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Theories and practice of Orthodox translation


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#1 Anthony

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Posted 05 June 2007 - 10:55 AM

Taking up the comment by Mark Harrison (below) from another thread, I would like to start a thread on Orthodox translation (not confined to Scripture, though this section seemed the natural place to put it). I don't have much experience in this area myself, though I would be interested in getting more involved. I think there are people around who have much more experience, and I would be interested to hear their views and chip in as and when I can.

If anybody wants to read a document that would make an EXCELLENT starting point for such a discussion, find the latest set of rules promulgated by the Vatican. I am absolutely serious. Pope Benedict was sick of the lousy translation theory and process long before he became pope. Now there are new rules out, and they are far more sound philosophically. I don't have time, but if someone wants to google it and post it, that would be great. Again, it's the theoretical underpinning of the translation work that I am praising.


I guess that is (referred to in) this document?

#2 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 05 June 2007 - 04:37 PM

The Vatican Norms look good to me. Translation into English involves deciding what kind of English for what kind of text. For any kind of liturgical text, how many would agree that we should use KJV-style English (what I call 'traditional liturgical English' - TLE) as used at Tolleshunt Knights and in the Russian Church in Britain? I personally will not use any liturgical texts or texts of prayers in modern English nor attend a church where it is used.

#3 John Charmley

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Posted 05 June 2007 - 04:54 PM

Dear Andreas,

I quite agree. The Vatican norms look very good to me. Of course all translation involves problems, and we are all, I suspect, aware of the various difficulties with the NKJV, but for those of us unable fully to appreciate the scriptures in the Greek it catches something of that experience for us.

Worship is a solemn and joyous act, and I have to say that as an Anglican I used to find the modern versions of the Prayer Book so bland that they distracted me from what it was I was there to do. It seemed wrong to talk so casually to my Saviour. One priest I knew used to call it the 'Oi you! Book of Commonness'.

In the British Orthodox Church we use the ancient Liturgy of St. James in a seventeenth century translation; its sonorous beauty holds me rapt, and I have never known an hour and a half pass so quickly. By the end I feel as if I have, indeed, been transported elsewhere.

As for non-inclusive language, well it is quite plain what the agenda of those who wish to use 'non-gender specific' language is. What has been good enough for the Church for two thousand years is more than good enough for me.

All that being said, I was sad when I realised the various deficiencies in the 'Orthodox Study Bible' - although I have much profited from having it.

In Christ,

John

#4 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 05 June 2007 - 05:18 PM

There are strong arguments in favour of TLE and, many think, few, if any, valid arguments in favour of modern English. But arguments aside, many think that it is enough that so great a luminary of the Church as Starets Sophrony prescribed the use of TLE, and I'd go with the opinion of a saint such as he anytime. Father Sophrony loved to hear TLE. Interestingly, those non-English I have asked about this (including Lydia) prefer TLE. Very recently, I was told by a member of the Community at Tolleshunt Knights that Rosemary Edmonds spent much time in deep prayer when translating.

#5 Kris

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 12:54 AM

Beauty aside, would it be correct to say that older English allows for a more accurate translation of the original text? Certainly it helps a lot when there's a clear distinction between singular and plural "you", which is not present in modern English. But with respect to things such as word order, is older English closer to the original?

#6 Andrew

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 02:16 AM

The Vatican Norms look good to me. Translation into English involves deciding what kind of English for what kind of text. For any kind of liturgical text, how many would agree that we should use KJV-style English (what I call 'traditional liturgical English' - TLE) as used at Tolleshunt Knights and in the Russian Church in Britain? I personally will not use any liturgical texts or texts of prayers in modern English nor attend a church where it is used.


I totally agree. In the Diocese of the South we use Archbishop Dmitri's translation of the Divine Liturgy and supplementary materials that use traditional liturgical English. I can't stand any other way (besides, well, Greek, Slavonic, etc.!). Not to poke at anyone, but I have a really hard time paying attention during the Liturgy at an American Greek Orthodox Church, or some of the Antiochian ones. The way the prayers sound seems off, and the you's grate against my ears. I know this may be petty, and I am sorry... I just can't stand it though. Our way of life is to be transfigured and stand as an icon. Our liturgical and prayer language should be iconic, I think. But anyways. Pious, solidly Orthodox men and women seem to disagree with me, and they are probably better for it. But still, there is a beautiful melody and flow to TLE as Andreas calls it; it should be a cherished treasure of us English speakers that we can hand down from generation to generation. Modern English used in a liturgical context seems dumbed down, sluggish, and lacking in beauty. It's like using electric votive lamps instead of olive oil, or cheap perfumed tourist incense instead of real pure frankincense. Or a sentimental religious painting over an icon from St. Catherine's Monastery.

