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Translating the liturgy into English


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#1 Ryan

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 03:11 AM

This topic has been discussed tangentially on a few other threads, but I wanted to devote a thread to the question of translating the liturgies into English, and especially the style of English to be used. In Anglophone Orthodox jurisdictions, there occur a wide array of stylistic choices. In the US, ROCOR and the Antiochians seem to adhere most closely to "Elizabethan" English (with some simplification and modernization of usages). The Greeks, ACROD, and others adopt the more contemporary idiom (addressing God as "you"). My own jurisdiction, the OCA, addresses God as "thou" but addresses the Theotokos and other saints with "you," presumably because the translators think of "you" as less formal, contrary to its earlier connotation of respect. I personally think this third way might be the least preferable option, for its inconsistency.

Assuming the translators can do it properly, with an eye to good grammar and an ear to good prosody, I personally prefer the more "archaic" approach, which some call "traditional English" or "liturgical English", though I have seen a few very good modernized "you who" translations (e.g., those done by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash).

I hope we can have a good discussion about the pros and cons of these various methods. Maybe when the Anglophone Orthodox jurisdictions are working more closely together, the question of a unified English style will arise.

#2 Dcn Alexander Haig

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 06:18 AM

This topic has been discussed tangentially on a few other threads, but I wanted to devote a thread to the question of translating the liturgies into English, and especially the style of English to be used. In Anglophone Orthodox jurisdictions, there occur a wide array of stylistic choices. In the US, ROCOR and the Antiochians seem to adhere most closely to "Elizabethan" English (with some simplification and modernization of usages). The Greeks, ACROD, and others adopt the more contemporary idiom (addressing God as "you"). My own jurisdiction, the OCA, addresses God as "thou" but addresses the Theotokos and other saints with "you," presumably because the translators think of "you" as less formal, contrary to its earlier connotation of respect. I personally think this third way might be the least preferable option, for its inconsistency.

Assuming the translators can do it properly, with an eye to good grammar and an ear to good prosody, I personally prefer the more "archaic" approach, which some call "traditional English" or "liturgical English", though I have seen a few very good modernized "you who" translations (e.g., those done by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash).

I hope we can have a good discussion about the pros and cons of these various methods. Maybe when the Anglophone Orthodox jurisdictions are working more closely together, the question of a unified English style will arise.


There seem to be some Orthodox who are almost violent about the choice of English, be it "you" or "thee/thou", and that their choice is the best. Personally I prefer the "thee/thou" translations but there are drawbacks. The main one, as far as I can see, is using the (archaic) second person singular shows an intimacy in the language but for many modern English speakers, they do not see it that way and think it creates a barrier between them and God.

There are two things in the current situation which I find difficult. Firstly, when two different styles are used in the same service, swapping between "thee/thou" and "you". This often happens when you swap between service books (as is often necessary!) for different parts of the service. Also, in "you" churches, often the old style of the Lord's Prayer is used, 'Our Father, Who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name ...' which is then followed by the priest saying 'For Yours is the Kingdom ...' To my ear, this sounds uncomfortable and not quite right.

Secondly, going to other parishes which use slightly different translations. This is not necessarily a "thou/you" clash, but using slightly different wordings is annoying when trying to join in with, for example, the Creed: "consubstantial/of one essence" etc.

Wishing you a joyful Fast
With love in Christ

Alex

#3 Richard A. Downing

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 10:37 AM

There is also the important question of correctly and sympathetically rendering the original Greek (or Slavonic in the case of recent prayers). For instance singular and plural of pronouns, and the degree of intimacy implied. Elizabethan English is much richer in that context.

But, then I was brought up in a time, and attended Anglican Church, when Thomas Cranmer's English of the Book of Common Prayer, plus the King James (Authorised) Version of the Bible was all that was available. I still like the title Holy Ghost for the Paraclete, (someone told me it's derived from the Old German for Holy Guest) but then Spirit or Breath is a better translation of Pneuma.

My older Greek friends (in an English parish of Russian tradition, but no Slavonic in church) tell me that they find the Liturgy easier to understand in English than in the Church Greek they were brought up with.

Like Alex, I find the swapping between one style and another breaks concentration.

But in the end it's what your Bishop likes that matters, I guess.

