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Musings on “Gud som haver”

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By C. Green

It wasn’t until myfiancé was dying that I started thinking about the translation of the age old children’s prayer “Gud som haver.” Although the brain tumor that was to kill him in less than six months didn’t cause him any physical pain, he’d become agitated and unable to relax in the evenings so I was constantly looking for ways to sooth him till he fell asleep. One day out of the clear blue, this totally secular Jewish-American – the man with whom I was fortunate to share seven years of my life – startled me with his perfect rendition of the traditionally Christian prayer that Jesus taught his disciples: Our Father who Art in Heaven.

After a few weeks of this, I asked if he wanted me to say the prayer from my childhood in Finland and much to my surprise – for he had shown himself to be a man of rigid routines – he said yes, and I found myself facing the daunting task of instantaneous translation. So I did what most people do in those circumstances: word for word, changing the Swedish into English verbatim without any thought to the rhythm, rhyme, verse, or syntax. The poetry behind this ancient prayer be damned: it “worked” and he fell asleep contented. That was all that counted.

Since then, the translation of Gud som haver (GSH) has continued to haunt me. Over the forty years I’ve lived in the States I’ve done innumerable translations from Swedish and Finnish into English – some of them quite technical in nature, such as law and engineering – and as a writer I treasure the inherent beauty of language. But, and this is the big “but,” poetry is admittedly the one single area that causes me total anxiety when it comes to translation. Still, I believe the spirit of GSH can be shared with people who don’t understand it in its original form.

First, let me make it clear that I have no plans for engaging in any debate on what the “correct” last line should be: “den Gud älskar lyckan får” versus “Du förbliver Fader vår.” I grew up on the former and I leave it to others to argue over which line is the preferred.

Second: in the interest of length, I’ve chosen only four versions and they are presented in my order of preference. Scholarly arguments are better saved for a different publication.

To start, then, here is the refresher of my preferred Swedish version of GSH (also in the Summer 2007 Quarterly, but with the “other” last line):

Gud som haver barnen kär,
se till mig som liten är.
Vart jag mig i världen vänder,
står min lycka i Guds händer.
Lyckan kommer, lyckan går,
den Gud älskar, lyckan får.

Anyone without any interest in meaning can do what I did for my fiancé: a word-for-word translation. There are also software programs that may accomplish the same but, at the very least, I shudder at the thought of what they would do to the double entendre of the last line: God is either the subject or the object of the sentence and depending on the personal meaning that a human translator attaches to it would determine the outcome. Then there’s the matter of the meter and rhyme of the original prayer—no mechanical device could be sensitive to these factors so that the English version remains as beautiful as the Swedish one. And what about “lyckan,” which can take on quite a few different meanings? It now becomes more and more clear that the process of translating GSH is much more complicated than we might have thought at the outset.

Any would-be translators looking for the beauty in their work, while being completely dedicated to the search for meaning, also have to struggle with where the line goes between artistry and literacy, equivalence of structures and total disregard of it. How important is it to keep the number of words in each line true to the original Swedish (5-6-6-6-4-5)? Is it even possible to duplicate the meter and the rhyme?

Could we perhaps let the ear determine the quality of the English translation? Since research shows that GSH was also sung, usually to the tune of “Blinka lilla stjärna där” or “Tryggare kan ingen vara,” both equally familiar to us Swedish Finns, maybe they can be used for the initial weeding-out of the lazy and flat translations. Even my very bad singing voice came in handy in this process.

I begin the easy way, with two versions from two different parts of my own “Web-scale”:

First:

God who holds the children dear
Look to me, as little as I am
Wherever the world will take me
My luck is in God’s hands
Luck comes and luck goes
The one who loves God receives luck.

Second:

God, who loves each little child,
you look at me with eyes so mild.
Wherever I go in all the lands,
my care and bliss are in your hands.
While happiness will come and go,
I’m always yours, in you I’ll grow.

While the first version makes no effort to use verse, the second one is much more elegant by this tool alone. The second also distinguishes itself by turning “lyckan” into both “happiness” and “care and bliss” instead of “luck.” Although the overall meaning and rhythm of GSH has been maintained I’m not ready to declare this the best available work so the search must go on.

Next is the version of someone who’s been called one of our generation’s geniuses, Douglas Hofstadter. Among the many works of this Pulitzer Prize award-holder is Le Ton beau de Marot—In the Praise of the Music of Language—a tome that shook my world. It caused me to look more deeply into the philosophy of translation and I now consider it a must-read for any self-respecting translator. At my request, he was pleased to use his Swedish skills on GSH:

O God whose children all are dear,
I’m oh so small, so please stay near.
Throughout this world, as I go ranging,
in God’s hands my luck’s unchanging.
Though luck will come and luck will go,
our loving God will make luck grow.

Here, “lyckan” is again “luck” which some say is closer to the original meaning but on the other side are those who argue that there’s no connection between anything “lucky” and a religious belief system calling for God’s protection. But the rhythm and flow is wonderful and it also passes the “singing-test” of either of the children’s hymns mentioned above.

The fourth example comes, with permission, from Kellie Gutman of Boston, whose version says to me that this is what translated poetry is all about: it’s true to the original GSH while reflecting the spirit and essence of a prayer that still speaks to the emotions of the listener, regardless of age.

God who treasures children all,
keep me safe for I am small.
When I walk the world a stranger,
God keeps me away from danger.
Joy may come and joy may go;
Loving God, joys He’ll bestow.

“Joy” seems to be very appropriate here as it’s associated with Christian belief (think C.S. Lewis) and it also makes it possible for the meter to be 100% identical to the original. The poetry of “walking the world a stranger” is as close as I can imagine to “vart jag mig i världen vänder.” God keeping me “away from danger,” also manages to keep the original meaning without repeating “joy” although “God” may be just as well substituted with “His hand.” The last line brilliantly picks up on the double meaning of “den Gud älskar.”

When our esteemed editor, Gunnar Damström, wrote in the Summer 2007 that GSH may be an example of Swedish Finn tradition and culture worth maintaining I didn’t know that I was going to pick up on this indirect clarion call. The road from my own childhood recitations of GSH in Finland to teaching it to my own children in the U.S., to praying it with my dying Jewish-American fiancé, to still finding personal comfort in it has been long and winding. May the submission of the four versions above further enhance our common customs and bind us closer together as a people who no longer necessarily are conversant in the old language.

Note: The translations of Mr. Hofstadter and Ms. Gutman may not be used in violation of federal copyright laws without attributing authorship.

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