Hmong Hymnal (Cov Ntseeg Yexus Phau Nkauj)
A few months ago, I ordered and received a hymnal and a New Testament in the Hmoob Dawb language from the Hmong Baptist National Association. I was very excited to receive the hymnal in particular, as I had never seen anything like it in the Hmong language. The hymns were mostly translated from English and keep their own familiar tunes. I was glad to see that the hymns which were picked were mostly the old, traditional hymns. Three translators/writers are mentioned as responsible for the content of all the hymns. It seems amazing that three people could translate the 352 hymns in the book; nevertheless, I quickly noticed that the translations were often very loose.
For example, "He Lives," the hymn by Alfred Ackley which is so often sung in worship to remind us of the resurrection of Christ, begins its first verse: "I serve a risen Savior,/He's in the world today." The second verse begins: "In all the world around me/I see his loving care". The third verse begins: "Rejoice, rejoice, O Christian, lift up your voice and sing". In the Hmong hymnal, however, all three verses start with the same words: "Vajtswv tsa Yexus sawv los. Nimno nws rov muajsia." Later on in the refrain, the English says: "He lives, salvation to impart!" The translation says: "Nws nyob. Nws sawv hauv qhov tuag los." The intended meaning seems quite obviously to be lost. Instead of, "He lives to secure salvation for His people," we now have, "He lives. He rose from the grave."
In the very next hymn, again, all the verses start with the same line: "Yexus sawv hauv qhov tuag rov los." The hymn from which this is translated is "Christ the Lord is Risen today," which has different words of praise to God at the beginning of each verse. This is not uncommon throughout the hymnal.
Although my use of the Hmong language is far from fluent, I have not yet been able to pick out one hymn that strongly reflects the language of the original English hymn, except, perhaps, for some of the children's songs. In fact, some of the songs for children seem so much more carefully translated that they almost seem richer in meaning than the regular hymns.
Of course, there are different translation philosophies, and this could possibly account for the loose translations. While some translators are strict on conveying each word from one language to another, others think that they can make the meaning clearer by using paraphrases or even the so-called "thought-for-thought" translations. These ideas are certainly understandable, especially if there is a cultural difference to overcome. Something that seems powerful in the cultural context surrounding one language may seem almost meaningless in another cultural context.... So, the temptation comes to rewrite the original to make sense in the new cultural context. The great problem is that it is almost impossible to do so without altering the author's meaning or attitude toward his subject. Any of the subtler meanings or finer ideas are also almost always lost. I don't know if the translators involved in the hymnal committee were of this translation philosophy, but I do wonder if that might be the case.
All things considered, I am very glad to have my Hmong hymnal and I acknowledge the achievement of those who translated all these hymns into Hmong. Still, I hope that one day someone will come along and give us some richer translations of some of these wonderful hymns into the Hmong language.