On Liturgical Languages - part 2

I have been a fan of Innocent (Dr Clark) Carlton since my early days of life in the Orthodox Church.  He is the author of The Truth: What Every Roman Catholic Should Know About the Orthodox Church.  Having come from an Anglo-Cathlolic background, where much of what I had been taught and many of my assumptions had been moulded by the culture of drawing on flawed Latin understandings in order to combat protestantism within Anglicanism, this seemed to be written for me.  It was a great help to me in understanding some of the core differences of doctrine and culture in more than a superficial way between that and the Orthodox Faith.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when, about eighteen months ago, I discovered his podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.  He does a series called Faith and Philosophy, which provides much food for thought.  I enjoy many of the episodes, (although his and my understanding of how best to apply our faith to the politics of our time may not exactly be in harmony).  The most recent to date deals with the question of the form of English to be used in the Orthodox worship of God.

I have some of my own views on the subject but find that Dr Carlton's piece provides a worthy springboard, largely because I agree with much of what he says, and he articulates it better than I could.

He mentions that many of the current English translations are bad.  Well, I share the same view but perhaps not for the same reasons.  I realise that what follows is likely to offend some, for which I ask forgiveness.  However, I do believe it to be true.  A good number of the available translations of the psalter, prayers, and services were done by people whose first language is not English and who learnt their English from Americans.  Now, this is not meant to be a slight of my transatlantic brothers and sisters in Christ but the fact remains that American English and British English are really not the same language as each other.  When I was younger, and living in the Caribbean, I had a step-uncle who was Spanish.  He was a pilot, so travelled a fair bit, and when he heard the form of Spanish being spoken by Latin Americans and Caribbean people in the Spanish-speaking islands, he winced.  The daughter language had developed in its own way that was quite distinct from the norms of the mother language, (as is to be expected), and to a Spaniard, it sounded bizarre.  To some extent, the same is true when Britons encounter the forms of English spoken and written by many Americans.  There are many current words and phrases used by Americans that fell out of British usage centuries ago.  I always marvel to see Americans write "gotten" as though it is a current word.  Of course, for them it is, but nobody in Britain has used that word for a hundred years or more.  The past participle of to get is got: gotten is an archaism.  There are also new words and phrases on both sides that have not travelled across the Atlantic either way.  This is not a criticism of how people in different parts of the world communicate but rather my way of highlighting that they do communicate differently, even if their languages bear the same name.  Those languages develop differently, coloured by different histories and different cultures.

This is a significant factor in deciding on translations, and it is one that the Roman Catholic church has got right, at least in its approach.  Its new mass of 2002 (in Latin) has been translated into various languages, and the English translations were rolled out a few months ago.  Yet, the official translation used in the United States of America is not the same as that in England & Wales.  While the translators may have drawn on each other's work, they were working very much as local groups, producing translations for local use.

Is there any need for Orthodox to follow the example of Rome?  Well, to give you an idea, the ROCOR-produced Jordanville translations, while almost universal in the North American dioceses of ROCOR, are not used by any of the English-speaking ROCOR parishes in England.  We may be few in number but we are all agreed that they are less than satisfactory for our use here. (And that is the sanitised version for public consumption. There are other, good translations blessed for use in ROCOR but they are not as well known because not everybody has the facilities that Jordanville has to mass-produce liturgical books).  Britain is a land where most non-Orthodox Christians use a form of modern English in church, and where the largest Orthodox jurisdiction does the same.  The King James Bible does not have the same sort of following among British Christians that it does in parts of the USA, (many people have never heard a reading from it), and we are generally a less religious society anyway, meaning that it is not difficult to find people from at least two generations who have had no real church connection for any of their lives.  What all of this means is that we do not have large swathes of converts coming from churches where they were accustomed to 17th-century English.  Two implications of this are that proportionally fewer people here have an attachment to such language and fewer people here have a working understanding of such language.  I am not saying that Orthodox Worship ought to be in the common language of the street, but it does mean that, in finding a suitable form of liturgical English, we have a different starting point from somebody like Dr Carlton, for instance.

