Translating Christmas Carols

As part of my personal effort to get into the holiday spirit (see my Are You a Christmas Person? quiz), I thought I’d take a couple of classic Christmas carols and translate them for Amaze-ing Words Wednesday. After all, when’s the last time “Ron yon virgin, mother and child” slipped out as a part of regular speech? And yet, there it is, in the classic Silent Night lyrics.

Plenty of our holiday songs came from many years ago when language was more stilted or included words we no longer use in the same way (“Don we now our gay apparel”? – Deck the Halls)

So, without further ado, here is my first choice of a classic carol that could use a newly worded version:

Angels We Have Heard on High

Original Lyrics

My 2011 Translation

Angels we have heard on high We hear angels in the sky
Sweetly singing o’er the plain They sound good up there over the field
And the mountains in reply It sounds like someone’s answering in the mountains
Echoing their glorious strain It’s an echo of the song they’re singing
Gloria, in excelsis deo Glory be! Highest glory to God
Gloria, in excelsis deo Glory be! Highest glory to God

For my second choice, let’s take a look at God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (a song I never understood as a child):

Original Lyrics

My 2011 Translation

God rest ye merry, gentlemen May God keep you happy, guys
Let nothing you dismay Don’t let anything get you down
Remember Christ our Savior Remember that Christ who saves us
Was born on Christmas day Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power He came to save us from the devil and his power
When we were gone astray When we were really far from God
Oh tidings of comfort and joy It’s news to comfort you and make you joyful
Comfort and joy Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy Yep, news to comfort you and make you joyful

What other Christmas carols or holiday songs do we sing during this season with antiquated language? What specific lyrics come to mind that don’t make much sense with the English we speak today? How would you translate an old carol?

And to end this post about Christmas carols with a little treat, here’s a fun song a terrific friend shared with me – Straight No Chaser’s Christmas Can-Can:

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17 thoughts on “Translating Christmas Carols

  1. Awesome, Julie. I giggled at “May God keep you happy, guys.” Somehow the “guys” makes that line funny :).

    How about “Here we come a-wassailing.” Wassailing? Luckily there’s the version that uses caroling to explain the old tradition to us. 🙂

    1. Here we come a-wassailing is a weird one. My kids would have no idea what that is. I like me a good cup of holiday wassail, by the way. Maybe that would get me in the Christmas spirit! Thanks, Erin.

  2. I loved this post. The Christmas Can-Can was perfect–mostly shopping, shopping shopping. LOL

    Most of those lyrics make no sense. I’m trying to think of one that always puzzles me and am coming up with only one song: Do You Hear What I Hear. The only reason I’m thinking of that, though, is my daddy–the king of sophomoric humor–used to say Do You Hear What I Hear was about someone with loud gas.

    1. Your father’s version of Do You Hear What I Hear is better than the one I knew in high school. The hormonally-charged teens boys would sing to each other, “Do you see what I see?” and then point out girls showing a little too much with their clothing choices. Lovely use of a Christmas carol, don’t you think? 😉 Thanks, Catie!

  3. Really enjoyed this post! SOme of the Christmas songs are beautiful but outdated, and your translations were great:)

    LMAO at Catie and Do You Hear What I Hear. Sounds like something my husband would enjoy.

  4. Now I’m really feeling the holiday spirit!

    I also checked your ROW 80 post, and I’d say congrats are in order. It’s hard to feel the same accomplishment when you’re editing, isn’t it? I seem to have been editing “forever.”

    At least you have some other WIPs you’re working on, which is good. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  5. How about Deck the Halls? I spent a great deal of time explaining this one to my 4 year old- Mommy, what does decking halls mean? What are boughs of holly? Who is Don? What is gay apparel?

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