#7 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 08:16 AM

This is beside the point really, but the use of the older style of English, with, for example, its nine pronouns for addressing people, rather than the meagre four of modern English, is quite natural for me because I come from a South Yorkshire working-class background where this language was normal when I was a boy and is still used now. Not only does this style of English differentiate singular and plural but informal and formal, both now lost but essential in many European languages. I was told as a boy, 'dunt tha [i.e. 'thou'] thee and thou them as dunt thee and thou thee'.

#8 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 03:45 PM

Beauty aside, would it be correct to say that older English allows for a more accurate translation of the original text? Certainly it helps a lot when there's a clear distinction between singular and plural "you", which is not present in modern English. But with respect to things such as word order, is older English closer to the original?


I am no expert. I don't know Greek or Slavonic well enough to trust my translations as being 'official'. But I have served in and chanted the services in Slavonic (and English) for many years now. I also have the blessing of having being given years ago a very rare set of Slavonic service books with a literal English translation in the right hand column (often there is the Greek version also provided as for example at the Cherubic Hymn). This has allowed me over the years to do a kind of immediate comparison in two to three languages at once while serving.

So from all of this I would say yes, traditional liturgical English is much closer to the original, both in style (something often too much overlooked is the beauty of the rhythm of Slavonic) & meaning. First there is little doubt when using Slavonic that it is a liturgical language & that it has a spiritual quality to it which is exactly consistent with the service. You can actually feel how the two- the language and the services developed hand in hand.

Then you can also tell that the words have a quality and meaning better conveyed in traditional English. I'm not sure that modern translations have to do this but often they give a modern meaning to words which alters the meaning of the original. One tendency most noticeable in these modern translations is substituting words with very sharp & clear meanings for the more suggestive & unclear original. Syntax is often 'cleaned up' in a similar way.

Of course this comes down to interpretation but when we smooth out too many of the rough edges of the original in order to try to explain everything we often end up depriving ourselves of ways in which the Church has of allowing us to find meaning. As with the Fathers themselves, a lot is suggested rather than stated, and when you do the services a lot you become aware that the style and themes of the Fathers have had a profound effect on the services, especially the movable hymnography.

In any case this still leaves us with trying to come up with 'traditional English' something with no unanimous answer at present. Many point to KJV but in fact many of our traditional translations are closer in style to the RSV at least in feel.

I myself use the NKJV when I read the Gospel at the services but revise it to use Thee and Thou etc. Most of my people are Russians and would find the KJV incomprehensible & unwieldy as I do too much of the time.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#9 Anthony

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 04:00 PM

I didn't really intend to start quite this conversation, but for the record, I can't really agree with the majority opinion so far - that the only legitimate option for Orthodox translation is Cranmerian English. Let me agree, first of all, that this is very beautiful and reverent (especially in the hands of Cranmer, who, whatever else he may have been, was a master of language). But it is not the language of any of us, and the idea of writing it reminds me of those "prose compositions" in the style of Cicero or of Demosthenes that some of us had to do as students.

I also don't agree that modern English is intrinsically inelegant or unfit to offer to God. There are many fine twentieth century writers who strive after elegance. And if we don't all have the gifts of a Cranmer, that will show through whichever style we adopt.

In practice, of course, what usually happens is that modern English is used with certain standard substitutions, notably for the second person singular pronoun and verb inflections, which is what seems to cause most of the agitation. But this itself is not without its problems. Fr Ephrem Lash makes the valid point (I think) that God should be addressed by the same pronoun we use to address our father. For most of us, that is "you" and not "thou". I certainly don't feel disrespectful saying "you" to my father, or for that matter to a priest or bishop. It is certainly a far cry from "Oi you" language, to use the caricature from John's acquaintance.

The language question for English-speaking Orthodoxy is very different from that faced by the Greeks and Russians, who have a traditional language in which all the treasures of a thousand or two thousand years of Orthodoxy have been expressed, and which they quite rightly are not willing to abandon. Cranmerian English is a Protestant tradition, and the treasures it contains are Protestant treasures. If people want to use it that's fine, but I don't see how the language of sixteenth century Protestants can be a criterion of Orthodoxy - of "right worship".

I hope I am not talking out of place on a subject which seems to arouse strong feelings. I am not attacking anybody, just making a plea for a bit of tolerance. Personally I am grateful to all those who translate Orthodox texts for us, whichever style they adhere to. And if I ever visit a church where English is used (unlikely in my neck of the woods), I will accept whatever is put before me - as I was taught, "don't bring your typikon into another man's monastery".

