Sunday, 22 January 2012

O sola magnarum urbium: Various Translations

Lambent light in Canterbury Cathedral

'O sola magnarum urbium' is a Latin hymn by Prudentius (384-c.413), sung at Lauds during the Epiphany season. It's best known in English in the translation by Edward Caswall, 'Bethlehem of noblest cities', but there are lots of other translations; this ever-helpful site lists a number of them, and from that list and elsewhere I've compiled a group. I find it interesting to compare translations of the same hymn, almost all of which, in this case, date from the nineteenth century; you see a number of different styles and approaches to translation, especially to the challenge of rendering the original's compact imagery into the narrow confines of a four-line stanza.

First here's the Latin (from here):

1. O sola magnarum urbium
maior Bethlehem, cui contigit
ducem salutis caelitus
incorporatum gignere.

2. Haec stella, quae solis rotam
vincit decore ac lumine,
venisse terris nuntiat
cum carne terrestri Deum.

3. Videre postquam illum Magi,
eoa promunt munera:
stratique votis offerunt
thus, myrrham, et aurum regium.

4. Regem Deumque annuntiant
thesaurus, et fragrans odor
thuris Sabaei, ac myrrheus
pulvis sepulchrum praedocet.

5. Iesu, tibi sit gloria,
qui apparuisti gentibus,
cum Patre, et almo Spiritu,
in sempiterna saecula.

Here's my stab at a literal unpoetic translation:

1. O uniquely-honoured Bethlehem, greater than the great cities, to whom it was given to bring forth from heaven the Lord of salvation in incarnate form.

2. This star, which surpasses the wheel of the sun in beauty and brightness, announces to the nations that God has come, in earthly flesh.

3. The Magi, seeing him, bring forth their Eastern gifts and, kneeling, offer their prayers, incense, myrrh, and royal gold.

4. Gold announces him to be King; the fragrant odour of the incense of Saba, to be God; myrrh foreshadows the dust of the grave.

5. Jesus, who appeared to the Gentiles, glory to Thee, with the Father and the Spirit, world without end.

The basics established, we can move on to something more poetic! Let's start with Caswall, as the most famous rendering:

1. Bethlehem! of noblest cities
None can once with thee compare;
Thou alone the Lord from heaven
Didst for us Incarnate bear.

2. Fairer than the sun at morning
Was the star that told His birth;
To the lands their God announcing,
Hid beneath a form of earth.

3. By its lambent beauty guided,
See the eastern kings appear;
See them bend, their gifts to offer-
Gifts of incense, gold, and myrrh.

4. Solemn things of mystic meaning!-
Incense doth the God disclose;
Gold a royal Child proclaimeth;
Myrrh a future tomb foreshows.

5. Holy Jesu, in Thy brightness
To the Gentile world displayed,
With the Father and the Spirit,
Endless praise to Thee be paid.

My favourite thing about this version is the word 'lambent', which (from the Latin lambere, 'to lick') means 'playing lightly upon or gliding over a surface without burning it, like a ‘tongue of fire’; shining with a soft clear light and without fierce heat' (in the OED's words) and thus, of a star, 'emitting, or suffused with, a soft clear light; softly radiant.' A lovely choice of word!

Another version of Caswall's translation exists, lacking in lambency:

1. Earth has many a noble city;
Bethlehem, thou dost all excel;
Out of thee the Lord from heaven
Came to rule His Israel.

2. Fairer than the sun at morning
Was the star that told His birth,
To the world its God announcing
Seen in fleshly form on earth.

3. Eastern sages at His cradle
Make oblations rich and rare;
See them give, in deep devotion,
Gold and frankincense and myrrh.

4. Sacred gifts of mystic meaning:
Incense doth their God disclose,
Gold the King of kings proclaimeth,
Myrrh His sepulchre foreshows.

5. Jesu, whom the Gentiles worshipped
At Thy glad Epiphany,
Unto Thee, with God the Father
And the Spirit, glory be.

Here's another version by the hymnwriter Elizabeth Charles (Mrs Rundle Charles), from her book of hymn translations, Te Deum Laudamus: Christian Life in Song, first published in 1858, p.111:

1. Small among cities, Bethlehem,
Yet far in greatness passing them;
He who shall King and Saviour be,
The Infinite, is born in thee.

2. That radiant star, which hath the sun
In beauty and in light outshone,
Proclaims that God has come to earth
In mortal flesh, of human birth.

3. The Magi, guided by that star,
Their Eastern offerings bring from far,
Prostrate, with vows, their gifts unfold,
Myrrh, frankincense, and royal gold.

4. Treasures and perfumes rich they bring,
Meet tributes for the God and King;
Embalming frankincense and myrrh
Foretell the mortal sepulchre.

(Prudentius' original has only four verses, without a doxology, which is why this and some other translations only have four). I like this translation; verse 2's "In beauty and in light outshone" nicely preserves the Latin "vincit decore ac lumine", which Caswall does not attempt.

