On translating the Te Deum

Following upon an earlier article examining the icet/ellc’s version of Gloria in excelsis, I would like to examine the same body’s versions of the other major Psalmus idioticus, the Te Deum laudamus. To be sure, the committees translating this forceful Latin text faced a difficult task, which I will explore below before looking at the icet version and its ellc replacement.

Though the earliest manuscript containing the Te Deum, the Bangor Antiphoner, dates to the seventh century, the text is at least as old as the fourth century, given that the Rule of Benedict and other early ordines refer to it already as the canticle at Matins. It is generally believed to have been composed in Latin, thought its authorship remainds a matter of conjecture.

The text is in two parts, addressing the Father and the Son respectively; it is reminiscent of both the Apostles’ Creed (another Latin text) and, more importantly, certain non-Roman Eucharistic prayers, though it also quotes Scripture other than that referred to in those texts. It is remarkable, among other things, for its constant fronting of the second-person singular pronoun in its various case forms (possible because of Latin’s flexible word-order): Te, Tibi, Tu; in this incantatory piling-up of addresses and ascriptions it is reminiscent of Greek texts such as the Gloria in excelsis and the Nicene Creed. This, perhaps more than anything else, makes it difficult to translate satisfactorily into modern English.

This was not such a problem in earlier stages of our language. The Te Deum, like other common liturgical texts, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Heptateuch, was translated into Old English:

þe god weheriað
þe drihten we andettað
þe ecne fæder eal eorðe wurðað
þe ealle englas
þe heofenas & ealle anwealdu
þe [cherubin & seraphin] unablinnendlicre stefne clypað
halig halig halig drihten god wereda
fulle synt heofenas & eorþe mægenþrymmes wuldres þines ·
þe wuldorfull ærndracena wered
þe witegena hergendlic getel
þe cyþra scyned herað here
þe embhwyrft eorðena halig andet gesomnung
fæder ormætes mægenþrymmes
arwurþne þinne soðne & anlicne sunu
haligne witodlice frefrigendne gast
þu cyng wuldres cyninges
þu fæderes ece þu eart sunu
þu toalysenne þu anfenge mann
þune ascunodest fæmnan innað
þu oferswiþedum deaþes angan
þu antyndest gelyfedum ricu heofena
þu onþaswiðran healfe godes sitst on wuldre fæderes
dema þueart gelyfed wesan toweard
þe eornostlice wehalsiað þinum þeowum gehelp
þa ofdeorwyrþum blode þualysdest
ece do mid halgum þinum wuldor beon forgyfen

     MS Cotton Vespasian A. i. [the Vespasian Psalter]
     (line divisions here represent the midpoint divisions in the Latin)

These versions, being glosses, hew quite closely to the Latin, a tactic possible because English still retained a relatively robust inflectional system. A version from a Prymer of the early fifteenth century largely maintains the pronoun-fronting, but the loss of case-endings requires the preposition ‘to’ for the dative function:

Thee god we preyse ; the lord we knowleche [.?]
Thee endeles fader ; eueri erthe worschepith .
To thee alle angles ; to the heuenes and alle manere powere .
To thee cherubyn and seraphyn ; cryeth with uoys with owten ceessynge.
Holy. Holy. Holy Lord god sabaoth .
Heuenes and erthe been ful of majeste of thy glorie .
Thee ; the glorious companye of apostles
Thee ; the preysable nowmbre of prophetis .
Thee; prysith the white oost of martires .
Thee ; holi-cherch knowlechith thoru3 al the world
Pader of ri3t gret mageste .
And thi sothfast worschipful onely sone .
And the holigoost oure comfortour .
Thow kyng of glorie crist .
Thow art the endeles sone of the fader .
Thou were nou3t skoymus to take the maydenes womb ;
 for to deliuere mankende .
Whanne thou haddest ouercome the scharpnesse of deeth ;
 thou openedist the kyngdomes of heuenes to hem that byleueden in the .
Thou sittest on godis ri3t syde in the ioye of the fader .
We byleuen þt thou schalt come to be our iuge .
Therefore we biseche the ;
 help thi seruauntis that thou hast bou3t with thi precious blood .
Make hem to be rewarded with thi seyntes in endeles blisse .

