to) us your eyes.

Pour [+spread] out on(to) us your the fire of your grace powerful [i.e. forceful/potent, rather than ‘having power’].
May all the hell flee at the sound of your voice!
Dissipate the slumber of a wilting (+listless +torpid +perishing/decaying) soul
That drives it to the forgetfulness of your laws!

O Christ, be favourable [i.e. ‘show favour’] to this people faithful,
To bless you, now (+’once more’) assembled.
Receive the hymns it offers to your immortal glory,
And by your gifts, may it return filled (up).

A Choirgirl’s Journey
Maybe you’ve heard the Cantique de Jean Racine. Maybe you haven’t. Personally, it takes me back to some very special places. It was a staple and competition piece in my high school chamber choir which I first sang at the age of about 13 at a time when, besides being able to parrot the lyrics of this song after the choir had received some pronunciation helps from a generous member of the French department, I could say little more in French than whether I liked vegetables or preferred chips. I became a follower of Jesus within a year afterwards, and the piece took on new depths of meaning from that point – as well as obviously meaning more to me over the years of singing it as my French improved. Nonetheless the lack of language wasn’t a barrier to enjoyment: I found all of the non-English choral works fertile ground for experimenting with sounds and enjoyed trying to tease meanings out of opacity or near-opacity. Though I can no longer remember what it is like to find French opaque, I especially  found this with Schubert’s Der 23 Psalm, which, as a setting of a German paraphrase of the Bible text by Moses Mendelssohn, was linguistically incomprehensible to me and still is: I loved chomping my way indulgently through the guttural sounds, and still do. (“Er labt, mein schmachtendes Gemüt”… without having a clue what it meant, I used to utter the word “schmachtendes” to myself repeatedly just because I loved the crunchy sound it made…).  My relationship to Racine was similar at first.  I loved the perfect, legitimate excuse it presented to milk all of those delicious Frenchy sounds without making an undue spectacle of myself – the sensual-sounding nasals that you only usually enunciated if you were impersonating some risqué American pop star; the fronted ‘u’ vowel that you almost had to whistle out of your pouted lips when pouting was something you simply didn’t do, and the uvular ‘r’ that’s purred in the back of the throat… in those early days I was usually too prudish to utter these sumptuous noises in front of other people, let alone my French teacher, and I used to answer French questions in class in a self-conscious, anglicised accent. When I eventually appreciated that these sounds were not only perfectly normal but highly desirable in French and that they were nothing to be embarrassed about, I relaxed and let myself drawl and gargle my imitations like a gleeful infant. So I owe a debt of gratitude to Racine, Fauré and my school music teacher for providing that safe space where my vocal experiments could be swallowed up into the collective whole of the choir. The musical qualities of Racine’s poetry are exquisite, however you try to approach it, and no ‘modern’ adaptation of that poetry for a contemporary worship band could capture the smallest part of that exquisiteness, no matter how well executed it might be.

At 21 or thereabouts, when I was in my final year of studying French and Italian at Oxford, I was overjoyed to be singing Cantique de Jean Racine, on someone else’s suggestion, at my university choir for evensong in our beautiful Cathedral. Then a year later it was played as part of a student outreach mission in Paris in which I took part. Other choral works have of course surfaced again since my school days, but this petite phrase seems to follow me around especially, and every time it’s sung or played in an unfamiliar place it acquires another layer of story, another layer of personal meaning. It is the musical and emotional equivalent of a tardis, transporting me back in space and time to many different places and eras as much as it transports those places and eras forwards into the present day.