#10 Anthony

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 04:03 PM

Fr Raphael, bless.

I had not seen your post when I wrote the above. If what I have called Cranmerian English really does convey the sense of the original texts better, then that is a genuine reason for using it. I wonder, though, if you could give us an example?

Anthony

#11 Anthony

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 04:18 PM

Just a footnote - there used to be (maybe still is) a North-South divide in English Orthodoxy on this matter of translation. In the north, where I became Orthodox, modern English was usual, and has been the basis for translation work at the Monastery of the Assumption near Whitby and the Monastery of St. Andrew in Manchester.

#12 John Charmley

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 04:42 PM

Dear Anthony,

Many thanks for the excellent points you make, and you are right, one should not, perhaps, be too fussy at times. I guess, for me, it hits the raw nerve of having been at the receiving end of too much Anglican 'inclusive language' service books.

Peter Farrington (of this virtual parish) has just produced a version of the Coptic Book of Hours for use in the British Orthodox Church, and it manages to strike a beautiful balance. Its language, whilst not that of Cranmer, is nonetheless that of the NKJV, which has a sonorous beauty about it.

As an historian I always find it interesting that it was only in the later twentieth century, fifty years of so after the introduction of universal primary education in the UK, that the complaint began to be heard that people could not understand the KJV; I occasionally wonder whether to put that down as another 'benefit. of progress?

I would quite agree that Cranmerian English is not the only version in which English-speaking converts (monoglot as many of us are) can have access to the Liturgy; but one only has to see what the Romans produced by way of the vernacular mass in English to see what one ought not to do.

Of course, my Anglican roots show here, and I do apologise for that!

In Christ,

John

#13 Anthony

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 04:47 PM

Dear John,

Many thanks for the excellent points you make, and you are right, one should not, perhaps, be too fussy at times. I guess, for me, it hits the raw nerve of having been at the receiving end of too much Anglican 'inclusive language' service books.


Thank you for your reply. As an ex-Anglican myself, I know exactly what you mean, and share your concerns. To go back to the Vatican guidelines, I am in full agreement with their opposition to politically correct tampering with sacred texts. We are on the same side here, I think.

Anthony

#14 Kris

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 05:01 PM

Peter Farrington (of this virtual parish) has just produced a version of the Coptic Book of Hours for use in the British Orthodox Church, and it manages to strike a beautiful balance. Its language, whilst not that of Cranmer, is nonetheless that of the NKJV, which has a sonorous beauty about it.


Hi,

Is this version translated from the original Coptic? The one I have seems to have been translated from the Arabic - or atleast by an Arabic speaker - and the English is appalling.

Also, have the Psalms been taken from the LXX as opposed to the Masoretic text (NKJV), which unfortunately seems to be used for the OT in every Coptic publication other than those of the Los Angeles church?

In XC,
Kris

#15 John Charmley

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Posted 06 June 2007 - 05:18 PM

Dear Kris,

I hope that Peter might answer this himself.

I know the translation you are talking about and quite agree. One of the many things Peter does is to help make available better English translations of some of the Coptic material. I find great inspiration in the works of HH Poe Shenouda III, but it often means getting past some fairly odd English to do so; it is always worth the effort - but can be one all the same.

Dear Anthony,

Yes, I think we are on the same hymn sheet here. I am reminded of an old Anglican clergyman friend who, having listened to some of us 'going on' about the shortcomings of the new prayer books, asked two questions of us quietly: 'now you've got that out of your system, can we get back to Christian forgiveness?'; 'Don't you think the translators were doing their best for God? What did you do for Him today?' I think we had the grace to look a little shamefaced.

In Christ,

John

#16 Olga

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Posted 07 June 2007 - 05:32 AM

I didn't really intend to start quite this conversation, but for the record, I can't really agree with the majority opinion so far - that the only legitimate option for Orthodox translation is Cranmerian English. Let me agree, first of all, that this is very beautiful and reverent (especially in the hands of Cranmer, who, whatever else he may have been, was a master of language). But it is not the language of any of us, and the idea of writing it reminds me of those "prose compositions" in the style of Cicero or of Demosthenes that some of us had to do as students.

I also don't agree that modern English is intrinsically inelegant or unfit to offer to God. There are many fine twentieth century writers who strive after elegance. And if we don't all have the gifts of a Cranmer, that will show through whichever style we adopt.

