On adapting and translating chant


The choir of the parish I serve has been singing the proper Introits of the Mass for just over a year now and is adding the Communion chants this time round. We sing in English and initially used the adaptations by Bruce Ford and, where there are gaps in his work, those by G.H. Palmer. The need to transcribe the latter into ‘modern chant notation’ (stemless round noteheads on a five-line staff with a G-clef) for the choir’s use invited a few attempts to update the language of the translation or to update the musical setting in light of newer readings of the sources, particularly those put forth by the Internationalen Gesellschaft für Studien des Gregorianischen Chorals (AISCGre).

Further exploration of the chant (and I am only at the very beginning of this endeavor) – closer looks at the texts, contexts, and the problems of translation, and increasing familiarity with the music – has now prompted me to approach the question of English adaptation from a different angle, and the choir’s readiness to move to a ‘compromise notation’ (nearly the full modern repertory of Solesmes-type notation, but on a five-line staff with a G-clef; see below) provides the opportunity to put some evolving thoughts into practice.

Previous adapters – at least the knowledgeable ones such as Ford and Palmer, along with Winfred Douglas, who worked mainly with the Ordinaries of the Mass and the chants of the Office – have quite reasonably taken standard translations (King James or Revised Standard Version, with the Coverdale or bcp1979 Psalter) as the basis of their texts and, since chant is meant to be a vehicle for the text, have adapted the music accordingly, and expertly. The aforementioned adapters have also certainly recognized the occasional need to abandon the standard English Protestant translations when the Latin of the chant is significantly different and there is a significant liturgical reason to follow it.

Nevertheless this approach still often results in texts that are often slightly different in meaning from the Latin, and requires often quite substantial changes to the music: the cutting-out of entire phrases, the setting of a number of neumes to one syllable, and so forth. While the simple antiphons of the Office, which are so largely formulaic, may not be significantly harmed by this kind of work, the Mass Propers are more substantial musical compositions, and I think there is much to be said for keeping them intact as much as possible.

If the music is to be altered less, then the translation must be made to fit, which usually means that it must be expanded in some ways, since English will almost always have notably fewer syllables than the Latin prose found in the Propers. The freedom to deviate from standard English translations can be justified, i think, not only by the desire to keep the melodies intact, but also by analogy from the fact that the Latin of the Propers is not itself taken from the standard Vulgate translation (the psalm selections in the Propers come more or less from St Jerome’s first attempt at translating the Psalms, the ‘Roman’ Psalter, which was superseded by his second, the ‘Gallican’, in the Vulgate and eventually the Office. His third, translated from the Hebrew, never achieved liturgical use.)

Ideally such expanded translation will not be unnecessarily verbose, the result of a need simply to make syllables, but may proceed along one or more of the following lines:


¶  Because the Latin of the Propers is often not a terribly good translation of the original Greek or, especially, Hebrew, there may at times be scope for splitting the difference between the Latin and the original, or for including both readings:

in. Jubilate Deo [Ps 66]

psalmum dicite nomini eius
sing the glory of his Name [bcp1979]
sing a psalm to the honor of his name [my version]

(for a more extended example of this issue, see this post.)


¶  At times a Latin (or Greek or Hebrew) word will invite translation by more than one English word in order to convey the full, or a fuller, range of its meaning.

Sometimes this will be a matter of semantics –

co. Psallite Domino [Ps 68]

...qui ascendit super caelos caelorum ad Orientem
...who ascends above the heavens of heavens, to the sunrise in the east...

(‘Oriens’ means ‘[sun]rising’ but is also the word for ‘East’; in v.4 I similarly translated ‘ascends above the sunset in the west’)

– and sometimes of grammar –

co. Gustate [Ps 34]

Gustate et videte
O taste and see, all of you

(The Latin imperatives are in the plural, but since contemporary English has no separate plural imperative form or second-person plural pronoun, some other device must be adopted; this tag ‘all of you’ is how the Eucharistic Prayers in bcp1979 deal with the plural imperatives in the Verba)


¶  At times the original Greek (not often) or Hebrew (not infrequently) is not entirely clear, or an image can bear unpacking or expansion in English translation.

co. Psallite Domino [Ps 68]

v. In ecclesiis benedicite Deo,
Domino, de fontibus Israel.
[v.26]
Bless God in the congregation;
the Lord, you who spring from the fountains of Israel [my version]

(a survey of translations and commentaries suggests that the meaning of the Hebrew, of which the Vulgate supplied here is in this case an exact translation, is not entirely clear)


¶  Finally, the inclusion of more of the passage of scripture from which the chant text is taken, perhaps especially when it is simply narrative in nature, would seem no great violation of the spirit of the chant.

co. Simon Ioannis [Jn 21]

Simon Ioannis, diligis me plus his?
Domine, tu omnia nosti:
tu scis, Domine, quia amo te.

Jesus said, Simon, do you love me more than these?
Grieved at this, Peter said to Jesus: [this line not in the Latin]
You know all things, Lord; you know I love you.