(‘Thou were nou3t skoymous’ – squeamish – is a rather wonderful translation of the Latin ‘non horruisti’!)

This is not only completely intelligible to the modern reader but also in places almost identical to the traditional Prayer Book text. A hundred years later we have almost arrived at that Prayer Book text. This translation has now moved to what we would consider a more natural English word order, at the expense of the pronoun-fronting:

We praise thee, O God, we knowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth might worship thee, which art the Father everlasting.
To thee cry forth all angels: the heavens, and all the powers therein.
To thee thus crieth cherubin and seraphin continually.
Holy art thou.     Holy art thou.     Holy art thou.
Thou art the Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are fulfilled with the glory of thy majesty.
The glorious company of the apostles praise thee.
The goodly fellowship of the prophets worship thee.
The fair fellowship of martys praise thee.
The holy congregation of faithful throughout all the world magnify thee.
They knowledge thee to be the Father of an infinite majesty.
They knowledge thy honourable and very only Son.
They knowledge the Holy Ghost to be a comforter.
Thou art the King of glory, O Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
(when thou shouldest take upon thee our nature to deliver man)
     didst not abhor the virgin’s womb.
Thou hast opened the kingdom of heaven to the believers,
     death’s dart overcome.
Thou sittest on the right hand of God in the glory of the Father.
Thou art believed to come our judge.
Wherefore we pray thee help thy servants,
     whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy saints in joy everlasting.

     A goodly Primer in English, 1535

(‘fair fellowship’, if not entirely literal, is an attractive translation of ‘candidatus exercitus’; ‘death’s dart’ is a rather nice way of rendering ‘mortis aculeo’ which ‘sharpness of death’ can hardly touch).

The Prayer Book text has actually undergone some change as well. In some of the earliest printings of the first Prayer Book (1549) we have

We praise the, O God, we knowlage thee to be the Lorde.
All the earth doeth wurship thee, the father everlastyng.
To thee al Angels cry aloud, the heavens and all the powers therin.
To thee Cherubin, and Seraphin continually doe crye.
Holy, holy, holy, Lorde God of Sabaoth.
Heaven and earth are replenyshed with the majestie of thy glory,
The gloryous company of the Apostles, praise thee.
The goodly felowshyp of the Prophetes, praise thee.
The noble armie of Martyrs, praise thee.
The holy churche throughout all the worlde doeth knowlage thee.
The father of an infinite majestie.
Thy honourable, true, and onely sonne.
The holy gost also beeying the coumforter.
Thou art the kyng of glory, O Christe.
Thou art the everlastyng sonne of the father.
Whan thou tookest upon thee to delyver manne,
thou dyddest not abhorre the virgins wombe.
Whan thou haddest overcomed the sharpenesse of death,
thou diddest open the kyngdome of heaven to all belevers.
Thou sittest on the ryght hande of God, in the glory of the father.
We beleve that thou shalt come to be our judge.
We therfore praye thee, helpe thy servauntes,
whom thou haste redemed with thy precious bloud.
Make them to be noumbred with thy sainctes, in glory everlastyng.

But ‘replenyshed with’ was soon changed to ‘full of ’, and ‘The holy gost also beeying the coumforter’ to ‘Also the holy ghost the comforter’. And the first American Prayer Book (1789) changed ‘Thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb’ to ‘Thou didst humble thyself to be born of a Virgin’, a change which has remained and which may have influenced the icet/ellc version (see below).

Another difficulty begins to appear more clearly in the foregoing versions: the appositives in the first three lines or phrases as well as in te... patrem... filium... spiritum. Apposition is quite common in Latin, which makes much less use of the copula than Modern English, and which has no definite article; it often requires filling out in English, whether through the addition of ‘the’, or by means of a situational-temporal (‘__ being __’ or ‘when __ [copula] __’), respective (‘__ as __’), or even causal (‘because __ [copula] __’ or ‘since __ [copula] __’ construct.

Actually it is easy to render the third phrase in Modern English with the addition of the definite article –

The whole earth worships you, the father everlasting
Thee, the father everlasting, all the earth doth worship.