The original music was written by a 19-year-old Gabriel Fauré in 1864-5, whilst the lyrics were found in a breviary paraphrased into French from Latin by Jean Racine in 1688. Racine was one of the greatest neo-classical French tragedists of the 17th century (I additionally had the privilege of studying one of his plays at university as it was on the mandatory first-year curriculum, and the eureka moment in which I finally remembered how and where I had known that familiar name on the reading list, which brought my school choir years flooding back, was intensely satisfying.). Racine was a Jansenist, Jansenism being a French Catholic movement that resembled Calvinism in many ways and was strongly opposed by the Jesuits. It was eventually ousted by the Papacy over what appear to be politico-theological issues and survived, in all, a few decades shy of a century. The original piece on which Racine based his paraphrase is written in Latin, and was attributed to pseudo-Ambrose. I love Wikipedia.

What brought all this on?
What struck me about the original French text and made me consider it a potential candidate for translation and refurbishment is its stylistic versatility. The semantic fields are so close to the ones in the music of our modern charismatic church services that I had to pinch myself: ‘pouring out’, fire, grace, day/night imagery, ‘filled’, gifts (variously defined). I decided to produce a ‘refurbished’ [read: adulterated] version styled towards the sorts of lyrics people are used to singing in our worship songs – probably influenced inadvertently by Hillsong, Rend Collective Experiment, Ben Cantelon and others I find myself singing week on week – as well as my own personal favourite, Sovereign Grace Music, who are very much in the business of refurbishing hymns. Here is a sample of what I’m talking about:

Adapting Cantique de Jean Racine for modern worship: translation problems and ethical issues. An informal critical analysis, blog-style.

Some Postmodern bigwigs in Translation and Interpreting Studies view translation equivalence (or, more crudely, ‘faithfulness to the original’, however you perceive that) as being completely irrelevant. ‘Equivalence is so Judeo-Christian’, they might complain, as they go about dethroning their authors in defiance of the very concepts of ‘authorship’ and ‘creation’ – and not least, any concept of God as Author of Life. Well, I’m not in their camp. Complete equivalence is impossible to achieve, granted: you cannot usually make one part of your text more ‘faithful’ to the original without sacrificing another part. Granted, sometimes total equivalence isn’t even desired always: in this case, pragmatic equivalence (the intentionality of the writing) is very important to me, but I’m not going for stylistic equivalence in the least: I’m trying to adapt the text away from its author’s culture/style as much as will allow me to get closer to that of the radically different modern worship culture I know. But at least in the areas where equivalence is desired, I think it is still worth a try.

Part of my fondness for the idea of ‘equivalence’ comes down to my worldview. My God-centred understanding of the world order acknowledges that there is an Author-Creator who cares that he is acknowledged in all things, and that he is presented faithfully and that he and others are testified about and represented in truth and integrity. Academics will scoff: I say, let them scoff. I’m not an academic, I’m a woman with an MA in Translation and Interpreting Studies. Here, now, I am simply writing as myself. Now, owing to my worldview I assume an ethical responsibility to represent the author of my translated text fairly: to be an ambassador for him in a cross-linguistic and cross-cultural communicative situation, just as I would be if I were a face-to-face interpreter. I do not dethrone the Author of Life; likewise, I do not dethrone the author of my text, both out of courtesy to his person and regard towards his creative oeuvre, over which I have been made a steward and a herald. The Author of Life, the heavenly Creator, is one who derives a special kind of delight when his people sing his praises, recall his Word and retell his glorious deeds far and wide. And so I aim to reserve to that office of ‘God-Author’ the respect that is due, and to apply it duly to the office that is ‘human author’ as the earthly shadow of the heavenly reality.

