Love’s pure light loves pure light

Six years ago, very soon after started this blog (I can’t quite believe it’s that long), I wrote about Round John Virgin and some other linguistic aspects of the Christmas hymn Silent Night.

Recently, one of the choirs I sing in was invited at short notice to record some items for a Christmas musical entertainment to be streamed into aged care facilities around Australia. (We have just begun to rehearse together again.) One of these was as the backing for a soloist singing a slightly jazzy arrangement of Silent Night. Among other things, there were several extra notes inserted into the melody, which then required extra words (or maybe the arranger decided to insert extra words, which then required extra notes). Small example: in one verse, Silent night, holy night became O silent night, and holy night. Larger example: Son of God, love’s pure light became Son of God, he loves pure light, which is not just adding a word, but changing the grammar and meaning of what follows.

The most standard English words are:

Silent night, holy night.
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace.

That is, some light (noun) beams (verb) somehow (adverb). Radiant really should be be radiantly, but flat adverbs are entirely possible in poetry (or informal speech and now even in normal speech and writing). 

This verse is often rendered as:

Silent night, holy night.
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace.

This is, some beams (noun) … ummm, there is no verb which tells us what the radiant beams do, unless we understand shine.

Neither reading is perfect, but the first is less problematic than the second. The bigger breath we take after light, the more it is likely to be interpreted as a full stop, and separate from what comes after it. The whole issue arises because love’s and loves are pronounced identically, and love’s pure light and loves pure light are both grammatically possible (but incomplete). The version we sang has the same problem as the second here; that is, that Radiant beams … by itself is a grammatical fragment. 

But the German is very different:

Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht 
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund.

which translates as:

Oh how love
laughs from your divine mouth.

No light or beams at all. Love and laugh can both be either a noun or verb, but love laughs is clearly noun + verb (compare I love a good laugh, ?I love good laughs, *I love laughs). But rendering that in English would require several extra syllables or words (compare deinem and your, and göttlichen and divine (or godly). (Your heavenly mouth doesn’t quite sound right!)

Nothing about translation or poetry says that translators have to include every word of the original in the translation. They have to balance meaning, grammar and poetic meter. In fact, translators very rarely do include every word. Another Christmas song starts in its original language:

Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle.

That is,

Midnight, Christians, it is the solemn hour.

No holy night and no stars brightly shining.

(I was a bit worried that a Google search returned the question “Who is the killer in Silent Night?” That’s the movie of that title (which I won’t link to), not the hymn. There is no killer in the hymn!)


3 thoughts on “Love’s pure light loves pure light

  1. Re “Round John Virgin”, I always used to think the line was “round young virgin,” which seemed to describe the situation fairly accurately.

    The “love laughs” ambiguity wouldn’t be an issue in German due to their conjugal word endings.

    Re the French words for “O Holy Night”, there is an English-language song which starts “I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour,” but it’s most definitely not about Christmas Eve.


    • Thanks for your comment. It’s really weird that in English two of the remaining inflections, and probably the most common two, are both -s, which gives us jokes like “What has four wheels and flies? A garbage truck”
      I first knew “I’m gonna wait till the midnight hour” from the movie The Commitments and only later the original by Wilson PIckett.


      • The collapsing of nominal plural and third person singular verb endings can be considered a historical accident. Verily, “what hath four wheels and flieth” wouldn’t work as well.


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