– and possible to render the second in the same way, or with ‘to be’ or ‘as’, especially since ‘acknowledge’ in this sense requires two objects –

We acknowledge you[,] the Lord
We acknowledge you to be the Lord
We acknowledge you as Lord
Thee the Lord we acknowledge.

But the first line resists such a rendering. ‘As’ does not sit so well with ‘praise’ as with ‘acknowledge’, though more than one translator has used it here:

Thee as God we praise
We praise you as God.

Furthermore, the definite article is impossible with the word ‘God’, which functions as a proper noun. And without some interpolated word or phrase, the English, in this second person, sounds like a vocative, which Deum clearly is not.

Thus we are thrown back to a construct such as

Thee, being God, we praise
or perhaps
Thee we praise in that thou art God
Thee we praise for that thou art God

This last rendering brings us close to the now deprecated icet version, which implies such a causal link in each of these lines:

You are God: we praise you.
You are the Lord: we acclaim you;
You are the eternal Father: all creation worships you.

This is an interesting solution, at least on paper, where the colons connect as well as separate. It is essentially the same strategy employed in the 1979 Prayer Book rendering of those collects traditionally constructed with a relative with the second-person pronoun and a verb in the present tense. ‘You are’ (though I doubt the committee members had this in mind) could also perhaps be understood as a version of, or reference to, the Divine Name, in which case ‘You are’ and ‘God’ would stand in apposition.

Whether any of this can be conveyed orally is debatable: much depends upon delivery. Delivery of the first line in particular will also make the difference between a flat, abrupt statement and a line with some rhetorical force. These lines (as any other) are best rendered by singing them to the traditional chant (as adapted by Bruce Ford for the Hymnal 1982).

Adapting it to the ‘traditional’ idiom would also render this solution (and indeed the entire text) less quotidian to the modern ear:

Thou art God: we praise thee.
Thou art the Lord: we acclaim thee;
Thou art the eternal Father: all creation doth worship thee.

and another strategy might be to add a word such as ‘thus’ (which conveys manner, extent, and result):

You are God: thus we praise you...

But this is getting farther and farther from the original, and I would argue that the vocative remains the most idiomatic and unproblematic way to render the first line. The ellc revision has indeed reverted to this construction:

We praise you, O God;
we acclaim you as Lord;
all creation worships you, the Father everlasting.

As far as the rest of the icet/ellc version, I suggest that it has strayed further than necessary from the meaning of the Latin, right from the end of the foregoing section:

¶  omnis terra

‘All creation’, though a fine sentiment, is perhaps a more expansive than necessary rendering of omnis terra, which means ‘all the earth’, with the connotation – given what comes next – of that which is not heaven.

¶  Tibi omnes angeli
     tibi coeli et universae potestates
     tibi cherubim et seraphim incessabili uoce proclamant
     . . . . . .
     Tu rex gloriae christe
     Tu patris sempiternus es filius

The omission of two ‘to you’s – before ‘all the powers’ and ‘cherubim and seraphim’ – robs the text of a source of considerable rhetorical force. A third second-person pronoun is missing from the second line of the second half.

¶  Sanctus sanctus sanctus dominus deus sabaoth
     Pleni sunt caeli et terra maiestatis gloriae tuae

To conform to the anaphoral form of the Sanctus by omitting ‘the majesty of...’ seems unnecessary, implying perhaps that worshippers are not capable of keeping the two distinct.

¶  Te per orbem terrarum sancta confitetur ecclesia
     Patrem immensae maiestatis
     Venerandum tuum uerum et unicum filium
     Sanctum quoque paraclitum spiritum

Given the committee’s aversion to the vocative in the first line of the text, it seems odd, given that it is unnecessary here, to render te... patrem... confitetur with what amounts to a direct address –

... the holy Church acclaims you:

rather than

... the holy Church acclaims you
     the Father...

‘Worthy of all worship’ is a slightly overreaching interpretation of the gerundive venerandum, but on the other hand it was one of the more euphonic phrases in the icet version; the ellc revision replaced ‘worship’ with ‘praise’, complaining that the alliteration – one of the most important tools in English – was too difficult to pronounce (Enriching Our Worship retained ‘worship’).

‘Paraclete’ (literally ‘called to one’s side’; helper, advocate, intercessor, comforter, refresher...) is notoriously impossible to translate with a single word, but even so, ‘guide’ seems a stretch.

