A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Iesus Ahattonia

There’s been a little discussion about The Huron Carol on the hymns list. This is the carol that, in the usual English version goes:

‘Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunter heard the hymn:
“Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.”

The Huron Carol is thought to be the first Canadian carol. It’s especially interesting because it was either originally written in the language of the Hurons or co-written with a French version. It was written by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary; the Jesuits wrote approvingly and with linguistic sophistication (see this study, for example).

The thing is, the English translation, which is well loved, doesn’t really reflect either the original Huron (or, more properly, Wendat) or French. It’s sweet, but it is (at best) a fanciful paraphrase of the original, written in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton (it fact, it’s probably still under copyright). Somehow, it makes me all the sadder that the last native speakers of Wendat died in the 1960s. The Wyandot lost 50% of their population to disease on European contact; were pressured by the Iroquois confederacy, and generally backed the wrong side in the French/English battles and English/US battles in the New World–in addition to the usual genocidal policies carried out against native peoples in the US and Canada. There are Wyandot populations in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Quebec. It seems to me that a good English translation of the carol is still wanting. There is an more faithful (but not wonderful) Engish version, Brebeuf’s original French version, the Wendat and literal English version, as well as Middleton’s version available at the First Nations on the Rouge site. Bruce Cockburn did a recording of this song (in Wendat!), and there is another literal Engish version at The Cockburn Project. All that is needed is a good poet …


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