A softer response to the radical Postmoderns in the discipline who repudiate the ‘author’ and reduce him/her to a ‘function’ of the text that can be manipulated or removed, was offered by Christiane Nord, and it is an approach to translation called ‘function plus loyalty’. It partially assumes that the way a text is translated should depend on the sort of function that the finished translation has been given to perform after its completion, so that in her view, the criteria for ‘good’ translation is not always ‘whether it’s as faithful as possible as the original’; but rather, it is always ‘whether the finished translation will be maximally good at doing whatever it has been commissioned to accomplish’ – which might involve ‘faithfulness’ as one more-or-less important criterion. While this ‘function’ aspect exists and gives the translator a lot of creative freedom, it is tempered with ‘loyalty’: a negotiation in the translator’s decision-making between the author’s intentions, text-sender’s (or commissioner’s) wants, and the target text receivers’ preferences. Although there’s a lot of Nord’s research that I don’t like, I’ve used the ‘function plus loyalty’ model of translation a lot because it allows me to give a nod to the author and to be as flexible as I feel is right about how to be ‘faithful’ to him, whilst producing a document that’s fit for purpose and oriented to satisfy all other parties involved. This approach seems to see translation as a process of negotiation, which I would agree that it is, even if the negotiation only exists as a series of dilemmas and conflicted loyalties inside the head of the free-spirited translator who brings to her text a lot of commitments and priorities that collide into each other.

Assuming that ‘equivalence’ hasn’t now been debunked completely, the degree and type of equivalence you use does depend on the type of text you’re translating, and what you’re translating for: it can be on a word-level, grammar-level, pragmatic level, textual level… even on a theological level. It seems to work for most fiction and non-fiction literature, poetry, biography and it probably works well for blogs too – although I imagine that Bible translation would be quite a different kettle of fish. This particular text I’ve produced is an adaptation of a hymn spanning, across the source text and the target text, two very different church traditions, different denominations, different worship styles, different theologies. It is especially oriented to look culturally recognisable to the target text-receiver (which will make it look ‘alien’ to the source, or ‘sending’ culture). The translation will in this respect be loose. But I am aware that hymns are theologically sensitive objects also, and so there needs to be special care taken not to bulldoze over the author’s intentions (I can hear the Postmoderns scoffing at me now even as I write), and I will keep ‘theological equivalence’ open in my mind as a category of equivalence that matters.

The translation was pretty straightforward in the main, except that I used looser equivalents than I might have done to keep the language stylistically appropriate. Modern worship lyrics go in for simplicity. Flowery, complex conceptual metaphor and rich, evocative vocabulary are what characterises much French literature, but they happen to be rare in contemporary English worship lyrics. My impression is that much of this sort of songwriting just ‘comes’ to people; these lyrics are not the sort of text that is conceived, planned and crafted for hours. It feels spontaneous, and it probably is (allowing for a very heavy editing process after the initial burst of spontaneity). You’ll occasionally get the odd archaic-sounding term in a worship lyric, but this doesn’t usually indicate any kind of literary foregrounding: it has just been programmed into the discourse model of the evangelical community as an idiomatic construction with a meaning specific to that community, like a technical term. You also see punchy theological terminology like ‘grace’ and ‘sanctified’, Biblical metonymy like ‘blood’ and ‘cross’, allusions to meaningful Biblical narratives and themes, often those with a long pedigree in English and American hymn-writing such as ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ and ‘the enemy crushed beneath [my] feet’, ‘the valley of dry bones’, and the figure of walking on water; also other words and concepts rich in associations with Bible passages and other songs, such as ‘salvation’, ‘Kingdom’, ‘captives’, ‘revival’, ‘waters’ and ‘fire’. These all weave a repetitive, allusive, minimalist tapestry of shibboleths that are developed in meaning and associations as they keep resurfacing and acquiring more contextual layers. It suffices to say that preserving any Biblical purity of meanings within this treasury of terms requires songwriters to have a certain degree of responsibility when they write their lyrics, and that they must be aware that the context that they provide for the terms will be absorbed into the collective understanding of their meaning. Second person addresses to God are common, usually as declarations of belief or assurance, or as petitions. Petitionary songs tend to be sparse in third person pronouns or demonstrative pronominal forms: they zero in on the worshipper(s) and their relationship with God, and are therefore mostly about ‘me/us’ and ‘you’, and not about ‘them’ or ‘it’. Sentences tend to be short and simple, and the force of the simple, relatively informal language within them lies in its allusive quality, rather than in evocativeness or musical quality. Contractions are not discouraged.