Here's an earlier translation, from this book, The Catholic Harp: containing the morning and evening service of the Catholic Church, embracing a choice collection of masses, litanies, psalms, sacred hymns, anthems, versicles, and motifs, ed. Philip A. Kirk (New York, 1830), p.78:

1. Let other cities strive, which most
Can of their strength or heroes boast;
Beth'lem alone is chosen to be
The seat of heav'n-born majesty.

2. Led by the star, the sages ran
To own their King both God and Man;
And with their incense, myrrh and gold
The mysteries of their vows unfold.

3. To God the censer's smoke ascends;
The gold the sov'reign King attends;
In myrrh the bitter type we see
Of suff''ring and mortality.

4. To Christ who did the Gentiles call,
Be endless glory giv'n by all;
To God the Father we repeat
The same, and to the Paraclete.

The first verse is nice - a less literal but more poetic translation than some of the other examples.

The next translation is by Henry Trend, published in Lyra Messianica: Hymns and Verses on the Life of Christ, Ancient and Modern, with Other Poems, ed. Orby Shipley (London, 1864), pp.161-2:

1. The noblest cities upon earth
Must yield, O Bethlehem, to thee;
'Twas thine to give mysterious Birth
To Christ, the Incarnate Deity.

2. More glorious than the Sun at morn,
Thy Herald-Star its rays unfurled,
Proclaiming that the Babe was born
Whose Power should save a dying world.

3. Drawn by its guiding light from far,
The Sages at His Cradle meet,
With Gold, and Frankincense, and Myrrh
To worship at His sacred Feet.

4. Nor vain their mystic Offering -
The Incense owned the Child as God;
The Gold did homage to the King;
The Myrrh His Death and Burial showed.

I'm not convinced that a star can 'unfurl' its rays, nor exactly sure about the sacred feet...

Here's a good one, by C. E. Maiden and W. Quennell:

1. Earth hath many a mighty city;
Bethlehem, mightier thy renown,
Where the Captain of Salvation,
Christ, the Incarnate Lord, came down.

2. Brighter than the noon-day splendour
Rose the star that shewed His birth,
To the world its God announcing
Came in human flesh to earth.

3. Wise men from the east behold Him,
And their treasured gifts unfold,
Offering Him, in deep devotion,
Frankincense, and myrrh, and gold.

4. For their God the fragrant incense;
Gold, the tribute for a King;
Myrrh, His precious death foreshadowing,
For His sepulchre they bring.

5. Jesu, Lord, Who then to Gentiles
Didst Thy presence manifest,
With the Father and the Spirit,
Glory be to Thee addressed. Amen.

I like the phrase 'Captain of Salvation', an unusual touch.

The next translation is distinguished by the super-classical pre-modern use of 'car' - guaranteed to confuse a modern congregation! - and by the word 'Magians', which is an unusual term for 'magi' but which does date back to at least the Book of Common Prayer (according to the OED). This version is by Richard Mant, Bishop of Down and Connor, in Ancient Hymns, from the Roman Breviary, for Domestick Use (London, 1837), p.42:

1. First of cities, Bethlehem,
Hail, most favour'd! When he came,
Saviour of the human race,
Thee the Godhead deign'd to grace.

2. Brighter than the sun's bright car,
And more glorious was the star,
Which in Thee new-born from high
Told the incarnate Deity.

3. Him what time the Magians saw,
Forth their orient gifts they draw;
Prostrate they with vows unfold
Myrrh, and frankincense, and gold.

4. Frankincense and gold they bring
To announce their God and King;
Spice of aromatic myrrh
To announce his sepulchre.

5. Jesus, let thy name be blest,
To the Gentiles manifest;
To the Father glory be,
With the Spirit, and with Thee!

The final translation is one which especially appeals to me, and not only because it can be sung to that wonderful tune 'The Truth from Above'. Internet sources say that it's a composite translation and credit no single author, which is a shame. Though not very literal, it has some nice features, especially the first verse and the phrase 'conscious skies' - what a lovely way to put it!

1. O chief of cities, Bethlehem,
Of David’s crown the fairest gem,
But more to us than David’s name,
In you, as man, the Saviour came.

2. Beyond the sun in splendour bright,
Above you stands a wondrous light
Proclaiming from the conscious skies
That here, in flesh, the Godhead lies.

3. The wise men, seeing Him so fair,
Bow low before Him, and with prayer
Their treasured eastern gifts unfold
Of incense, myrrh, and royal gold.

4. The golden tribute owns Him King,
But frankincense to God they bring,
And last, prophetic sign, with myrrh,
They shadow forth His sepulchre.

5. O Jesus, whom the Gentiles see,
With Father, Spirit, One in Three:
To You, O God, be glory giv’n
By saints on earth and saints in Heav’n.

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