In Another Tongue

In our denomination’s hymnal, The New Century Hymnal, the classic Sunday School favorite “Jesus Loves Me” was included, for the first time since the UCC had published a hymnal. It seemed at the time of publication, that surely everyone knew “Jesus Loves Me”. For many of us, it was the first song we learned, even before the alphabet song. Now twenty years and many cultural changes later, I am glad that it’s in the hymnal so that we can teach it to a new generation.

I learned from Wikipedia that “In 1943 in the Solomon IslandsJohn F. Kennedy‘s PT-109 was rammed and sunk. Islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana who found Kennedy and the survivors remember that when they rode on PT boats to retrieve the survivors, the Marines sang this song with the natives, who had learned it from Seventh-day Adventist missionaries”.

Probably because JLM is such a Protestant icon, the publishers chose to print the lyrics in ten languages other than English. The only other one with which I am really conversant is Spanish. Translations are never exact, and translations of songs should never be literal, or they are un-singable. The Spanish translation of JLM ends with “faithful friend”; a rather different concept from “they are weak but He is strong”.

Reading another translation of this hymn helped me see it differently. In truth, the concept of Jesus as a faithful friend is exactly what was conveyed to me when I learned the song as a toddler in English. It wasn’t the words, but the comforting feeling of having Jesus near, which the Spanish text captures.

Having a second or third language gives us a window into another culture, another way of looking at the world, and formulations of truth that stick with us, in a way they do not in English.

If you do read another language, even imperfectly, I encourage you to read the Scriptures and some of your favorite hymns in that language, to see what is to be learned about the text from its formulation and cadence and images. And if English is your second tongue, you might read through some familiar hymns from your childhood and see how they seem different.

God speaks to us through all means possible to remind us that “yes, Jesus loves me”!

I was captivated by these young women singing JLM so lovingly in Chinese!


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