Last month I had the privilege of spending a week in Brazil, where I spoke at a conference of pastors and church leaders. It was my third time in Brazil, and I’ve grown to enjoy every chance I get to minister in that country.
It was also the second time I was invited by my friend, veteran missionary Mark Swedberg. Mark grew up in Brazil as a missionary kid, and after his education returned with his family to continue missionary work. This has given Mark a unique perspective on ministry in Brazil.
One of the burdens Mark has for the growing number of churches in the country is their hymnody. Most of the churches sing translations of either English gospel songs mixed with some traditional hymns (the influence of older missionaries) or English contemporary praise and worship songs (the influence of new missions work).
Mark’s burden is two-fold. On the one hand he believes, I think rightly so, that what most of these churches are singing is poor textually and musically. In order to remedy this, Mark has translated quite a few much better hymns from English into Portugues, hymns like “My God, I Love Thee” and “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted.”
The problem is that as good as these translations are, they aren’t really in the “voice” of the Brazilians. The problem is not that the people need to use the dominant musical forms of their culture. In fact, I found it very interesting (and encouraging) that many of the Brazilian pastors at the conference where I spoke repudiate the dominant musical forms of their culture due to their associations with sinful lifestyles and their inherently sensual quality. They do not believe that their “indigenous” music is fitting for the expression of God’s truth.
The issue has more to do with language than with what is natural or familiar to the people. Portuguese is a Latin-based language, and thus it is what linguists call a “syllable-timed language.” In syllable-timed languages, every syllable is essentially the same length, which gives the language a certain cadence and rhythm.
English, on the other hand, is a Germanic language, and thus it is what linguists call a “stress-timed language.” This means that the natural rhythm of the language is based on a stressed vowel sound rather than a syllabic unit, and therefore in stress-timed languages the syllables can be of varying lengths.
Differences between syllable-timed and stress-timed languages affect the rhythm and cadence of poetry in given languages, and this in turn affects the rhythm and cadence of music used to set poetry. This is really one of the more fundamental differences between the music of difference civilizations.
Therefore, although Mark (and many others, of course) have been successful in translating English hymns into Portuguese, the result is sometimes awkward and just doesn’t “feel” natural to native Brazilians.
Really, the problem Brazilians are facing is very similar to the situation Martin Luther faced, only in reverse. Luther wanted to cultivate a German hymnody, and so the first natural step in that direction was to begin translating the available Latin hymns into German. However, translating from a syllable-timed language to a stress-timed language produced a somewhat awkward hymn that didn’t “feel” German. This factor is one primary reason, by the way, that I believe explains why we have many more translations of German hymns into English (stress-timed to stress-timed) than translations from Calvin’s psalmody (syllable-timed).
However, Luther recognized, as does Mark, that this is where the process must begin. We cannot expect an indigenous Brazilian hymnody to develop overnight, and neither should the Brazilian Christians ignore the vast wealth of Christian hymnody that has developed in the tradition of the Church. Just as Luther recognized the value in at least beginning with translations of what was already available in Latin, so Mark has recognized the importance of exposing Brazilian Christians to the great hymnody of the Church, even if the product doesn’t feel natural quite yet.
As we talked about his goals for Brazilian hymnody, I suggested that what needed to happen was to follow Luther’s model. Here is the process Luther took to cultivate a truly German hymnody.
- Luther began by translating Latin texts into German and using the already available Latin tunes with the new texts. This produced good German texts that were sometimes awkwardly fit to tunes that fit better with syllable-timed lyrics.
- Luther’s second step was to begin writing new German texts of the same quality and character of the Latin texts but with poetry that was stress-timed. He still sometimes used tunes that were available to him from the Latin tradition, which continued to be awkwardly matched with the German lyrics.
- Luther then began to collect the best of German folk tunes to use with the new German texts. Sometimes this was successful, but other times the strong association of a tune with its secular lyric caused distractions.
- Luther also did have available to him German sacred folk hymns that he could readily bring into the church. These were Christian songs that had been written by Germans, not for corporate worship (which had been in Latin) but for daily devotion. Many of these were usable in the now German language services.
- Finally, Luther encouraged Germans to write new tunes that flowed naturally from German syllabic stress. Even then, he and other musicians modeled their new tunes after the noble character of the Latin chant melodies, but wrote the tunes so that the cadence matched the stress-timed nature of the German language.
The one significant difference between Luther’s situation and that of the Brazilian Christians is that while Germany had a folk culture that had been heavily influenced by Christian values and thus produced many good tunes of noble character, Brazilian culture is much more heavily influenced by pagan values and sensuality. There may be some folk culture that can be used, but it is much more difficult to find. Brazil consequently does not have the kind of sacred folk hymns that German had.
In order to cultivate a truly Brazilian hymnody that is of good quality in both text and tune while at the same time “natural” to a native Portuguese speaker, I believe the Christians should follow Luther’s example in reverse. Mark and others are already taking the first step by translating into Portuguese the best of western Christian hymnody.
Mark hopes to find several Brazilians with affinity for poetry who can immerse themselves in the imagery and beauty of these hymns so that they can learn what makes a good hymn text. It is only then that he hopes they will be able to begin writing new hymns in Portuguese with a rhythm and cadence that naturally fits the language.
The final step will be to motivate Brazilian musicians to study what has made for good hymn tunes in the tradition of the church, and then encourage them to begin writing new tunes that flow naturally from their syllable-timed language language.