She Was Authoritative

Today the church remembers a translator of hymns (and, particularly, one of my favorite hymns), Catherine Winkworth, 19th Century poet and hymn writer.

Born in London in the 1820’s, Catherine would grow up with a deep appreciation for music. Her first work would be published when she was in her 30’s, a translation edition of German hymns, Lyra Germanica. It was immensely popular, churning out five editions in just a few years. She was seen as someone with the rare ability to keep the spirit of the German lyrical genius even when translated into English.

Her skill in translating German into English while retaining the essence, not just the literal word of the text, would lead her to become one of the premier translators of her time.

She was also a staunch advocate for women’s rights in the 19th Century, eventually becoming the secretary of the Clifton Association for Higher Education in Clifton, England, and a member of Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

Catherine and her sister, Susanna, were delegates to the German Conference of Women’s Work, presided over by Princess Anne.

At the age of 51 Catherine died suddenly of heart disease on July 1st, and a monument to her was erected in Bristol Cathedral.

It’s interesting to note, especially for those of us from Reformation backgrounds, that while men are known to be the “great translators” of ancient Greek and Latin hymns, the authoritative translators of post-Reformation German hymns were almost all women, including Catherine Winkworth.

My favorite hymn of her translation, and one we sang often around Thanksgiving here in the States, is ELW 839, “Now Thank We All Our God.” The second verse reads:

“Oh, may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
and keep us all in grace,
and guide us when perplexed
and free us from all harm
in this world and the next”

Winkworth is a reminder to me, and should be a reminder to the church, that when it comes to theology, to scripture, to “God-talk,” the literal will never do. We must capture the essence, lest we lose ourselves in the particulars. God is found between the words, between the notes, between the letters even…not in them.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

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