Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Huron Carol: A Strange Case of Mistranslating a Saint

Among the most beloved of Christmas pieces is surely the so-called “Huron Carol.” The carol’s text was written by St. Jean de Brebeuf in Quebec in 1642 or 1643 while his father recuperated from a broken clavicle, and set to a familiar French tune of the day, Une jeune pucelle. St. Jean composed the text in the Huron dialect (also known as Wyandot) that he had learned quite well. Fortunately, one of the later missionaries, Fr. de Villeneuve, wrote down the words and translated them into simple French; otherwise we would have lost it altogether.

          Ehstehn yayau deh tsaun we yisus ahattonnia
          O na wateh wado:kwi nonnwa 'ndasqua entai
          ehnau sherskwa trivota nonnwa 'ndi yaun rashata
          Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.

          Ayoki onki hm-ashe eran yayeh raunnaun
          yauntaun kanntatya hm-deh 'ndyaun sehnsatoa ronnyaun
          Waria hnawakweh tond Yosehf sataunn haronnyaun
          Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.

          Asheh kaunnta horraskwa deh ha tirri gwames
          Tishyaun ayau ha'ndeh ta aun hwa ashya a ha trreh
          aundata:kwa Tishyaun yayaun yaun n-dehta
          Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.

          Dau yishyeh sta atyaun errdautau 'ndi Yisus
          avwa tateh dn-deh Tishyaun stanshi teya wennyau
          aha yaunna torrehntehn yataun katsyaun skehnn
          Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.

          Eyeh kwata tehnaunnte aheh kwashyehn ayehn
          kiyeh kwanaun aukwayaun dehtsaun we 'ndeh adeh
          tarrya diskwann aunkwe yishyehr eya ke naun sta
          Iesus Ahattonnia, Ahattonnia, Iesus Ahattonnia.

The following is John Steckley’s literal translation of the carol from Huron to English:

          Have courage, you who are humans; Jesus, he is born.
          Behold, the spirit [demon] who had us as prisoners has fled.
          Do not listen to it, as it corrupts the spirits of our minds.
          Jesus, he is born.

          They are spirits, sky people [angels], coming with a message for us.
          They are coming to say, “Be on top of life [Rejoice],
          Marie, she has just given birth. Rejoice!”
          Jesus, he is born.

          Three have left for such, those who are elders.
          Tichion, a star that has just appeared on the horizon, leads them there.
          He will seize the path, he who leads them there.
          Jesus, he is born.

          As they arrived there, where he was born, Jesus,
          the star was at the point of stopping, not far past it.
          Having found someone for them, he says, “Come here!”
          Jesus, he is born.

          Behold, they have arrived there and have seen Jesus,
          They praised many times, saying “Hurray, he is good in nature.”
          They greased his scalp many times [greeted him with reverence],
          saying “Hurray.” Jesus, he is born.

          “We will give to him praise for his name,
          Let us show reverence for him as he comes to be compassionate to us.
          It is providential that you love us and wish, ‘I should adopt them.’”
          Jesus, he is born.

The song is crafted to appeal to the worldview and customs of the natives. However, in Brebeuf’s text, no God is praised except Jesus. One may see the same thing in the French translation of Brebeuf’s original:

          Chrétiens, prenez courage
          Jésus Sauveur est né
          Du malin les ouvrages
          A jamais sont ruinés
          Quand il chante merveille
          A ces troublants appas
          Ne pretez plus l’oreille
          Jésus est né, in excelsis gloria!

          Oyez cette nouvelle
          Dont un ange est portuer
          Oyez, âmes fidèles
          Et dilatez vos coeurs
          La Vierge dans l’étable
          Entoure de ses bras
          L’Enfant-Dieu adorable
          Jésus est né, in excelsis gloria!

          Voici que trois Rois Mages
          Perdus en Orient
          Déchiffrent ce message
          Ecrit au firmament
          L’astre nouveau les hante
          Ils la suivrant là-bas
          Cette étoile marhante
          Jésus est né, in excelsis gloria!

          Jésus leur met en tête
          Que L’Etoile en la nuit
          Qui jamais ne s’arrête
          Les conduira vers Lui
          Dans las nuit radieuse
          En route ils son déjà
          Ils vont l’âme joyeuse
          Jésus est né, in excelsis gloria!

          Pour l’enfant qui repose
          Dans un petit berceau
          Humblement ils déposent
          Hommages et cadeaux
          Comme eux, l’âme ravie
          Chrétiens, suivons ses pas
          Son amour nous convie
          Jésus est né, in excelsis gloria!

Problems arise, however, when we get to the exceedingly well-known 1926 English version of the carol done by Jesse Edgar Middleton (1872-1960). Middleton's version rather self-consciously enhances the “Indianness” of the text by stating that Jesus is born in “lodge of broken bark” and wrapped in a “robe of rabbit skin.” He is surrounded by hunters rather than shepherds, and chiefs bring him “fox and beaver pelts” instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Most troublingly, Middleton gratutiously inserts the name of one of the pagan gods of the Algonquin, “Gitchi Manitou,” which is not in the original Wyandot version. Indeed, the very words “Gitchi Manitou” are from the Ojibwe language, not the Wyandot.

Why is this a big deal? The answer is simple: Middleton’s familiar translation is not faithful to St. Jean de Brebeuf’s authorial intentions. With classic Jesuit ingenuity and precision, Brebeuf wrote a text that utilizes native concepts while simultaneously not asserting or honoring anything pagan. We, too, when singing this carol, should avoid the same. While it is true that “Gitchi Manitou” can be translated as “Great Spirit” and subsequently entered into common usage among Algonquian Christians (an insight for which I am thankful to a commenter below), in context it would be somewhat like those Renaissance Latin hymns that addressed God as thundering Jupiter.

Years ago I composed a harmonization of the Huron Carol and published it in my Sacred Choral Works. I regret that I used Middleton’s text, the difficulties of which I did not grasp until much later, when a discerning musician wrote an email to me about all of these matters.

Do we have any alternatives, then, when singing the Huron Carol? Fortunately, yes, we do. Julie Pyle's translation is quite useable (see here). A similar translation of two stanzas from Heather Dale makes me wish she had done all of them:

          Let Christian men take heart today
          The devil’s rule is done;
          Let no man heed the devil more,
          For Jesus Christ is come
          But hear ye all what angels sing:
          How Mary Maid bore Jesus King.
          Iesus Ahattonnia, Jesus is born, Iesus Ahattonnia.

          Three chieftains saw before Noel
          A star as bright as day,
          “So fair a sign,” the chieftains said,
          “Shall lead us where it may.”
          For Jesu told the chieftains three:
          “The star will bring you here to me.”
          Iesus Ahattonnia, Jesus is born, Iesus Ahattonnia.

For a fascinating scholarly article on this subject, see John Steckley, “Huron Carol: A Canadian Cultural Chamelion,” British Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 27, n. 1 (March 2014): 55–74. Retrievable from ResearchGate.

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