#4 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 11:39 AM

I agree that consistency is a prerequisite. I would counsel a little caution about the translations by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash; there is an unhappy history behind the production of the Thyateira Greek and English liturgy book but the point is there are errors in it. For example, he has 'spiritual service' instead 'rational service', the former being wrong both linguistically and theologically. As to style, in his prayer book in Ps 22(23), he has, 'he turns my soul back' instead of, 'he restoreth my soul'. It may be that for English-speaking Orthodox from a RC background (as, I believe, Fr Ephrem) there is an understandable distance from traditional C of E language. Having thought about this issue over some years, and trying to put to one side my own preference for KJV/BCP-style English, I think there are far more arguments in favour of it than for modern English.

#5 Fr Raphael Vereshack

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 01:20 PM

Alex Haig wrote:

Personally I prefer the "thee/thou" translations but there are drawbacks. The main one, as far as I can see, is using the (archaic) second person singular shows an intimacy in the language but for many modern English speakers, they do not see it that way and think it creates a barrier between them and God.


I also prefer thee/thou. I would say though that what we face when we choose such language is more a challenge in intended meaning. Thus thee/thou in the original is intended to convey intimacy. It also refers to the singular rather than the plural which should not be forgotten.

On the other hand though we who favour thee/thou also look to its majesty. We openly say that retaining this language helps prevent the drift into informality that we see around us in society. But is this point concerning majesty really consistent with the one above concerning intimacy? Has it not added a new tone to the language not originally intended?

So what is needed? A church language free of partisan perspective or bias- yes, but which is difficult. Maybe more- entering into the mindset of the original hymnographers. Somehow consistent with what I just posted on another thread it would be helpful here to know more of and to listen more to the hymnography in its original language so as to sense its original intent.

In Christ- Fr Raphael

#6 Brian Patrick Mitchell

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 01:59 PM

Thus thee/thou in the original is intended to convey intimacy. It also refers to the singular rather than the plural which should not be forgotten.


It does help to know whether Scripture is speaking of one person or more. In Exodus 33, Moses seems to prompt God to approve of the whole people of Israel, saying, “wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? Is it not in that thou goest with us?” But God replies to Moses in the singular, “I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name.” (Ex. 33:16-17)

As for intimacy, there doesn't seem to be any sense of that left in the usage of thee and thou. Majesty has overtaken it.

Another consideration is that courtesy often keeps us from addressing others with an emphatic "You." Sometimes when we do, it sounds condescending, as in "You people." We more often say things like "You fool" and "You idiot" than "You wise one" or "You genius." This may account for some of the discomfort in the modern liturgical use of you. In general, arguments for everyday English ignore such subtleties.

In Christ, Dn. Patrick

#7 John Choate

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 02:25 PM

I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, and the use of the King James Bible was considered the only true bible. So, my formative brain sees the Elizabethan English as more appropriate for church. It's like when I asked my Greek priest why he says some things in Greek in the middle of the English liturgy, and he replies, "Because it sounds right!"

However, i've heard from native Greek speakers that the Elizabethan English is more difficult for them to understand quickly. If that's the case, and assuming our desire is to present the Liturgy in the language of the people, then more modern English needs to be employed. I pray though that an English translation can be found that is more universal. It's frustrating to learn one apolytikion in one translation then try to follow along at another parish with the word order all mixed up.

#8 Caleb Shoemaker

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 02:42 PM

Just my own two cents worth, but "thee" and "thou" are actually informal uses and "you" is formal. Addressing God as "Thee" or "Thou" is actually a statement of closeness and intimacy with a person on a very familiar level. Why the Virgin Mary is addressed as "You" over God may have something to do with the intimacy possible with God through union with the Trinity? Maybe because He is the Father through whom we all receive our life? Just speculating. For more information on the use of thee and thou, check out http://www.elizabeth...mpendium/8.html

#9 Father David Moser

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 02:50 PM

It's like when I asked my Greek priest why he says some things in Greek in the middle of the English liturgy, and he replies, "Because it sounds right!"

I will occasionally do the same thing with Slavonic - some things just don't translate well. Otoh, I will occasionally throw out something in English in the middle of the Slavonic liturgy not because it "sounds right" but because at that moment I'm working from memory and the English is what comes out.

Fr David Moser

#10 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 03:25 PM

For those of us from Yorkshire, 'thee' and 'thou' are still used in daily speech!

I have met a lot of foreigners (why does that word now sound pejorative?) at the monastery here over nearly twenty years, and those to whom I have spoken about this matter do not find the language used there (KJV-style) a problem. As I have already mentioned, my wife has no trouble with it. It is also true that some Greeks find even such English easier than Church Greek. It is interesting to note that Elder Sophrony insisted on the use of KJV-style English at the monastery here in Essex. Arguments are one thing: the opinion of a great elder is another.

