Here’s a quote from a book which ended up making a somewhat surprising long-term impact on our family. It’s about the problems of translating hymns into tone-languages. Most of the world’s languages seem to consider tone to be at least as important as vowel quality, for example, so this is a pretty widespread problem.
When you take a melody from the West and put words to it from a tone language, you frequently end up with rather serious distortion.Often two syllables will be an intelligible word if pronounced with a high-high tone pattern but will be nonsense if pronounced with a high-low pattern (eg Hausa ruwa = water if H-H but with any other pattern is nonsense) This is not however as serious as when such a combination of syllables is a completely different word when the pitch levels are different.
I have heard Dr Nida refer to a group in Liberia who were supposed to be singing the chorus, “Precious name, oh how sweet, Hope of earth and joy of heaven.” But the tune so reassigned the pitch patterns that it came out, “Well done chicken, oh how sweet…” The people, not knowing they were supposed to be singing about anything other than the missionaries’ favourite meal, thought things were fine!
Missionaries usually made such mistakes innocently. We have been accustomed to singing our faith and have simply introduced the only kind of music we know – Western music. The fact that our Euroamerican music botches up the tone patterns of the language is something westerners discovered too late, often long after the national Christians had developed two important (and misleading) habits: that of singing our tunes to God and assuming that God wants it this way. Often their indigenous religion presents God (or gods) as unintelligible. How are they to know that the Christian God, unlike their own, seeks to be intelligible?…
[Charles H Kraft, Anthropology for Christian Witness, p 261-2 (in section Art, Forms and Meanings)]
So anyway, how has this impacted our family? I came across this the first time when our first-born Rebekah was just starting to smile and do various things for the first time. So we were saying ‘well done’ quite a lot. It seemed only natural to add ‘chicken’ to complete the quotation from the Liberian chorus, and so we developed our own version: I would say ‘Well done, Chicken’ and Julie responded ‘Oh how sweet’, or verse vica. That then developed into just calling Rebekah ‘Chicken’ as a pet name, which she grew rather attached to.
Now in Hausaland I discover that real Hausa songs do really need to respect the tone patterns, though Christian hymns often flout them in order to stick to the tune. Of course the reason we’re so attached as westerners to certain tunes is that they have very strong emic value to us. But that very fact means that the tune or rhythm should be the very first thing to change when translating a hymn to a new culture. Which is why we’ve been writing new tunes for old hymns (link coming soon), even for our own culture. The tune is the wrapping for the words; it may evoke strong emotive connections to one person but to another who doesn’t share the sentimental attachment it may well block reception of the words and thus meaning of the song.