To give you an example, in the podcast, we were told of the beauty of A Psalter for Prayer, recently published by Jordanville.  This is the work of Mr David James, and Dr Carlton couldn't do enough to sing its praises.  Then he read an excerpt, and I was left wondering whether he had perhaps picked up the wrong book by mistake.  It certainly did not fit the description that I had just heard.  Mr James' work is an adaptation of an existing psalter to bring it in line with the Septuagint, thereby making it a psalter acceptable for Orthodox use.  For this, he is to be congratulated.  We need more people with these skills to be doing this work for Christ's Church. His mistake lies in his choice of psalter: that of Miles Coverdale.

Now The Psalter According to the Seventy is not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is OK.  Some parts of it are quite lovely, and some of the choices have made me actually think about what I am praying in a way that the Coverdale of my childhood did not, due to a combination of familiarity and the use of words in a way that no longer carries the originally intended meaning, (more on that later).  However, the translators do seem to like their haths and other -eths. Those who study the development of English tell us that, even in the seventeenth century, when these older spellings were current, the words were not actually pronounced like that.  People may have seen hath but what they said was has.  They may have seen walketh, but what they said was something along the lines of walke's - much closer to our own walks.  The point is that, by insisting on these old spellings in an age where we are likely to pronounce them as we see them, publishers of liturgical texts are not merely continuing an older form of English, but they are trying to resuscitate a form of English that, at least in speech, was already dead 450 years ago!  Is there any good reason for this?

A Psalter for Prayer has this same problem with verbs as The Psalter According to the Seventy but, being based on Coverdale, manages to further compound the problem with all manner of words that no longer exist, at least not in the same sense: doth, stablish, lift (rather than lifted), and so forth.  It sounds clumsy and is simply a non-starter for liturgical use.  Our parish shall likely stick with the Psalter of Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore). It largely complies with the consensus of English-language ROCOR parishes here in our diocese, which generally involves replacing such phrases as them that with those who, and rendering of the third person singular verb in its modern form.  It's amazing what those two seemingly minor changes do to the make the psalms grate less on the ear.  We ROCORites in Britain also tend to use more readily understood words (splendour/radiance rather than effulgence, as an example), while generally showing a preference for a commonly-understood alternative word to a Romance word where such exists, (hallow or make holy instead of sanctify, for instance).  Our Western Rite people here have identified that the liturgical material so far made available to them has been produced by non-British, ex-Anglican converts who love their Prayer Book language, and whose efforts simply won't fly here.