#11 Thomas Carroll

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 03:29 PM

The Greek language of the Holy Scriptures and of the Divine Services distinguishes in the second person only between singular and plural. The second person singuar pronouns and verbs used to address God indicate neither the degree of our intimacy with Him nor the loftiness of His majesty, but only that He is one. It is in this way, therefore, that we must understand thou in biblical and liturgical English. Any attempt to make thou in these contexts indicate either familiarity or majesty constitutes a superimposition of superfluous and subjective distinctions on the language of the Church.

#12 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 03:35 PM

The Greek language of the Holy Scriptures and of the Divine Services distinguishes in the second person only between singular and plural. The second person singuar pronouns and verbs used to address God indicate neither the degree of our intimacy with Him nor the loftiness of His majesty, but only that He is one. It is in this way, therefore, that we must understand thou in biblical and liturgical English. Any attempt to make thou in these contexts indicate either familiarity or majesty constitutes a superimposition of superfluous and subjective distinctions on the language of the Church.


I agree and believe this to be an important point. The theology of the Holy Trinity can be distorted by modern English's inability to differentiate singular and plural in the second person. There are also passages in the Gospels where Christ is talking to one person and then starts speaking to a number of persons, and modern English cannot show this change without some linguistic contrivance which does violence to the text.

#13 Brian Patrick Mitchell

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 04:18 PM

The Greek language of the Holy Scriptures and of the Divine Services distinguishes in the second person only between singular and plural. The second person singuar pronouns and verbs used to address God indicate neither the degree of our intimacy with Him nor the loftiness of His majesty, but only that He is one. It is in this way, therefore, that we must understand thou in biblical and liturgical English. Any attempt to make thou in these contexts indicate either familiarity or majesty constitutes a superimposition of superfluous and subjective distinctions on the language of the Church.


I agree on issue of singular or plural, but not the "superimposition of superfluous or subjective distinctions." These distinctions are not arbitrary impositions but traditional usages among English-speaking Christians. To say that they are not allowed because the Greeks don't have the same tradition is to say that Christianity can only be expressed through Greek language and culture.

And the Greek of our lituriges is not and never was the Greek of the streets. It was always a learned, respectful, traditional Greek. What we want is a learned, respectful, traditional English. Whether it expresses intimacy or majesty is another matter, not so important.

In Christ, Dn Patrick

Edited by Brian Patrick Mitchell, 19 March 2010 - 04:38 PM.


#14 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 05:02 PM

Intimacy is expressed by our use of the word 'Father' when addressing God, an intimacy sanctioned and granted to us by Christ's teaching us The Lord's Prayer, 'Our Father . . . ', and other Gospel references to our Father in heaven. The point about KJV-style English is that the language reached its greatest level in the very early 17th century, and for style it is unmatched. Thus, in using it, we offer to God the best we have.

#15 Archimandrite Irenei

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 06:54 PM

I think perhaps an important point to remember is that becoming 'language worshippers' is a common pastime these days. It is good to see, objectively, dispassionately, what are the strengths and weaknesses of various styles of language, various forms of speech, etc.; but we must all resist the urge to deify the tool above its object.

INXC, Fr Irenei

#16 Thomas Carroll

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 07:21 PM

Dear Deacon Patrick,

Thank you very much for responding to my post. My response follows below, interpolated between segments of yours:

I agree on issue of singular or plural, but not the "superimposition of superfluous or subjective distinctions." These distinctions are not arbitrary impositions but traditional usages among English-speaking Christians. To say that they are not allowed because the Greeks don't have the same tradition is to say that Christianity can only be expressed through Greek language and culture.



The point is not that these distinctions are not allowed, but that they are superfluous and subjective -- superfluous, because they add to the text something that is not in the original, and subjective, because, as they do not reside objectively in the original, they must be supplied by the judgment of an individual translator or reader. If traditional English usage is incapable of expressing no more and no less than the Greek original, then traditional English usage must be used in new ways to indicate new meanings. This is how Cicero made Latin a more suitable vehicle for the dissemination of the Greek classical tradition, how Tertullian made Latin a more suitable vehicle for the dissemination of the Ecclesiastical Tradition, and how English writers of the Renaissance made English a more suitable vehicle for the dissemination of both. This is not at all the same as "to say that Christianity can only be expressed through Greek language and culture." It is to say, rather, that we should neither add to nor subtract from that which the Holy Fathers have handed down to us.

