International Hymnbooks Unify Saints around the World

  By Heather Whittle Wrigley, Church News and Events

  • 10 August 2012

Many members in Guatemala who speak only Kekchi now have the blessing of singing hymns in their native language, following the release of the Kekchi version of the international LDS hymnbook. 

Article Highlights

  • Producing the international versions of the LDS hymnbook is a time-consuming and work-intensive process, requiring coordination between the Area Presidency, the General Music Committee, translators, an in-country music committee, and others.
  • International hymnbooks typically comprise 200 to 206 hymns, including a standard list of 104 hymns, which all contain.
  • Church leaders stress that we use a standard set of hymns across all languages to help teach doctrine and unify the Saints around the world.

“The music was so beautiful, and as I watched these people from another country singing, I knew that we are not alone in the faith.” —Victoria Bol Cucul, member in Senahú, Guatemala

Victoria Bol Cucul sits in a building in Senahú, Guatemala, her eyes reverently focused on the choir at the front as she listens to the official LDS version of “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” in her native language of Kekchi (pronounced kek-chee) for the first time ever.

“The music was so beautiful, and as I watched these people from another country singing, I knew that we are not alone in the faith,” she said. “I asked myself how they knew how to sing in Kekchi, considering that it is not easy to do, and I knew that it was because of God’s great love that they were able to do it.”

The choir members—numbering about 30—came from the United States at the invitation of Michael Peck, a member of the Church’s Translation Department who spent the last three years making the Kekchi Hymns (Eb’ Li B’ich) a reality. During the end of July and first week of August they traveled throughout Guatemala—to Carchá and several cities in the Polochic Valley—to present the new hymnbook in a series of 11 firesides.

July marked 182 years since the Lord’s command that “a selection of sacred hymns” be made “to be had in my church” (see D&C 25:11). The first hymnbook, compiled by Emma Smith and published in 1835, included 90 hymns and served the 8,835 members of the Church, who largely resided in the United States and England.

Today millions of members around the world—which now includes the approximately 12,000 Guatemalan members who speak Kekchi—have the opportunity to sing the hymns in their own language thanks to nearly 30 international versions of the 1985 LDS hymnbook.

Making the Hymns Available to All

Diane Bastian is the music manager for the Church. She oversees the production of the hymnbook and Children’s Songbook in all the languages. She is familiar with the unique challenges translating music presents.

“Translating text for music is difficult. You can translate it literally, losing the poetry, or you can translate it poetically and lose the meaning. Finding a happy medium and still matching the text with the music is an art,” she said.

The journey to producing an international version of the hymnbook begins with a request from an Area Presidency. Following approval, a years-long process begins that involves the Area Presidency, a local committee made up of those with musical knowledge, and the Church’s General Music Committee.

International hymnbooks typically comprise 200 to 206 hymns: Church headquarters provides a standard list of 104 hymns and a recommended list of 50 hymns from the English hymnbook. All language hymnbooks include the standard list, and most include all those on the recommended list.

The remaining hymns may be chosen by the area committee. Many of these are selected from the current English hymnbook. A few may come from former hymnbooks in the language. Some hymns indigenous to the country may also be chosen.

This structure allows for a wide variety in the number of hymns, as well as what hymns, an international hymnbook may contain. The Kekchi Hymns, for instance, contains the maximum 206 hymns. The Icelandic version, however, includes 120. (The Children’s Songbook has 139 standard songs, with nine pages allowed for areas to fill with personal choices.)

Once the list of hymns is finalized, local translators and sometimes translators from headquarters carefully work through the difficult process of rendering the hymns into the language.

“You want it to say what the English says, and to mean what the English means as closely as possible,” Brother Peck explained. “And you also want to maintain the poetic structure, matching as much as you can the poetic structure and rhythmic accentuation patterns.”

Although they try to match the translation to the original as closely as possible, sometimes small changes—the addition of an extra note or the tying of two notes together—are necessary to preserve musicality. A scriptures committee checks to make sure everything is doctrinally correct before the international version is typeset—the final step before the hymnbook is released.

The Song of the Heart

“Our sacred music prepares us to be taught the truths of the gospel,” Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught in explaining why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses a standard hymnbook. He continued, “We need to make more use of our hymns to put us in tune with the Spirit of the Lord, to unify us, and to help us teach and learn our doctrine.”

Sister Bastian echoed that sentiment. “One of the main purposes of having the hymnbook in the first place is to unify the Church,” she said. “Everywhere in the world, you can go to a meeting and recognize these tunes and these words, even if they’re not in your language. When someone watches conference, they can think, ‘I know that hymn. I know what it says. It speaks to me.’”

Chelsey Sharp was present at a fireside in the Polochic Valley and experienced a powerful spirit as the Kekchi hymnal was introduced to local members, some of whom had traveled from hours away to participate.

“Although I have next to nothing in common with those who live in the Polochic Valley of Guatemala, the gospel brought us together in ways that words couldn’t,” she said. “We don't have to speak the same language to understand one another.”

She continued, “One man sitting near me was mouthing the words, he was so excited. You could tell by the expressions on their faces that they were so grateful and excited for this new gift in their lives. A spirit of reverence filled the room. It was an experience I won’t forget. God’s work is moving forward.”

For Brother Peck, seeing the Kekchi hymnbook come to fruition is a dream more than three years in the making; the request for the hymnbook was first made in 2007.

“I wanted the people of Guatemala to hear these hymns beautifully presented,” he said. “There has really has never been any exposure to beautifully presented music of any kind in this language. I hope the people here feel encouraged about the new translations and feel a sense of enrichment as they sing in their own tongue.”

For Sister Bol Cucul, the Kekchi version of the Hymns is and will continue to be a tool for learning and teaching the gospel.

“This was a witness to me of how great His love is, and many other profound thoughts went through my mind,” she said.

Visit lds.org/churchmusic to find Hymns and songs from the Children’s Songbook in English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. Both publications are available in multiple languages and formats under the “Music, Media, and Art” tab on store.lds.org or through local distribution centers.