In practice, of course, what usually happens is that modern English is used with certain standard substitutions, notably for the second person singular pronoun and verb inflections, which is what seems to cause most of the agitation. But this itself is not without its problems. Fr Ephrem Lash makes the valid point (I think) that God should be addressed by the same pronoun we use to address our father. For most of us, that is "you" and not "thou". I certainly don't feel disrespectful saying "you" to my father, or for that matter to a priest or bishop. It is certainly a far cry from "Oi you" language, to use the caricature from John's acquaintance.

The language question for English-speaking Orthodoxy is very different from that faced by the Greeks and Russians, who have a traditional language in which all the treasures of a thousand or two thousand years of Orthodoxy have been expressed, and which they quite rightly are not willing to abandon. Cranmerian English is a Protestant tradition, and the treasures it contains are Protestant treasures. If people want to use it that's fine, but I don't see how the language of sixteenth century Protestants can be a criterion of Orthodoxy - of "right worship".

I hope I am not talking out of place on a subject which seems to arouse strong feelings. I am not attacking anybody, just making a plea for a bit of tolerance. Personally I am grateful to all those who translate Orthodox texts for us, whichever style they adhere to. And if I ever visit a church where English is used (unlikely in my neck of the woods), I will accept whatever is put before me - as I was taught, "don't bring your typikon into another man's monastery".


Very good post, Anthony. Might I also add that Greek, while it to this day maintains a "polite" plural form of address (as does German, French, and any number of other languages), this "plural" form is not present in biblical or liturgical use, even in reference to God or the Persons of the Holy Trinity. This detail cannot be accidental.

Even the personal pronouns for the Divine are rendered in lower case, in the older Greek and Slavonic service books. Capitalisation began to appear in the late 19th or early 20thC.

I agree that Greek and Slavonic should never be turfed out as liturgical languages, however consideration should be given to those of us who were not brought up with the KJV. English may be my first language, but it is quite distracting at times following an English-language service in the more clunky, archaic forms. Fr Ephraim's translations are not perfect, but generally flow quite well, and are entirely comprehensible. Aesthetics are all very well and good, but what is read and sung must also be comprehensible for it to do some good.

#17 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 07 June 2007 - 11:55 AM

What I call TLE is not entirely based on Protestant tradition - there was a Catholic tradition of devotional writing (Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle) in English and there are pre-Reformation 'prymers'. But of course the production of the Bible in English was not least a political statement of the English Reformation. It is also true that the translators sought a clear version of the Bible for the common man (though I don't know what the common man of the 17th cent. made of it) as the now-not-included 'Translators to the Reader' part of the Preface says.

In the first place, I do not advocate using just 'Thee' and 'Thou' for God. This was done in the RSV, and leads, in Exodus 33 vv 1 and 12 to God addressing Moses in the formal and Moses addressing God in the informal!

The problem of pronouns does matter. Take, for example, Luke 22:31-32. The original Greek makes clear when Christ says, 'Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat', that He is talking to all the disciples (He uses the word 'umas'). Christ then addresses Peter, in verse 32: 'But I have prayed for thee . . . ' (using 'sou'). Some versions, such as the RSV and NIV, try to deal with this problem. The NKJV does not, uses 'you' throughout these two verses, and so it not clear that Christ speaks first to the disciples and then to Peter: it gives the impression that both verses are addressed to Peter, and the footnote in the Orthodox Study Bible is accordingly misleading.

The use of 'you', only, impoverishes the way we address the Holy Trinity. In many places we refer to the Trinity as three Persons but then affirm our belief in one God by saying 'Thee' (as in 'for Thine is the Kingdom'; 'unto Thee belong all glory').

The matter of style should not be confused with issues of accuracy and theology. Take the 'Prayer behind the Ambo'. In a modern version (that of Fr Ephraim), it reads, 'O Lord, you bless those who bless you, and sanctify those . . . ' Take the 'Essex' version: 'O Lord who dost bless them that bless thee, and hallowest them . . . ' The direct manner of the first describes an action of God (and seems to tell Him what He already knows!). The second is a gentler indirect affirmation reminding us of a quality of God. The Liturgy acquires a more contemplative pace when chanted and said in such language. I prefer the second.

Language is part of Tradition, just as are icons and church architecture. The Divine Liturgy is sometimes called a verbal icon. There are clear traditions governing the painting of icons. So there can be for the composition of liturgical texts. If we modernise language, what else shall we modernise? The urge to modern forms probably started in the C of E with Robinson's book 'Honest to God' in 1962 - we know what happened since. Our language should be the best we have to offer to God. As to clear meaning, modern idioms will not necessarily illuminate meaning: exegesis is needed for that. The real meaning of 'Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem' (KJV) is not any more or less clear to me for being rendered, 'In your good pleasure make Zion prosper; build up the walls of Jerusalem'(NIV).

