From the July/August, 1999 issue of Touchstone

East Meets English by William J. Tighe

East Meets English

The International Symposium on English Translations of Byzantine Liturgical Texts

by William J. Tighe

An ecumenical Catholic and Orthodox “symposium” was held at St. Basil’s College, Stamford, Connecticut from June 17 through 20, 1998. It was jointly sponsored by The Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies of the Faculty of Theology, St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada, and St. Basil’s College, both institutions of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. It brought together a hundred participants, the majority of them Byzantine Catholics from the Melkite, Ruthenian, and Ukrainian Churches, in addition to Orthodox from the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the Orthodox Church in America and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

The scope of the symposium extended from questions of theory to those of accuracy, style, singability, and even—at least as regards the issue of inclusive language (or “horizontally” inclusive language, as the phrase ran)—ideology. It also included surveys of the English translations in use in the three major Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches in North America. This was the first conference on the theme, and the organizers expressed the intention of repeating it annually.

Shibboleths & Inclusive Language

The keynote address by the Reverend Professor Robert Taft, S.J., of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome (himself an Eastern Catholic) dealt with translation problems with respect to liturgy, language, and ideology. He made known his dislike of “sacral,” “numinous,” or “archaic” liturgical English (as confusing obfuscation with mystery). He endorsed “horizontally” inclusive language, on the grounds that liturgical translations are for “people of today” and should be in an idiom and style most readily comprehensible to them.

He prescribed as axiomatic that the nature and style of liturgical translations should be determined by the nature of the recipient rather than the donor language, and that fidelity to the nature of the recipient language must take precedence over that to the donor. Whatever criticisms might be levied against the current International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) translation of the Latin Catholic liturgy into English, the members of the translation team had clearly set forth the principles on which they were to operate before embarking on their task—a thing unheard of among translators of Byzantine liturgical texts into English. He observed also that the very flexibility of the English language itself encouraged clumsy vocabulary and syntactical usage among people lacking a wide experience of reading and writing it.

As a problem of ideology he cited making shibboleths of mistranslations by reading into them matters of deep significance. Examples included “writing ikons” (instead of painting them), translating chram as “temple” rather than “church,” translating Theotokos as “Birthgiver” (an otherwise nonexistent English word; does one say “Good morning, Birthgiver” to one’s mother?), or basing a whole theology on the misunderstanding of “Orthodoxy” as derivative of orthos and doxa (i.e., right worship) rather than, as in truth, of orthos and dokeo (i.e., right teaching). On the issue of gender-inclusive language, he ended with the statement that it is because it gives power to the disenfranchised that it is feared and resisted by the clergy. In the subsequent discussion Archimandrite Serge Keleher noted that what Fr. Taft described as axioms might more accurately be seen as postulates.

Although the issue of inclusive language was seldom explicitly raised in the subsequent course of the conference, there appeared to be a tacit consensus—at least among the experts—that its advocates had won the day. This was in notable contrast to the related issue of traditional versus contemporary English liturgical language, in which there was also a striking contrast between the Eastern Catholics (who have almost universally gone over to the contemporary) and the Orthodox (who are still debating the issue).

A presentation on Thursday morning by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash of St. Andrew’s Monastery, Manchester, England (Greek Orthodox), the chief translator of the 1995 Oxford University Press edition of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (a rendition into elegant contemporary English), dealt in some detail with “Theological and Philological Accuracy.” Beginning with 1 Peter 2:2 and the phrase to logikon adolon gala and the problematic nature of such translations as “the pure spiritual milk” or “rational milk” or “verbal milk”—not to mention the King James Version’s “pure milk of the word” that he described as an obvious attempt to twist the phrase to support the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura—he went on to demonstrate how often the translator must choose between renditions that are problematic in one way or another.

For three hours and a half, interrupted by brief breaks and periods of discussion, Archimandrite Ephrem held his audience’s interest and involvement, not least by means of his witty or pointed asides (such as when he declared that he was not really anti-Protestant, it was just that he could never forgive the Reformers for having replaced the Christian Bible [the Septuagint] with the Hebrew one).

English & Byzantine Catholics

That afternoon’s session featured reports of the history and present status of English as a liturgical language in the three principal Byzantine Catholic Churches in America: the Ruthenian, the Melkite, and the Ukrainian. Fr. David Petras’s presentation on the Ruthenians was more factual than interpretative. The use of English as a liturgical language began about 1950 and spread rapidly; today 90 percent of all services are in English. In 1965 an official translation, one that abandoned the use of Elizabethan English, was approved; as supplemented in 1966 and 1978 this is the version used in Ruthenian churches to this day. A new translation is now in the process of preparation.

