“In Thy arms I rest me; Foes who would…”

Johann Franck published “Jesu, meine Freude” in 1653; Catherine Winkworth served the English-speaking world by translating it as “Jesu, priceless treasure” in her 1863 The Chorale Book for EnglandIn this translation, she rendered the second verse as:

In Thine arm I rest me,
Foes who would molest me
Cannot reach me here;
Though the earth be shaking,
Every heart be quaking,
Jesus calms my fear;
Sin and hell in conflict fell
With their bitter storms assail me,
Jesus will not fail me.

Over the century and a half since Winkworth’s translation was published, the word “molest” has shifted from communicating something general along the lines of “to trouble, to disturb; to render uneasy” (Webster, 1828) to its more specialized contemporary meaning of “to make indecent sexual advances to.” I don’t mind using archaic language in hymns, but in this case, I fear that the present denotation of “molest” might distract or misinform the singer.

Others have apparently had similar thoughts. Hymnary.org reports the following variation:

“Let your arms enfold me:
those who try to wound me
cannot reach me here.”
The New Century Hymnal (1995)

My friend David Barnhart is familiar with this variation:

In Your arms I’m resting,
all my foes are fleeing-
None can touch me here.”

Neither of these versions commends itself to me. However, hymnary.org also attests to the following rendering from the Presbyterian Hymnal (1990):

“In Thine arms I rest me;
Foes who would oppress me
Cannot reach me here.”

The happy substitution of “oppress” for “molest” is simple, elegant, and satisfactory. The rhyme is only approximate, but is sufficient; the meaning is not appreciably different from the original denotation of “molest”; and the minimum possible alteration is achieved. But what about its correspondence with Franck’s original text? Are we shortchanging Franck in some way by altering Winkworth’s translation?

As it turns out, no. As is so common in translated poetry, Catherine Winkworth maintained the thrust of the poetry while using imagery which is somewhat different. Franck’s original German for these three lines is:

Unter deinem Schirmen
Bin ich für dem Sturmen
Aller Feinde frei.

My friend David Barnhart tells me that this would run rather literally in translation as: “Under your protection I am safe from the storms of all enemies.” While Winkworth has in these lines added the imagery of God’s protective “arm”, she has removed the “storm” imagery (which is revisited later in the original German stanza with “Ob es itzt gleich kracht und blitzt” [“Even if there is thunder and lightning”]). So even in Winkworth’s original translation, the memorable storm imagery Franck used in conjunction with the Christian’s enemies is made less vivid with the idea of “foes molesting me.” Substituting “oppress” for “molest,” then, is at least not any farther away from Franck’s original imagery than Winkworth’s original translation.

Thus, if and when I teach “Jesus, Priceless Treasure” to my congregation, I plan to make that simple substitution: “oppress” for “molest”.

 

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This entry was posted in Historic hymnody, Hymn parsing, Hymn writing, songleading, Underutilized hymnody and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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