Much of my task as a translator of a lyrical text like this that is built on some very different linguistic and stylistic principles, is to strip the text down to the bare bones of its propositional content and pragmatic properties and then to put new flesh on the bones that will best suit them and sit in line with my purposes (propositional content and pragmatic properties are what I consider to constitute the ‘basic meaning’ of the text in this case – although that’s not necessarily true in every case. These elements have to do with what is being said and to whom, and in a petitionary text like this one, addressed to someone asking them to do something, they’re really important). I did this by identifying which of the forms listed above, among others, might be needed to express the meaning as adequately as possible, and whether there are any aspects of sentence structure and grammar that need to change, in order to make the text read like a modern worship song. There do exist refurbished hymns that have the lovely floweriness and richness of evocative meaning of old literary poetry. I dearly cherish these. But Cantique de Jean Racine just isn’t long enough established in the English hymn repertoire to be one.

One salient wobble in my translation that I don’t like is the last line of the first stanza: the word order is Frenchy (the imperative verb comes before the object, which is untypical of English), and the whole phrase is unidiomatic. ‘Eyes’ cannot be used so abstractly in English as it can in French: read literally, “Cast down on us your eyes” inspires a chuckle. However, the rhyme and metre would suffer if it were put any other way, so I’ve kept it. Another thing I have done is to add the words ‘your name’ and ‘we pray’ onto the ends of the second and fourth lines of the last stanza. Partially for the sake of the metre, partially to avoid perceived awkwardness. If the song ends on ‘gifts’, there is no apparent closure to the song, but a feeling of unfinishedness. By making a statement that brings the metafunction of the text into the foreground (i.e. by saying ‘we pray’ as a way of drawing attention to the fact that the text is in fact a form of prayer), the ending can draw the song to a close in the same sort of way that the word ‘Amen’ does, because ‘Amen’ also functions as a marker of closure and draws attention to the text type (i.e. when you hear ‘Amen’ you know that what has been said was a prayer, and that it is now finished).  So stylistically, ‘we pray’ draws the piece to a close in a comfortable way, so that the ending ‘feels’ like an ending, rather than something awkward and incomplete. And yet… and yet… rather than departing from the text as cack-handedly as I have done here, it might still have been possible to have achieved closure through the ‘send us out’ element, which actually occurs at the end of the line in Racine’s text and worked perfectly for him, evoking people leaving a church after a service. But I would have had to find a way of putting that phrase on the end of my line also, and therein lies the problem. To do that in English would have meant doing radical things to the sentence order that just don’t sit idiomatically in English unless I depart from the text even so. Hmm… maybe the ending will be subject to future revisions.

As for the apparently gratuitous ‘your name’ in the second line of the last stanza… I’ve just never heard a Christian song addressing Jesus and saying “we bless you”. Possibly because it sounds like what you say to someone after they have sneezed; otherwise, I just don’t know. Nonetheless, in this I can perceive an adequate pragmatic reason why there aren’t many Christian songs with the collocation ‘bless you’ in them. All things considered, I’m not sure why, but I think that following suite was the best thing to do. “We xxx your name”, or even “We xxx your yyy” is just such a common string in modern worship songs; it feels almost conventional.

I can only think of one blatant departure I made from the original French that was motivated by anything other than style, and it is one that weighs on my conscience massively. In the French, line four of verse two ought literally be translated as ‘laws’ (lois) instead of ‘ways’ (which in French would have been ‘chemins’). Changes like this are dangerous territory, and it was tricky business trying to discern whether I was risking too much. I now think I understand the pressures faced by some Christian songwriters, and may in future harbour somewhat more charitable feelings towards them as I’m inclined to grumble over lyrical adulterations in their refurbished hymns. Whilst I think I understand what Racine meant by ‘laws’ and would personally have much preferred to write ‘laws’ myself instead of changing the text, I sense a certain ill-defined distaste of that word in much of the Protestant church, and it follows that it is not typically used in worship songs. Stylistically, to use ‘laws’ in this piece would have been jarring, so I sought out a near equivalent, and ‘ways’ was it, although it’s one that leaves me dissatisfied. Really, I wanted to write ‘laws’. I would have risen to the challenge of changing the patterns of assonance that I established across that entire verse to accommodate it.