An extended example, perhaps (besides Quasi modo) the most extensive intervention I have made to date, encompassing several of the issues just raised:

Laetare Ierusalem:
et conventum facite
omnes qui diligitis eam:
gaudete cum laetitia,
qui in tristitia fuistis:
ut exsultetis,
et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae.

literally (all verbs except the first imperative are plural):

Rejoice, Jerusalem:
and convene / make a gathering,
all you who love her;
rejoice with joy,
you who were in sadness,
that you may rejoice,
and be satisfied from the breasts of your consolation.

my rendering, again examining several other translations:

Rejoice, O Jerusalem,
and assemble, everyone,
all who have regard for and love her.
Exult with great rejoicing,
you who had languished long in sadness:
that you may revel, nurse, and be satisfied
by her breast that brings consolation to your spirit.

·  ‘everyone’ indicates that the verbs are plural
·  ‘have regard for’ covers another part of the sense of diligo: ‘to have esteem, regard, or care’
·  ‘had languished long in sadness’ expands ‘were in sadness’ (Heb: ‘mourn’);
·  ‘languished’ is set to the same drawn-out neumes as the two middle syllables of tristitia and thus maintains what is perhaps a tiny bit of word-painting
·  ‘revel’ comes very close to the meaning of exsulto, which is literally ‘to leap repeatedly; to buck or bound; to jump [for joy]’
·  ‘nurse and be satisfied’ covers the meanings of both the Hebrew and the Latin
·  ‘that brings consolation’ tries to clarify ‘of your consolation’ [Lat] / ‘of her consolations’ [Heb]
·  ‘to your spirit’ further expands this, ‘spirit’ meant more in the sense of ‘you’ as in ‘and with your spirit’ than in the sense of ‘your spirit as opposed to your flesh’ (though one perhaps also wishes to soften any possible overtone occasioned by the sexualization of the female breast in our society). The nrsv, for example, renders this neatly as ‘from her consoling breast’, but that would be far too few syllables for present purposes.

All of this is a work in progress as I very slowly learn more about the chant and the ways in which certain gestures might be adapted. Nor do I doubt that more careful attention to English prosody and phonology (stress-timing, strong stress accent and concomitant vowel reduction, and, in American English, a lack, normally, of truly long vowels) is also wanted.


I should say a word here about the selection and translation of the verses used with the Entrance and Communion antiphons. I ordinarily take the texts from the bcp1979 Psalter or the common strain of modern English New Testament translations unless this is also obscure or misses something liturgically or symbolically significant in the Latin. In pursuit of that significance, I often select not just the first verse nor necessarily those verses suggested in the 1974 Graduale Romanum, but verses that relate to the occasion and/or more directly to the antiphon, and which I suspect were the reason for the selection of a particular psalm for a particular Mass. With regard to versus ad repetendum, English cannot always accommodate the rather clever piecing-together found in the Latin (for example, since Latin often does without subject pronouns, a verb can often function as the predicate of two different subjects in the antiphon and in the verse), and this feature must sometimes be abandoned.


Finally, I mentioned above the use of a ‘compromise notation’. Until recently I had thought it was beyond the bounds of available time and perhaps patience, if not in the case of this particular choir of ability, to introduce square-note neumes. I relied instead on a font of stemless round noteheads (solid, void, and breve), quilisma, horizontal lines (for episemata), and vertical lines (for ‘ictus’ marks), on a five-line staff with a G-clef, adding various kinds of slurs and arrows by hand to try to show neumatic groupings and other information. But, frustrated by this, I began to realize that the only real barriers, for experienced musicians, to reading square-note neumes are the moveable clefs (and perhaps the four- rather than five-line staff), neither of which is fundamental to the music or its notation, and the two main neumes (podatus and porrectus) that do not at first glance look like discrete notes to be read from left to right (leaving aside the question of whether chant is particularly concerned with discrete notes), both of which can, partly following later practices, be renotated without significant loss of information or connotation.

So I have begun to notate chant (using the Caeciliae font) on a five-line staff, always with a G-clef (which, in order to stay on the staff, does sometimes require transposition of the chant). No notes are stacked; podati are written as tractulus–virga, with a ligature line if the interval requires, and porrecti as clivis–virga, with ligature lines where needed. All episemata are transcribed with horizontal overlines, which are also (for now, leaving aside the question of proportional rhythm) used to transcribe the littera t, c being the only littera in use. All original virgae are represented by virgae, all tractuli by the square punctum, and all puncta by the punctum inclinatum. In the interest of approachability, (the few) liquescents which I am transcribing for use with English get the same large downward-sloping notehead (along the lines of one form of plica), with a downward-pointing right-hand stem if the note in question would otherwise be written as a virga. Though orisci, quilismata, and strophici are included and our interpretation of them is evolving, the unlikelihood that this choir, in liturgical use, will explore the slides and graces likely to have been used historically but foreign to our ears, has led me to omit initiones debiles. I should also note that text and music are set flush left rather than artificially justified, with line breaks made according to sense; each chant with its verses is set on its own page.

The result is a notation that is fluid, with shapes and syllabification easily grasped by the eye and text that can be set with nearly normal word-spacing, and richly differentiated, even if the interpretations of the different marks are uncertain. No editorial markup (including copying the St Gall neumes into my own parts) is needed. The choir has responded enthusiastically, with the practically universal reaction that it is very much easier to read than the former notation, and their performance has demonstrated that this is so.