¶  Tu ad liberandum suscepturus hominem

The next phrase is admittedly difficult to construe. Here we have two Latin forms in a row that do not exist as such in English – the future passive participle (gerundive) and the future active participle – and a phrase that is elliptical at best. The line has been understood and construed in essentially three ways:

· the accusative ‘hominem’ is the object of both participles:

     Thou, being about to take up/adopt manhood/mankind to deliver mankind...

· the whole gerundive phrase is the object of the future active participle

     Thou, being about to undertake to deliver man...

· the phrase has been garbled and ought to be corrected, as it has been in some MSS, to something like

     Tu ad liberandum mundum suscepisti hominem.
     Thou didst adopt mankind/manhood to deliver the world.

Even if the exact sense is confused, the meaning is clear. The icet text had

When you became man to set us free;

this has been emended by the ellc to read

When you took our flesh to set us free.

‘Took our flesh’, if not a literal translation, is a felicitous way to describe the incarnation, and the alliteration on f is welcome, but in either case the committee has chosen ‘us’ to avoid saying ‘man’, which always begs the question of who ‘we’ are: humanity as a whole? the Church? a particular gathering of the faithful? people like us? And such a construction also misses the neatness of a line like

mankind to deliver, manhood didst put on.
     [Hymn 179, Ellerton’s translation of ‘Salve festa dies’
     (the original reads Ut hominem eriperes es quoque factus homo;
      Ellerton’s line is closer to the Te Deum than to Fortunatus)

¶  non horruisti uirginis uterum

icet had rendered this quite closely as

You did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.

bcp1979 replaced ‘spurn’ with ‘shun’.

ellc was not content, however, to leave well enough alone, claiming that Modern English rhetoric was more comfortable with a positive statement than a negative one; the committee, perhaps following the form already established in the American Prayer Book, rendered the line thus:

You humbly chose the Virgin’s womb.

But this, however well it conveys Christ’s condescension, is more than a bit free as regards the Latin. To revert to the bcp1979 version here would be better.

¶  Tu ad dexteram dei sedes in gloria patris

icet/ellc omits ‘the Father’s’ without even a comment. Why?

¶  Iudex crederis esse uenturus


[as] judge you are believed to be going to come

As far back as the 1400 Prymer this has been rendered with a first-person plural pronoun and verb (and possessive adjective), and perhaps it would have been in a freestanding Old English version as well. icet rendered this

We believe that you will come, and be our judge.

bcp1979 wisely omitted the comma, but ellc even more wisely changed ‘and’ to ‘to’, which avoids the possible interpretation that the coming and the judging are separate, or separable:

We believe that you will come to be our judge.

¶  Te ergo quaesumus tuis famulis subueni quos pretioso sanguine redemisti

icet/ellc has for no apparent reason chosen to omit the phrase ‘we therefore beseech thee’ and added ‘Lord’. ‘Thy people’ is ultimately what tuis famulis intends, but famulis means ‘servants’, and this is a familiar enough word in Christian usage. ‘Bought with the price of your own blood’ conveys the extent of Christ’s sacrifice, but redemisti means ‘redeemed’, i.e. ‘bought back’, and pretioso, modifying sanguine, means ‘precious’, ‘dear’, ‘costly’. If the commitee felt that ‘precious’ had lost its force (although I would argue that the devotional connotation is not out of place here, even if the diminutive connotation is), ‘whom you redeemed [bought back, ransomed] with priceless blood’ might be a closer rendering.

¶  Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis gloria munerari

Finally we come to another slightly difficult line, though the question about its original form (above) seems to have been settled. Munerari (‘to be given a gift’) was at some point in the fifteenth century garbled to numerari (‘to be numbered’), which then required in to be inserted before gloria. This became fixed in print and underlay the traditional Prayer Book translation. The meanings are not vastly different, and icet/ellc decided to split the difference, which is fair enough, but once again ‘us’ has reared its head.

icet/ellc unsurprisingly did not attempt to front the second-person pronoun consistently, as the inverted word-order this would require would doubtless seem stilted to many, at least in the spoken (i.e., not sung) language that is sadly the main medium of liturgy in this place and time.

