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Staying faithful to the text

Gracia Grindal and a hymnal of spiritual songs from the north

Anyone who reads the names printed under hymns in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal will find the name Gracia Grindal familiar. She is recognized as a translator of hymns originating in other languages. Now, Grindal has compiled an anthology of hymns and spiritual songs from the Nordic countries.
She introduced her new book, Hymns and Spiritual Songs from The North: Nordic Christians Sing Their Faith, to an appreciative audience attending the weekly Tuesday Open House recently at Mindekirken, the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church in south Minneapolis. She led a packed Fellowship Hall in singing several of the hymns.
The book is dedicated to the memory of Annelotte Svendsbye. Annelotte’s husband, the Rev. Dr. Lloyd Svendsbye, former president of Luther Seminary in St. Paul and a financial backer of the project, commented, “There are lots of books that include hymns from Germany, Bohemia, and other countries; we owe a debt of gratitude to Gracia for this book of hymns and spiritual songs from the Nordic countries.”

“I took old favorites that had not been included in the main Lutheran hymnals since the Service Book and Hymnal in 1958.”

Hymns and Spiritual Songs from The North includes 149 hymns/songs, many translated by Grindal herself. She is professor of rhetoric at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
As to Mindekirken’s role in the project, Pastor Kristin Sundt commented, “A former pastor at Mindekirken helped contribute a list of hymns to be included in the hymnal and Mindekirken Foundation gave a grant. Our Tuesday Open House dedicated its Mindekirken Annual Birthday Gift to purchase copies. … People have also given money to purchase additional hymnals since it was published in February 2012.
“Mary Josefson, a member of Mindekirken, gave time and resources to help move the project along, and a couple of us proof read the hymnal prior to publishing. However, this hymnal would not have been possible without some large monetary gifts in the early stages of this project.”

Faithful to the word … and the tune

When asked, “What is the most challenging part of translating hymns or songs?,” Grindal replied, “There is an old saying, ‘To translate is to betray.’ The best translations are the ones that get at the essence and images of the original, but are also as good in the new language as the old. One cannot be literal, although one should be true to the images of the original. While ‘Built on a Rock’ is not a literal translation of ‘Kirken den er et gamelt Hus’ (literally ‘the church is an ancient house’), I would argue that it does make a good English poem. There may have been a more literal way to say it, but it sounds dumb. I haven’t thought of a better, more literal way to say it.
“As a poet who learned my trade when I was earning my MFA in Arkansas after my graduation from Augsburg in 1965, I learned how to write formal verse with rhymes and verse forms, which is how most hymns are written. Out of that I came to love formal verse, especially the sonnet, but the hymn is my native verse form. … I have also enjoyed translating these hymns because if my inspiration level is not in high gear, these, like daily exercise, have kept me in poetic shape. Over the past eight years I have written a hymn on the lectionary text for the Sunday Gospel, Old Testament [lesson], and am now finishing with the Epistles, so that has also kept me in shape. But in the dry periods, I have kept on with translating because it has kept me in shape, so to speak, as a poet.”
When Grindal was asked to describe how she compiled the list of hymns or songs, she responded, “I took old favorites that had not been included in the main Lutheran hymnals since the Service Book and Hymnal [SBH] in 1958, such as ‘I Saw Him in Childhood,’ ‘Jesus I Long for your Blessed Communion,’ ‘I Walk in Danger,’ and ‘Easter Morrow Stills Our Sorrow’ and updated them since they were accused by the SBH committee of being bad translations; then I found some classics such as ‘The Leaves Upon the Linden,’ ‘Bells are Ringing’ and ‘Sorrow and Gladness’ that had not been translated into English at all, then the favorites of the current Nordic countries that I happened to like. I went through the current Norwegian hymnal with its editor, Aage Haavik, maybe 20 years ago, and he gave me a list of hymns that needed translation … because of their popularity in Norway.”
Grindal offered, “To be able to pass on to the heirs of these traditions in [the U.S.] —most of whom don’t know the original languages —something of their tradition, [is rewarding because the hymns] communicate a lot of the original culture without words.”
Hymns and Spiritual Songs of the North is available for $29.95 from the ReClaim website:

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