Posted by: chuckbumgardner | June 29, 2008

O Holy Night

Over the years, I’ve become hesitant to sing “O Holy Night,” a Christmas song widely sung as a solo because of its dramatic nature and vocal difficulty.  Our common English translation is by John S. Dwight, a rather loose translation (so I understand) of the French Cantique de Noel .  Dwight was at various times in his life a Unitarian minister, a leader at the Trancendentalist Brook Farm, and the man largely responsible for popularizing Beethoven in America (see his bio here).  His interests and theology are, I suspect, reflected in places in his version of the song, with its emphases.  I’m particularly leery about the line “Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth,” and not too excited about “His gospel is peace” (given Dwight’s background).

A more direct translation of (at least a portion of) the original French Cantique de Noel is suggested here:

Midnight, Christians is the solemn hour
When God as Man descended unto us
To erase the original stain (sin)
And end the wrath of his Father.
The entire world trembles with expectation
In this night that gives to us a Savior.
Fall on your knees, await your deliverance.
Noel, Noel, here is the Redeemer,
Noel, Noel, here is the Redeemer!
The redeemer has broken every shackle
The earth is free, and heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was once only a slave
Those who had been chained together by iron, love now unites.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude
It is for every one of us that he was born, suffered and died.
Stand on your feet, sing of your deliverance.
Noel, Noel, sing of the Redeemer,
Noel, Noel, sing of the Redeemer!
The original French Cantique de Noel is given below.  I don’t know French, but if someone who is fluent would like to provide a good translation, I’d be delighted!
Minuits, chrétiens / Cantique de Noël:
Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,
Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle
Et de Son Père arrêter le courroux.
Le monde entier tressaille d’espérance
En cette nuit qui lui donne un Sauveur.
Peuple à genoux, attends ta délivrance.
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur,
Noël, Noël, voici le Rédempteur!
De notre foi que la lumière ardente
Nous guide tous au berceau de l’Enfant,
Comme autrefois une étoile brillante
Y conduisit les chefs de l’Orient.
Le Roi des rois naît dans une humble crèche:
Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur,
A votre orgueil, c’est de là que Dieu prêche.
Courbez vos fronts devant le Rédempteur.
Courbez vos fronts devant le Rédempteur.
Le Rédempteur a brisé toute entrave:
La terre est libre, et le ciel est ouvert.
Il voit un frère où n’était qu’un esclave,
L’amour unit ceux qu’enchaînait le fer.
Qui Lui dira notre reconnaissance,
C’est pour nous tous qu’Il naît, qu’Il souffre et meurt.
Peuple debout! Chante ta délivrance,
Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur,
Noël, Noël, chantons le Rédempteur!


  1. […] to subscribe to my RSS feed. You can also subscribe by e-mail. Thanks for visiting!Chuck Bumgardner comments on “O Holy […]

  2. My thanks go out to Chuck for this article. Having read the literal translation and stumbled through the beautiful French version I would love to see the song fully translated into German. To my knowledge there is only one verse available so far “auf Deutsch.” The article demonstrates clearly that a translator’s theological beliefs can and often do have bearing upon his translation. This is a two-edged sword, for it can either improve upon the original or worsen it. The ideal scenario would be a good text reflected perfectly by a good translation. This is difficult enough in prose; it is nearly impossible in poetry. Having frequently translated songs into German, I speak from first-hand experience.

  3. […] some Christmas hymns are far from perfect. Others have addressed the problems with some of these hymns. One hymn that often gets marginalized is […]

  4. […] some Christmas hymns are far from perfect. Others have addressed the problems with some of these hymns. One hymn that often gets marginalized is […]

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