Holy Week: Tuesday

Here is a hymn and poetry lesson all in one–these are the original German texts Bach used in “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” (from the Cantata “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” BWV 147) followed by my translations. The standard English texts are lame, and don’t begin to get at the tenderness and intimacy of the German. I’ve left the translations very clunky–I don’t know how else to get at the rawness of the German. It is very far removed from the bloodless prissy Victorian monstrosity that English-singing choirs are generally stuck with. Maybe one of the Fowles or our other august Germanists can pretty it up and make it scan…

Jesus bleibet meine Freude,
meines Herzens Trost und Saft,
Jesus wehret allem Leide,
er ist meines Lebens Kraft,
meiner Augen Lust und Sonne,
meiner Seele Schatz und Wonne;
darum lass’ ich Jesum nicht
aus dem Herzen und Gesicht. (from BWV 147/10)

Jesus is still my joy,
The comfort and blood* of my heart.
Jesus defends against all suffering,
He is the strength of my life,
The desire and the sun of my eye,
The treasure and delight of my soul.
Therefore, I will not let him go
From my heart or from my sight.
*(literally “juice”)

Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe,
o wie feste halt’ ich ihn,
dass er mir mein Herze labe,
wenn ich krank und traurig bin.
Jesum hab’ ich, der mich liebet
und sich mir zu eigen giebet,
ach drum lass’ ich Jesum nicht,
wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht. (from BWV 147/6)

How sweet* for me, that I have Jesus,
Oh, how tightly I hold him,
So that he salves my heart
When I am sick and sad.
I have Jesus, who loves me,
And gives himself to me for my own.**

O! therefore I’ll not leave Jesus,
Even as my heart is breaking.

*There’s really no adequate translation for “wohl mir”–it is something like “it is good for me, that…”, but “wohl” also conveys a sense of health and wholeness that I can’t figure out how to render in a word or two in English. Most translations use “blessed”, but that is too prettified, and doesn’t get at the earthiness of “wohl mir”. “Sweet” is all wrong, too, but seems at least more personal. There’s an old Baptist hymn with the chorus “It is well with my soul.” That’s pretty close to the right sense, I think.

**another tricky line–it’s much more common to refer to God taking a human being for his own, his peculiar people, etc., and it seems clear that the “sich zu eigen” formula implies some mutuality of belonging. But I like the reversal of the usual order, the notion of Christ giving himself, so I’ve emphasized the inversion, even though it makes for really awkward syntax.


  1. well done.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaaah, Baaach!

  3. Kristine, this is beautiful. I’ve been enjoying your holy week series so much. Thank you for emphasizing the upcoming Easter Holiday for us.

  4. Thank you for the improved translation. I recently accompanied our ward choir singing this piece. I hadn’t thought about how stilted the existing language was; I was just so accustomed to it. Reading your translation was kind of like reading a Bible translation other than the KJV for the first time. Aaah.

  5. In the second verse, in the German, the last word on the 6th line is misspelled. It is “giben”, not “gieben”.

    Here is a less awkward translation:

    Jesus is my eternal joy,
    My heart’s comfort and lifeblood.
    Jesus overcomes all suffering,
    He is my life’s strength,
    My eyes’ desire and light,
    My soul’s treasure and delight.
    Therefore I will never turn from Jesus,
    In my heart or in my sight.

    How precious that I have Jesus,
    Oh, how fast I hold to him,
    Because he refreshes my heart,
    When I am ill and grieving.
    I have Jesus who loves me,
    And gives Himself to me for my own,
    Oh, therefore I will not forsake Jesus,
    Even if my heart is breaking.

  6. Kristine says:

    Nan, nope–I’ve checked three editions of the score and it’s “giebet” in all of them. I don’t know if that’s some archaic form or just an accepted poetic device to make it rhyme with “liebet.” I assume the modern form would be “gibt”, from “geben.”

    Thanks for the translation!

  7. Thank you for the kind acknowledgement.

    You are right; the modern form is “geben”.

    I was looking primarily at German-language websites which overwhelmingly spell the word “gibet”. Non-German websites are mixed, with some spelling it “giebet” but most “gibet”.

    Either way, it is an archaic spelling that lends spice to the life of the translator ;-)


  1. […] is trying to get everyone reved up for Holy Week over at BCC. I wish her well, but I suspect that she isn’t going to succeed on this one. There is too […]

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