Modernisms of any sort are a western, liberal, Protestant tendency. I recall a priest in a village in Cyprus saying, 'the western churches (he meant Anglican and Protestant) bring heaven down to earth; but the Orthodox Church makes earth ascend to heaven'. As the envoys of St Vladimir famously said when reporting their experience of the Divine Liturgy in Aghia Sofia, 'we knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven for surely there is no such beauty on earth. Only this we know: God dwells there among men'.

#18 Anthony

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Posted 08 June 2007 - 10:18 AM

Thank you, Olga and Andreas, for some very good points, and I apologize for having partly misunderstood one of Andreas' previous posts. I have to go soon, but perhaps I can just make a couple of brief comments.

The fact that modern English does not distinguish between 2nd sg and 2nd pl does create (slightly) more scope for ambiguity, and Andreas has pointed out a couple of good examples where the extra pronoun would come in useful. But then, Hebrew would distinguish further between 2nd sg masculine and feminine (as would Russian in the past tense), and from that point of view all forms of English and even Classical Greek seem to open the door to ambiguities. Ambiguity is a fact of life in languages and a problem for all translators; different languages offer different resources and make different distinctions in trying to limit it. But I don't think it is sustainable to take the line that the more inflections a language has, the more suitable it is for Orthodox worship. If that was the case the Finns and Lithuanians would already be half way to heaven, while it would be surprising that the Chinese could string two sentences together, never mind build a culture.

As regards particular translations using modern English, I generally like Fr Ephraim's translations (for what my opinion is worth), but for those who don't, I will just observe that there is usually more than one way of rendering a text in modern English. A lot more factors come into play than the choice between "thou" and "you". Issues such as the balance between literalness and naturalness, and the preservation of connotations which are important to Orthodox exegesis, are perhaps more important, and I suspect more profitable to discuss; in fact this is where I had hoped to pick the brains of those who have experience of Orthodox translation.

I find it slightly amusing that Orthodox who want to abandon Cranmer's English should be accused of being Protestantizers. Tradition and living the life of the Church is the most important prerequisite to translation, and there I don't think there is any disagreement. But where do we look to for tradition in this case? English Orthodoxy as such hasn't been around long enough to have its own "tradition", and Orthodox tradition in general has little to say about English. But I know some of the translators who use modern English, and they are very much concerned with such matters as studying the practice of the various schools of Slavonic translators, and have spent a lifetime immersing themselves in the Fathers so as not to miss allusions and cross-references - just as is true of the many excellent translators who choose to use "thou". These are the more important things, I think.

#19 John Charmley

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Posted 08 June 2007 - 10:45 AM

Dear Anthony,

I very much agree with the general line you take on translations - and since you have such experience, one might think twice before not doing so!

But before anyone else points this out, can I say that when you write

English Orthodoxy as such hasn't been around long enough to have its own "tradition", and Orthodox tradition in general has little to say about English

that is true only in the contemporary world.

From the earliest times through to the eleventh century England was an Orthodox country, and there is plenty in the Orthodox tradition from those times which can help us today. Indeed, if one takes the view that the relationship between the English and Rome was always a problematic one (for which the evidence is pretty strong), it may be doubted how 'unorthodox' England was before the Protestant Reformation - but let us not go there.

For those interested in this aspect of things, there is a marvellous site, http://orthodoxengland.org.uk/hp.htm run by Fr. Andrew Phillips, whose journal, Orthodox England is a wonderful source of information and spiritual guidance. In his own inspiring words:

'Orthodox England' refers to the Western Christianity of the First Millennium, especially in England. We believe that an understanding of the spiritual and cultural roots of the First Millennium Orthodox Church and Faith in the West is essential to both Orthodox and Non-Orthodox. We believe that an appreciation of that Faith before its political and theological transformation in the eleventh century, before Western Christianity became institutionalised by Papacy and State alike, is indispensable to us if we are to find our bearings in the modern world.


Those who do not know it will, I think, be edified by it - as many of us have been for some time; he does a great work.

In Christ,

John

#20 Anthony

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Posted 08 June 2007 - 10:55 AM

Dear John,

Of course you are right about Orthodox England. That tradition is of great importance to me, and thank you for the link. I was indeed talking only about the modern context.

You are wrong only on one thing - I have no experience of Orthodox translation whatsoever, I am merely trying to learn from those who have.

Anthony




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