Nevertheless for purposes other than congregational recitation without note, attempts have been made not only in the eighth or fifteenth centuries, but also in the nineteenth and twentieth, to render the text this way.

Most literal of all, with supplied words set off:

Thee as God we praise:
thee the Lord we confess.
Thee the everlasting Father
all the earth worships.
To Thee all the angels,
to Thee the heavens and all the powers together,
To Thee cherubim and seraphim
with unceasing voice cry aloud:
Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts!
Full are the heavens and the earth
of the majesty of thy glory!
Thee glorious band of apostles –
Thee the praiseworthy company of prophets –
Thee the white-robed host of martyrs praises.
Thee, throughout the globe of earth,
the holy church confesses;
As the Father, of infinite majesty;
Thy adorable, true, and only Son;
The Comforter also, the holy Ghost.
Thou art the king of glory, Christ.
Thou art the eternal Son of the Father.
Thou, to deliver us, being about to take up manhood,
dreadedst not a virgin’s womb.
Thou, having vanquished the sting of death,
hast opened to believers the kingdoms of the heavens.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God
in the glory of the Father.
Thou art believed to be to come as a Judge.
Thee therefore we ask, help thy servants,
whom Thou hast redeemed with precious blood.
Make them, with thy saints,
to be gifted with everlasting glory.
     Ebenezer Thomson
     A Vindication of the Hymn Te Deum Laudamus, &c 1858

Less literal, and clearly relying on some Prayer Book phraseology (also set to a simple form of the traditional chant, though poorly enough not to merit reproduction here):

Thee, God, we praise:
Thee The Lord we confess.
Thee, Eternal Father:
all the Earth doth worship.
To Thee all Angels:
To Thee the Heavens and the universal Powers.
To Thee Cherubim and Seraphim:
with ceaseless voice do cry.
Holy, Holy, Holy:  Lord God of Sabaoth.
Full are the Heavens and the Earth:
of the Majesty: of thy Glory.
Thee the glorious Choir of the Apostles,
Thee the laudable company of Prophets,
Thee the Martyrs’ white-robed army doth praise.
Thee throughout the orb of the worlds:
The Holy Church doth confess;
The Father of infinite Majesty.
Thy venerable, true, and Only Son.
Also The Holy Ghost The Paraclete.
Thou art King of Glory: O Christ.
Thou of The Father art The Everlasting Son.
Thou when taking upon Thee to deliver man:
didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
Thou having overcome the sting of Death:
hast opened to believers The Kingdom of Heaven.
Thou at the right hand of God sittest:
in the Glory of The Father.
Our Judge we believe that Thou shalt come.
We therefore pray Thee, help thy servants:
whom with thy precious blood Thou hast redeemed.
Make them to be numbered with Thy Saints:
in glory everlasting.
     John David Chambers
     The Psalter, or seven ordinary hours of prayer, 1852

And in our own day, also set (rather more successfully) to a simple Te Deum tone, the exigencies of which may have influenced some wording:

Thee, O God, we praise.
Thee we confess to be the Lord.
Thee, the Father eternal,
all the earth doth worship.
To Thee all the Angels,
to Thee the heavens and all the Powers,
to Thee the Cherubim and Seraphim
cry aloud with voice unceasing:
Holy, Holy, Holy
is the Lord God of Sabaoth.
Heaven and earth are full
of the majesty of Thy glory.
Thee the glorious choir of Apostles,
Thee the throng of Prophets worthy of praise,
Thee the host of Martyrs in robes of white, praise.
Thee, throughout all the earth,
the Holy Church confesseth:
Father of boundless majesty;
Thy true and only Son, Who is to be worshipped;
also the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit.
Thou, O Christ, art the King of glory.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
Thou, taking it upon Thee to deliver man,
didst not abhor the womb of the Virgin.
Thou, having conquered the sting of death,
hast opened the kingdom of heaven to them that believe.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God
in the glory of the Father.
We believe that Thou shalt come to be our Judge.
We therefore beseech Thee: Help Thy servants,
whom Thou, by Thy precious blood, hast redeemed.
Make them to be numbered with Thy Saints
in glory everlasting.
     The Holy Psalter for Western Rite [Orthodox] Parishes, 2006