Catherine Winkworth, translator extraordinaire

Though Sisters in Song did not include translators, there is certainly a place to include this important contribution to hymnody in a history of women.  Catherine Winkworth is best known for introducing the German chorale tradition to English speakers.   Her translations of German hymns have had more influence on modern use in England than any other versions.  And of course, this would extend to use in the United States.

She was born in London, the fourth daughter of a silk merchant.  Though Anglican, she studied under a Unitarian minister, William Gaskell.   She spent a year in Dresden where she became interested in German hymnody, particularly after the German ambassador to England sent her a copy of a devotional book of German hymnody, Andachtsbuch.  By 1854 she published Lyra Germanica, a compilation of her English translation of German hymns   This was the start of four books of German hymn collections.  Her writing went beyond hymns and included two biographies of women who founded sisterhoods for the poor and sick.  She was not just a translator, however.  She was devoted to women’s rights and was the secretary of the Clifton Association for Higher Education for Women.  In addition, she supported Clifton High School for Girls where today a house is named after her.   She was a member of the Cheltenham Ladies College and governor of the Red Maids’ School in Westbury–on-Tym in Bristol.  On July 1, 1878 while in Geneva, Switzerland to take care of a bedfast nephew, she had chest pains and within a half hour, she had passed away.  Today she is commemorated on August 7 as a hymn writer on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA), and on the Calendar of Saints of the ELCA on July 1.

Her most famous translations include “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”, written by Joachim Neander, “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee” by Georg Newmark, “Now Thank We All Our God” by Martin Rinckart, and “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates” by Georg Weissel.    What a blessing her work has been to English speakers!

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