This brings me to the matter of comprehensibility.  This is another point on which I both agree and disagree with Dr Carlton.  It is true that nothing in Orthodoxy is intended as a quick-fix.  The Orthodox life is one of nourishment and growth.  We are imbued with the prayers, music, actions, readings, and all of the elements of Orthodox worship over time and through repetition, so it is not an aim of ours for Orthodox services to be immediately and completely understood by somebody walking in from off the street.  Instant gratification is not the Orthodox way.  However, that nourishment and growth become difficult when the words of the services are incomprehensible, and the readings are unclear due to employing archaic words and grammatical forms.  Many of the Orthodox people in Britain do not have English as a first language, and when the English that they hear in church is so incredibly different from the English that they have learnt, it can be difficult for them to join in.  I'm afraid that I absolutely reject Dr Carlton's umbrage at the suggestion that this ought to be taken into consideration.  His comparison of this with an English-speaker going to Greece or Russia and asking for them to break with their tradition and request services in modern Greek/Russian is nonsense.  The two situations are not comparable.  Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Arabs, and others from traditional Orthodox lands are not coming in as outsiders and asking us to break with any long-standing tradition.  The fact is that we Orthodox in the west do not have a particular liturgical linguistic heritage.  What they are doing is bringing their Orthodoxy to lands where it has been lost, and joining those of us who are native to this part of the world in trying to establish an English-language tradition that is Orthodox.  After all, the forms of English found in the current books are also alien to many native speakers of English.
'Virtually all know the words of this psalm and they continue to sing it at every age, without knowing, however, the sense of what has been said. This is not a small charge, to sing something every day, putting forth words from the mouth, without searching out the meaning of the thoughts residing in the words.'
- St John Chrysostom
Aside from anything else, for the sake of basic good sense, I wish translators would realise that, when the meaning of a word has changed so very drastically that not only will its intended meaning not be conveyed, but also a meaning very different from that intended will be understood in its place, the time has come to stop using that word.  I can think of a few examples that occur regularly:
  • Most people know that the prefix pre suggests something that is placed before something else, and may be able to work out that the old word vent is essentially the same word as wend, (as in "to wend one's way") but that does not change the fact that, to most speakers of English today, the word prevent no longer carries the simple meaning "to go before".  The usual meaning has the additional sense of getting in before an incident in order to stop it happening.  Therefore, "Prevent us, O Lord", makes no sense (Prevent us from doing what exactly?).  If what is meant is "Go before us, O Lord", then that is what should be said.
  • Acknowledge.  This occurs in some translations of the Creed and in the prayer/hymn Of thy Mystical Supper... While there is nothing wrong with the word per se, in context it is quite unsatisfying.  I do not merely acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.  This makes it sound as though I suppose I accept it because that is what the Church teaches but don't feel particularly strongly about it myself - a sort of passing nod.  Acknowledging is what the United Nations does to a new governmental regime somewhere.  It is there so they acknowledge that it is there.  But is this the spirit in which we wish to sing our faith?  Compared to "I confess one baptism for the remission of sins", "I acknowledge", which, in the 17th century, may have had the same meaning, now sounds weak and insipid, in a way that the Christian's confession of his faith ought not to be.
  • "We offer Thee incense, O Christ, as an odour of spiritual fragrance"... "...having accepted Them (the Holy Things) on his heavenly altar as an odour of spiritual fragrance..."   I mean, really?  Who sat down at a desk one day and thought this would be a good idea?  In my Anglican childhood, I grew up with Hymns Ancient and Modern, and one my favourite hymns was Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Anthem, so I am well aware of the verse that begins "Bring your harps and bring your odours" (although I note that more recent revisions of that hymnal have rendered it as "Bring your harps and bring your incense").  Yet, even though I know what it means, it still makes me giggle because it sounds so ridiculous.  Let's be honest with ourselves: while odour may once have referred generally to any sort of smell, however revolting or pleasing, today it means only one thing: something that stinks.  We use it to refer to rotten eggs, unwashed armpits, and flatulence.  It is not a word that we should be using to refer to the offering of incense to God, and most certainly not to the offering of the eucharistic Liturgy and with it, the Holy Things of the Body and Blood of the Saviour, particularly when the simple modification to the much more elegant "aroma of spiritual fragrance" would convey the sense so much better.
In summary, therefore, here are some of my thoughts on what ought to be taken into consideration to produce good liturgical English:
  • It should be recognisable as English.  Words whose meanings have changed so radically that their old meanings are not even a memory should be avoided.  Alien turns of phrase should not be imported from translations made in, by, and for another country where the same language is used very differently.
  • It should be church English.  I mean that it should not be the English of the street or the English of a medical report.  There should be a beauty of rhythm and poetry in the midst of accuracy.
  • It must be accurate.  Care must be taken that the doctrinal sense of the services is not lost.  These words are the tools by which we pass on our tradition.  There may be a legitimate discussion to be had about the ability of modern English to convey the distinctions between prayers addressing the Holy Trinity and those addressing one of the three Divine Persons, having lost any distinction between singular and plural in the second person.
  • If an older form is preferred, then the elements of this should not be so archaic that it poses a real and unnecessary challenge for non-native speakers of English and indeed many native English speakers to understand it.  The prayers may not be offered to them but they are offered on their behalf.  If the prayers are audible, they must be such that the people can truly enter into them from the heart and be moulded by their beauty, giving their "Amen".

