Subtleties of translation
Just as translating something gives you a rare chance to get inside the text and really understand it, writing a tune for a line of text makes you chew it over far more carefully than a quick reading does. This is even truer of the Alleluia verses than the psalms, because they are mostly so short. The functional problems tend to be getting the balance right, especially as you aren’t allowed to repeat anything (except the word ‘Alleluia’, obviously). But precisely because they are so short, you have to focus on the exact rhythm of the words, and the meaning, and the way the two interconnect.
Sometimes the different country versions are clearly dealing with the same idea, sometimes they decide to stress different aspects of it. The words for the Alleluia verse this week were on the one hand simple, even monosyllabic, but on the other hand so different in the choices which had been made, that I was intrigued.
Hope, trust, wait ; one verse, four versions
The only easy way to compare is to set them all out on the page, so bear with me. I’ll leave out the Alleluias.
CAN : I wait for the Lord; I hope in his word.
OZ : I hope in the Lord, I trust in his word.
UK : My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word.
US : I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for his word.
The original Psalm verse
The origin for all these Alleluia verses is Psalm 129/130, v 5, so let’s have a look at some translations of that. Grail version : My soul is waiting for the Lord, I count on his word. Revised Grail : I long for you, O Lord, my soul longs for his word (awkward shift from second to third person there, but that’s the newest translation, so presumably the most accurate). King James : I look for the Lord, my soul doth wait for him : in his word is my trust. Jerusalem : I wait for God, my soul waits for him, I rely on his promise. Scottish metrical psalms, for the purposes of comparison : I wait for God, my soul doth wait, my hope is in his word.
Back to the (differing) Alleluia verses
So full marks to the British for keeping as close as possible to the original psalm version, and let’s talk about that one first, after a pause while I clear away all the books I have just looked everything up in. The two first striking things are that it is ‘my soul’ rather than ‘I’, and that the verb is an ongoing present tense. ‘My soul’ for ‘I’ is a fairly common Latin circumlocution (we’ve recently had it put back into the prayer just before Communion in the new translation…’and my soul shall be healed’, where it is definitely meant to mean the same as ‘I’, which was the previous version), so that’s easy, though I must say I like the directness of the ‘I’ that everyone else has gone for. But that present continuous is interesting, because you get a sense almost of patient impatience, as if we are saying to God, ‘Here I am, look at me actively waiting, your move now’, where the simple ‘I wait’, though it technically means the same, is more a description of a state.
Commas and semi-colons
And look at the punctuation. The UK and OZ versions describe two simultaneous aspects : I hope, and at the same time I trust; I am waiting, and at the same time I count on the Lord’s word. I accept ‘count on’ as equivalent to ‘trust’, but because what divides the two phrases is a simple comma, they are in balance, not causally related (I am feeling terrible nerdy here, I hope someone else is as interested in this as I am!).
In the US and CAN versions, we have a semi-colon which indicates a different relationship between the clauses. The CAN one seems to me to be causal : I wait for the Lord [because] I hope in his word; whereas the US one is much more limited, even repetitive, but intensified : I wait for the Lord; yes, my deepest self is waiting for what he has to say. That connects neatly with God’s instruction last week at the Transfiguration to listen.
Waiting leads to hoping leads to trusting?
What first set me thinking about this was the way that the OZ and CAN verses almost sound like two stages of one process. First (CAN) I wait, [because] I hope; then (OZ) I hope, [while] I am trusting. You can do the same thing with US and UK : first (US) I wait for the Lord, [yes really] my soul waits for his word; then (UK) my soul is waiting for the Lord [while] I am counting on his word. But where in the process do we start? Are these sequential? Do we wait because we believe, or because we hope? Do we hope because we believe, and so we wait? Is trusting the same as hoping or believing?
Waiting, hoping and trusting : similar but not quite the same, and one day I’m clearly going to have to learn Hebrew and probably Ancient Greek as well (Latin I can manage). Failing an examination of the original words, I went off to have a look at Spe salvi, as being the most recent official teaching about hope. And I was lucky, because it was illuminating. ‘Faith is Hope’ is the title of the second section. ‘The one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life’ (SS2). Aquinas is quoted as saying that this faith is how eternal life takes root in us (SS7), but where I really struck gold was in section 9, where it explains that the word St Paul uses for this is hypomone, normally translated as patience, perseverance, constancy (so there is my ‘wait’) and goes on to say, ‘this word was used expressly for the expectation of God […] on the basis of the certainty of the Covenant’ (and there is my ‘trust in his word’), summarising this as’a lived hope, a life based on the certainty of hope’ (SS9).
The perfection of hope and trust
So it isn’t sequential, more relational and even dynamic, like God himself (I knew the Greek would be helpful). The waiting we are talking about here is active, like Advent, like pregnancy, as I’ve mentioned before. And then in the last section of Spe salvi, there is a meditation on Our Lady as the symbol of hope, not just Stella maris but also the star of hope. There we can see someone hoping, believing, waiting and trusting all in one, like any mother only on a cosmic scale.
Actually writing the tunes
The emphasis throughout then is on patient trust-filled waiting, so when I was writing the tunes I concentrated on not resolving the wait, but allowing a sort of conscious patience to support the meaning. All the settings came out differently, which I felt was appropriate in the circumstances. Luckily I had forgotten (or I would have been totally intimidated) that Bach set this, as part of one of the cantatas, and you can hear how he keeps the waiting hanging over several bars. My other favourite example of musical ‘waiting on the Lord’ (a recurrent psalm theme) is Mendelssohn Ps 39/40, but there the waiting is resolved in rescue, so the feel is different. The waiting is in the past tense. Do hope and trust figure? Sometimes the words just say ‘he answered my cry’ or ‘he heard my complaint’, but the translation I sang with my sister ends with the words ‘he inclined unto me, who put my hope and trust in him’. Not a faithful translation, but full of the same hope and trust as this week’s Alleluia verse.
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