The refrain “He is for you” doesn’t translate neatly into Spanish. In the English version of Elevation Worship’s song “The Blessing,” the phrase repeats and builds with each repetition. But in Spanish, the line is “Él te ama” or “He loves you.”

“I’m glad the translators did that,” said musician and translator Sergio Villanueva, who pastors a Hispanic congregation at Wheaton Bible Church in Illinois. “To convey that idea in Spanish—‘He is for you’—you would have to use a lot more words. Spanish is a beautiful language, but we use more words and longer words.”

The translation choice in “The Blessing” (“La Bendición”) reflects a growing interest among English-speaking worship artists in producing thoughtful, singable, and culturally informed translations of their music.

Often, artists are intent on using translations that are as close to word-for-word as possible. But as influential songwriters and megachurches expand their reach, teams of translators are helping produce new versions of popular worship songs that are faithful to the originals without trying to replicate wording that isn’t as accessible or evocative in another language.

“You have to honor the intention of the original songwriter, even if that means changing exactly what the words are saying,” said Villanueva, who has translated for Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sovereign Grace Music, and Kari Jobe.

The international distribution and translation of English-language worship music has accelerated over the past four decades, but not consistently.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, Integrity Music began releasing recordings in Spanish, beginning with the 1981 Maranatha! album Quiero Alabarte (I Want to Praise You). Hosanna! Music established an international audience through its direct-to-consumer cassette sales.

As contemporary worship music took off as a distinct genre in the late ’90s and early 2000s, worship songs by top artists like Matt Redman, Hillsong, and Tim Hughes found an enthusiastic global audience.

The growth of evangelical Christianity in the Global South coincided with the international proliferation of contemporary worship music; by 2020, more Christians around the world spoke (and sang) in Spanish than in any other language.

Villanueva recalled that Hillsong United’s 2004 album More Than Life resonated with Latin American churches and increased the group’s profile in the region. “In those years, everyone was doing their own translations. There were countless versions of ‘Here I Am to Worship.’ Everyone had their own,” he said.

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The album was also popular in Canada when Jonathan Mercier, former creative pastor of Hillsong Church Paris, belonged to a youth group in Cornwall, Ontario. At the time, he attended a French-speaking Baptist church that sang traditional French hymns. When Hillsong United’s album Mighty to Save came out in 2006, Mercier translated some of the songs himself for a French-speaking youth camp. By doing translations on their own, he said, congregations had the autonomy to craft new lyrics that fit their language and cultural context.

As Hillsong expanded in the 2000s in the wake of the Darlene Zschech hit “Shout to the Lord,” the organization began producing translations in Spanish, French, and other languages. The megachurch’s music had already entered the American market by way of Integrity, which released “Shout to the Lord” through Hosanna! Music in 1996.

Mercier recalls reading some of these early French translations during an internship with Hillsong’s publishing arm. “The existing translations weren’t singable,” he said. “They were too literal.”

Mercier, like Villanueva, found that worship songwriters tended to favor translations that tried to preserve exact wording, often at the expense of lyricism and flow.

“There is an art to translation,” said Mercier, who has translated over 100 songs for Hillsong. “Some songs are really easy to translate; for others there is a lot of creative work and interpretation.”

Villanueva says that when songwriters trust translators to steward their words, the song will always benefit. A translator’s job is equal parts linguistic, musical, and theological. Economy of words can be critical.

“Imagine you have a big house, and you’re moving into an apartment,” he said. “You have two choices: You can try to keep all of the furniture and live in this cramped space, or you can let some things go.”

The decision to translate He is for you as Él te ama in “The Blessing” illustrates the benefits of a zoomed-out approach to a song and flexibility on the part of the original songwriters, Villanueva said.

The phrase He is for you evokes the protection and advocacy of God on our behalf. It underscores the song’s message about God’s blessing and favor being actively bestowed. He loves you strikes a different tone. But that’s okay, in Villanueva’s view. The phrase doesn’t have a straightforward match in Spanish, and God’s blessing flows from his love for us. It’s a logical choice.

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The heavy involvement of a translator can create economic complications. Mercier oversaw French translation and recordings for the Hillsong Global Project, a 2012 compilation series of nine worship albums in nine different languages, including Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Mandarin, and Russian.

In some cases, Mercier is credited as a songwriter. In others, he’s not. Acknowledgment and compensation are inconsistent.

“Royalties are complicated because of the original songwriter agreements,” Mercier said. “Original songwriters would need to agree to give up a piece of their songwriter royalty cut.”

Mercier doesn’t worry about it too much. He gets paid for the work by his church, as is the case for many translators. But translations for a global megachurch like Hillsong have the potential to generate substantial revenue, and translation work is increasingly overseen by the organizations.

Some have opted to pay translators a lump sum. Villanueva is on the editorial board that oversees the translation process at Sovereign Grace Music and has received songwriting credits on a number of songs, including those he translated for Kari Jobe’s 2012 album Donde te Encuentro. In many cases, he says, he earned more from a lump sum than he would ever see in royalties.

The export of worship music from the English-speaking world has intensified with globalization and the ascension of streaming. Songs by Hillsong, Kari Jobe, Chris Tomlin, and Elevation appear on Sunday set lists around the world. Some wonder if the current rate of export is healthy or if it borders on cultural colonialism.

“I tend to be suspicious of translations,” said Marcell Silva Steuernagel, assistant professor of church music at Southern Methodist University, who began his career as a worship leader in Brazil. “Culture never travels neutrally.”

Even so, Silva Steuernagel said, you have to be pragmatic and pastoral.

“When I lead worship in Brazil, I’m not trying to get rid of Hillsong. That’s an impossible proposition,” he said. “And it can cut off relationships with people I value.”

Villanueva similarly sees a place for imported and adapted songs. But he added that worship in one’s first language is uniquely powerful.

“Nothing compares to the native tongue speaking back to God,” Villanueva said. “We need both. And we need wisdom and humility to embrace what is needed from both.”

Kelsey Kramer McGinnis is CT’s music correspondent.

[ This article is also available in español and Português. ]

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