Please, let us have services and prayers that are in an elevated form of English, worthy of the Church's offering of worship to God, which may serve as a vehicle for God's people to truly enter into that offering of worship, so that, when priest says to the people, "Let us lift up our hearts", they may truly respond, "We lift them up to the Lord".

5 responses:

Subdeacon David Gould said...

Here in ROCOR Australia, the Jordanville English perhaps causes similar issues, although for the many ex-Anglicans who are Orthodox now, the King James or Athorised Bible and the Cranmerian language of the BCP is far more resonant, than in the UK, which is an irony. The current Jordanville use of 'Very Most Reverend' is indeed regrettable. For me at least, calling God "You" seems plain disrespectful, which is why the pedestrian liturgies of post Vatican II feel on many a deaf Anglican ear.

Fr. Carlos said...

Michael, I agree with you wholeheartedly. It would a great blessing to have someone give us a traslation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) similar to N.T Wright's translation of the New Testamament. One that uses today's English, with accurate (Orthodox) use of the Greek, and still poetic.

Michael Astley said...

Thank you, both, for your thoughts on this.

Subdeacon David, what you say about how Jordanville texts are received in the ANZ diocese is interesting, as well as the ironic situation you point out about ex-Anglicans' attachment to particular forms.

As for "Very Most Reverend", I happen to know that they were warned about this before it first went to press. Yet the decision was taken to proceed with this bizarre attempt to qualify a superlative. It is grammatical nonsense that a small investment in proper copy-editing and proofreading would have eliminated.

I don't feel the same about the use of You to address God. I was brought up on it in church and in private reading of Scripture, so it just sounds natural to me. I also have no problem with Thou, as King James and Coverdale were used for the readings and psalms at church. My parish priest feels the same as you do, though. I think this is one of those things that is about personal attachment more than anything else. After all, when it was current English, there was nothing particularly formal or elevated about Thou, to my knowledge. In places were it survives in the local dialect, such as in parts of Yorkshire, it is used in a familiar way. Asking a child to repeat, I have heard a mother ask, 'What did tha (thou) say?'

Fr Carlos, I haven't read N.T. Wright's New Testament. Is a translation available online?

Somebody who read this post linked me to the psalter of Archimandrite Lazarus. Being a translation from the Septuagint and balancing dignity and poetry with intelligibility, I think that this is the best psalter that I have ever encountered. For those who like something traditional-sounding, all that needs to be done is alter the second-person pronouns and verbs accordingly. In fact, with those changes, we could probably use this in our parish without any objection.

I understand that he did the Gospels as well, Fr Carlos, and a friend has promised to send his translation to me. If you like the psalter, I would be happy to forward this to you when it comes.

Anonymous said...

As an American, I concur with your insistence that our language has significantly different word usage than British English. One simple example jumped out at me when I read your bullet-pointed summary. You wrote, "If the prayers are audible, they must be such that the people can truly enter into them from the heart and be moulded by their beauty."

The phrase "moulded by their beauty" seemed comical from my perspective. In the US, particularly in the Deep South, we nearly always are fighting mold, by which I mean any number of invasive fungi, some of which are toxic or even deadly. Though we do spell the word as m-o-l-d, seeing your spelling of "moulded" immediately struck me as an archaic way of stating that something became "moldy", or full of mold. A sentence connecting moulded/molded with beauty, thus seemed a non sequitur.

Michael Astley said...

Yes. There are many otger examples both ways, I am sure. We just need to be aware of these things.

One of the agreements of the pan-Orthodox Bishops' Cobference for the British Isles has been to work on a liturgical translation. This may take years (I do not know of a liturgical committee yet having been set up to set the ball in motion) but that is better, I think, than a rush job that displeases all people equally. My main hope is that it is a worthy offering that allows for the jurisdictional variations.

On a side note, I am glad for your contribution and always welcome new people to comment. :-) However, I only ask that those who do so without logging in include some sort of signature so that they don't simply appear as "Anonymous". Thank you so much.

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