And the Greek of our lituriges is not and never was the Greek of the streets. It was always a learned, respectful, traditional Greek.



Literate, certainly, but not, on the whole, learned in the proper sense (an exception that comes readily to mind are the verses read during the Synaxarion of Matins, which often employ Homeric diction, morphology, and meter). A comparison of the language of the various prayers we have received from St. Basil with that of his ΠΡΟΣ ΤΟΥΣ ΝΕΟΥΣ ΟΠΩΣ ΑΝ ΕΞ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΩΝ ΩΦΕΛΟΙΝΤΟ ΛΟΓΩΝ will amply demonstrate my point. That liturgical Greek is respectful is due to the meanings that it expresses, not to the register of speech that it employs. Liturgical Greek is, on the whole, traditional, but in the tradition of the Septuagint, not of classical Hellenism.

What we want is a learned, respectful, traditional English.



I agree, with the substitution of "literate" for "learned."

Whether it expresses intimacy or majesty is another matter, not so important.



I disagree, if its expression of these adds to or subtracts from the meaning of the source text.

The best English liturgical translations are, in my opinion, those published by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline (my endorsement of their publications does not, of course, constitute an endorsement of their schism or of the egregious moral failings of several of their monks). Which liturgical translations do you prefer?

In Christ,
Thomas Carroll

#17 Brian Patrick Mitchell

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 08:50 PM

Thank you, Mr. Carroll. Literate is a better word. It occurred to me too late to make the change.

All translations are subjective in that, in your words, "they must be supplied by the judgment of an individual translator or reader." But translators work within their own linguistic traditions and can only use what they have available to them that others speaking the same language will understand. And in translating, it is impossible to avoid subtle shifts in sense, since there are few if any absolute equivalents of words in different languages. So either we should all be using Greek or we should understand that Greek itself is limited in its ability to express our awesome mysteries and that sometimes other languages might do it better. The latter is closer to the Orthodox tradition, which has never insisted on Greek the way Rome insisted on Latin or the way Muslims still insist on Arabic.

In Christ, Dn Patrick

#18 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 19 March 2010 - 11:39 PM

I think perhaps an important point to remember is that becoming 'language worshippers' is a common pastime these days. It is good to see, objectively, dispassionately, what are the strengths and weaknesses of various styles of language, various forms of speech, etc.; but we must all resist the urge to deify the tool above its object.


Language is, indeed, a tool like the others we use in our devotions to and worship of God. I think that a due concern for the use of language reflects the fact that language is given to us by God to worship Him. Tools should be of good quality and used with skill by craftsmen. Just as fine materials are used with skill by an iconographer to produce a worthy object, as the prosphora baker takes fine flour and makes the bread with prayer, care and skill, as devout nuns will spend a year more making embroideries, and so on, so the hymnographer should take care in selecting the best words he can and use his skill to provide us with language which is fitting for its purpose, especially when that purpose includes public prayer and worship. Yet, just as an almost worthless paper icon may be a conduit of grace, so a simple and awkwardly expressed but deeply sincere prayer said from the heart can attract God's grace and mercy.

#19 Bryan J. Maloney

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Posted 30 March 2011 - 08:41 PM

There is also the important question of correctly and sympathetically rendering the original Greek (or Slavonic in the case of recent prayers). For instance singular and plural of pronouns, and the degree of intimacy implied. Elizabethan English is much richer in that context.


I could make a case that Japanese is remarkably rich in nuances of expressing intimacy. Should we adopt Japanese, in that case? The point is that, the richness of Elizabethan English is ultimately irrelevant if nobody gets that richness. "Thee" and "Thou" now mean "we are extremely distant from each other and must maintain that distance for Thou art so very very very very very very very very very very very high above me and Thou stayest so very far way from our polluted and sinful world, for Thou art distant and far and Thou must be addressedeth in the mosteth formaleth of languageseth for to have be stressingeth how fareth Thou art frometh me-eth.

#20 Rdr Daniel (R.)

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Posted 30 March 2011 - 08:50 PM

Sorry but most of us know not Japanese and in that case we might as well use Greek.
Mayhap to some thou doth mean "we are distant to each other" but I think not that such can be spoken of all. It indeed showth not the farness but the nearness else ye and you would be reddened unto God in praise. And yet thee and thou are rendered thus. Mayhap if one were to know not the meaning then he ought to learn.

P.S. I am afraid that the later half of thy post thou hast strayed far from the rightful rendering of our tongue and this both in the new and the old.




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