The distaste I perceive in the contemporary church for the notion of ‘laws’ is possibly part of the baggage of Luther’s ‘justified by faith alone and not by works of the law’ (sola fide) reading of the book of Romans filtering, unnuanced, through the church third- and fourth-hand in a distorted, over-simplified form. In some parts of the Protestant church at large (and I do only say some) nearly everything that can be labelled a ‘law’ is treated with suspicion rather than upheld, which I feel is ignorant and wrong. Scripture seems to testify that what Christ actually abolished concerning the status of the (Old Testament) religious law in view of justification now being through faith, was the law ‘expressed in ordinances’, by which a person was thought to be justified before God through demonstrating a superficial obedience to a set of rules. It was not the law per se that was abolished, because although it no longer served to justify people, it still had great purposes in teaching people about God and life, amongst other things. It has to be remembered that Jean Racine, although a Jansenist, was still a Catholic, and that whilst Jansenists did uphold a doctrine justification by faith, they did not do it in the same way as the Protestants did, as they believed that Luther was mistaken. It therefore seems understandable that Jansenists might not have minded the word ‘laws’ whereas some contemporary Protestants might shy away from it. But I digress, and the digression only proves my propensity to view things first of all as being theologically influenced, which they might not be entirely or even predominantly. Another explanation could owe itself to the broader culture of our times. Perhaps people within the liberal culture in which we live are often wont to perceive law as an oppressive and subjugating thing, rather than a thing that makes people free, so I also suspect that there might be a large element of political distaste creeping into theological attitudes. Moreover, with reference to Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, I’ve often had a creeping, subjective impression that British culture as a whole is becoming increasingly feminine as opposed to masculine, which usually implicates that vertical structures, statutes and authoritarian power are downplayed in the name of compromise, pliability and horizontality, so it follows that ‘law’, by virtue of its rigidity, bindingness and vertical imposition on the governed from the seat of the governing authority in power, would not be a friendly concept.

Still, I’ve gone with ‘ways’ in the adaptation: in a loose sense it is conceptually adjacent to ‘laws’ anyway, insomuch as the law of Christ is a principle by which we ‘walk’, and a ‘way’ is the walk itself. Rest assured that I made the change with great reluctance and a heavy heart, and would happily change it back, because the change does represent a departure based on little but sociopolitical grounds, which I usually oppose very strongly, except that the politics and the stylistics are inseparable in this case. It must be remembered that this preference is based on what I perceive the function of the text to be: this translation is ultimately a stylistic exercise; not anything that’s actually likely to be sung, so I am especially inclined to privilege stylistics (in the unlikely event that the work becomes sung, however, I might change my mind). The distinction between ‘law’ and ‘way’ does seem minute, but I feel it’s potentially a Biblical one. In the book of Psalms (especially in the ESV translation, which is very literal), the conceptual distinction between ‘ways’ and ‘laws’ does appear to be kept quite scrupulously, so there might be potential implications for the underlying Biblical theology too, which isn’t good at all. Incidentally, where the French uses ‘lois’ the Latin from which it was paraphrased uses ‘exorantibus’ – which I think roughly translates as ‘exhortations’. This pushes the definition of ‘law’ firmly into the semantic territory of ‘commandments’ rather than into anything broader, like ‘ways’.

So, in conclusion, I think this piece (almost) works as a stylistic adaptation. But in terms of theological equivalence and ambassadorship on behalf of the original author(s) it is pretty much a travesty. Oops…

Image attribution: Tardis picture taken from Wikipedia Creative Commons and is authored by aussiegall.


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