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A Tale of Two Melodies – When Hymns Are to Be Sung in Cantonese Part III of V

A Tale of Two Melodies – When Hymns Are to Be Sung in Cantonese

(Part III of V: The Myths)




The Myths

As we have discussed in the previous two blogs, our brothers and sisters may be puzzled by the phenomenon of hymns with non-matching tones between lyrics and music. Re-translation efforts for these hymns have been hindered by some myths that should be challenged; I will ponder and reflect on the related issues below.


Myth #1

The hymns passed to us are “holy.” If we re-translate those hymns, the holiness of the hymns will be vastly diminished.

In times past, different editors of hymnals may have edited or revised the same hymn text in different ways. Therefore, we do not have to regard any version of a hymn text “holy.” If we make any person or thing holy, we can easily fall into the trap of idolatry in its broadest sense. For many years, the Chinese Union Version of the Bible was the only version available to us. When a new translation launched, some brothers and sisters resisted the change. Since then, more and more translations have been published, with different considerations made in each version. We are grateful for the complementary contribution of these various versions and how they bless us with a richer understanding of the Word of God. In the same way, I am sure that newly translated lyrics faithful to the original text can bring forth similar blessings to believers.


Myth #2

It is normal for the hymns not to match the tones.

Some people get so accustomed to what they have originally learned and resist any changes. They may even regard Christian songs with the same tone-matching quality as pop songs as worldly, profane, and unspiritual. The problem with this point of view is that for those who speak a non-tonal language (e.g. native English speakers), whenever they sing a pop song or a Christian song, it will be all the same. Therefore, whether it is spiritual or earthly, a song should not be judged by whether it tone-matching or not. Rather, we urgently need to identify what values are only formed by our habits, and what are critical issues for us.

On the contrary, some people think that the non-tone-matching songs have unintentionally blasphemed the great name of God. Since the tonal nature of the lyrics has not been properly considered in translation, there will be times when we have sung unintended meanings, including foul language at times. Classic examples include Jesus is “Lord” (sounds like “pig”), God is “love” (sounds like “having dementia”), the Lord is “able” (sounds like some foul language), “Holy” Spirit (sounds like “star”), etc. Sometimes, a salesperson on the phone will call me “Mr. Lau Ying Wai” (劉英偉lau4 jing1 wai5), because when they see my English name (Lau Ying Wai) on the call list and try to speak my Chinese name (劉凝慧lau4 jing4 wai6), they do not know the actual tones, so it will sound like a man’s name. When this happens, I usually feel offended and disrespected because they have just wrongly pronounced my name. Considering this, should we not correctly sing out the great name of our God? Regarding the foul language, some people may think we will be fine if we just subjectively make sure that we are not singing the foul language in our hearts; however, the objective fact is that we have sung out the foul language! If singing Christian songs is regarded as a way to be a witness for God to unbelievers, we should re-think what impact this fact will have on singers and listeners.


Myth #3

The characteristic of the rising tone in Cantonese does not favor the requirements of singing techniques, and may even damage the vocal aesthetics.

Some people who embrace this thought will deliberately not pronounce the word with the required rising tones. Sometimes one cannot pronounce the rising tone of the word properly because the tone of the musical note does not match the tone of the lyrics. Therefore, at a certain level of tones, the word “Lord” (zyu2) becomes “zyu1” (one of the possible words of this tone is “pig”) or “zyu3,” etc. I believe that what we have embraced until this day is the standard of the Western aesthetic of music, and is the standard for singing in foreign languages. So, is it our natural inclination to sing to God with songs using twisted tones to express our praise, or to feel annoyed when singing lyrics with rising tones?


Myth #4

In the past, most of the hymns have been with lyrics presented in non-matching tones. Is it that we have been all wrong?

Some people resist newly translated hymns and think that this insults their beloved hymns because it seems to say that the older versions have been wrong. However, this is not true; consider moon-cake packaging as an analogy. We all love to eat moon-cakes during the mid-autumn festival. In the past, all moon-cakes were packaged in the same way: in a square box made with iron with four standard sized moon-cakes. This is well-known. However, in recent decades, we can find various types of moon-cakes with different appearances, and this does not mean that the original moon-cake is wrong in any sense. Besides, the traditional moon-cake still has many fans today! Therefore, the launch of a newly translated version does not mean we have been wrong with the older version, only that we are now offered another option fueled and developed by the consideration of the contextualization of our faith.


Myth #5

I know the songs with twisted tones may not be ideal; why don’t we just sing more Mandarin hymns and songs to replace them?

One can sing in a non-mother-tongue language, but that does not mean the singing will be without barriers. For many years, I have been working as an interpreter for the applied music exams organized by an overseas institution. Some candidates have thought that they would get higher scores by orally answering the questions in English; however, quite often, it was very exhausting for them to answer. Sometimes, upon seeing their distressed faces, the examiners would ask them to answer in Cantonese with me translating their answers, and they could then answer the questions without any delay. Articulating a non-mother-tongue language can rarely be barrier-free and singing in a non-mother-tongue language is similar. Even though on the technical level one may be able to manage singing in the non-mother-tongue language, one’s heart may not be able to resonate with the meaning as much as is expected.


Myth #6

Translating hymns with matching tones will encounter various difficulties. It can be a strenuous and unrewarding task, so should we stop this work?

This is a difficult, strenuous and unrewarding task, for sure. However, exploration and trials on the road to the contextualization of faith in one’s own context is a naturally progressive move that promises profound values and impacts. It is something we must do. Therefore, even though it is difficult, challenging, and slow, the labor is worth the while. It is all for the glory of God.


(In case you have missed Parts I & II, you can find them here: Click for Part I and Click for Part II


Blogger Yvette Lau has bachelor degrees in Chinese Translation and Music, a Masters in Worship, and is now pursuing a Doctor of Pastoral Music. She has served as one of the executive committee members of the Hong Kong Hymn Society from 2011-2017. Her passion lies in choral conducting, song writing, hymn translation from English to Cantonese (main translator for New Youth Hymns), event organization, translation of books on worship including The Art of Worship, Beyond the Worship Wars, The Worship Architect, and Glory to God, and training and teaching on worship.