As to the Melkites, Bishop Nicholas Samra, an auxiliary bishop of that church, said that before 1966 translations were unofficial and undertaken by the clergy as needed (the first one of these to be published appeared in Detroit in 1949). Before the 1950s it was generally the custom for the officiating priest or bishop to pray in Arabic, while the choir responded in Greek. Now, however, about 90 percent of the services are in English and 10 percent in Arabic in the United States, although in the Canadian diocese Arabic is in greater use.

By contrast, as Archimandrite Serge Keleher noted at the beginning of his presentation on the Ukrainian Catholic scene, the use of English has progressed more slowly among American Ukrainians, with about 50 percent now using English and 50 percent Ukrainian. Until about thirty years ago Church Slavonic was the prescribed and predominant liturgical language, but the slow advance of English and the rapid advance of vernacular Ukrainian (itself a reflection of both a popular resistance to the church’s serving as a vehicle for ethnic assimilation and a continuing immigration from Ukraine) have all but squeezed it out of existence.

Generally, it became evident that while there is little or no hostility to the idea of a common English translation for American Byzantine Catholics, there is no strong will to take the practical steps requisite to effect one.

Majesty in Language

On Friday morning we had presentations by two Orthodox clerical academics: Bishop Kallistos Ware of Oxford University and Fr. Anthony Ugolnik of Franklin and Marshall College on “The Style of the Translation.” Beginning with the observation that the best is the enemy of the good, Bishop Kallistos cited G. K. Chesterton to the effect that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. Translations must inevitably face a conflict between accuracy (faithfulness to the donor language) and fluency (faithfulness to the recipient language). In the bishop’s view, liturgical translations ought to aim at clarity, sobriety, and simplicity, for despite the statements of various observers the liturgical spirit of the Christian East is not properly seen as emotional.

Liturgical language should not be pitched toward individuals of the most limited understanding. Rather, as when addressing an audience, one should aim at the most capable, for it is far worse to be perceived as talking down to the most capable than as going somewhat over the heads of those of lesser understanding. Among his particular observations were (the examples, we were assured, were all drawn from actual translations): that we ought to avoid farfetched language as though it were somehow more poetic (thus, “you have crushed the lion’s teeth” rather than “dentures”; or “drink a new drink” is preferable to “quaff a beverage new”); that we ought not to alter or paraphrase when a literal translation is clear (thus, we should prefer to render hyper tes anothen eirenes as “For the peace from above [or from on high]” rather than “from heaven” or “from God”; eti kai eti as “again and again” rather than “once again”; adiaphthoros [as applied to the Mother of God in the acclamation in the Chrysostom anaphora] as “without corruption” rather than as “without defilement” or “in virginity”; or Theotokos as “Mother of God” rather than as “Godbearer” [which is inaccurate] or “Birthgiver of God” [which is bad English], or else to retain the Greek word); that we should not paraphrase for the sake of musical settings (the music is the vehicle for the words, not vice versa); and that we should always be on guard against frivolity.

Bearing in mind the majesty of God, we should have the same reverence for the language we use of him as we have for the holy icons and the Mysteries of the Church. Some phrases, he continued, are obscure in the original Greek, and so should be translated literally into English. Thus eis tous aionas ton aionon is as obscure in Greek as its equivalent per omnia saecula saeculorum is in Latin; it is a Hebraism carried over from the worship of old Israel, and instead of trying to put it into comprehensible English it would be better to render it as “unto the ages of ages” or “forever and ever” (but not the traditional Anglican version, “world without end,” which seems to imply an anti-Christian notion of the eternity of the universe).

Traditional Language

Finally, he turned to what he called the Big Question: the use of traditional or contemporary English. Here he summarized the arguments on both sides: in sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century England a language of great dignity and power was devised, easily singable and still intelligible, but will not modern English speakers find this language baffling and unattractive, even if they understand it, or at least remote and unreal? Many traditionalists view modern translations as clumsy and over-familiar, and so unworthy of the reverence due to the majesty of God, and some of them see such language as fostering “liberalism” or “secularization,” or at least a frivolous attitude toward the Holy Mysteries. He ended that for himself “you” language could never convey the closeness, immediacy, and tenderness of “thou” language as used of and to God.

The ensuing discussion revisited many of these issues and went on to consider whether the use of one style of English as opposed to another facilitated or hindered popular participation in the liturgy. Bishop Kallistos suggested that other considerations were more important here; in particular, the baneful effect of the introduction of pews into Byzantine churches. Far more would be done to foster popular participation by taking the pews out and burning them, he declared, than by tinkering with liturgical language.

Fr. Ugolnik’s talk dealt with the nature of the English language, grammatically and syntactically, and as the lingua franca par excellence of the modern world, and how this affects translations. It is a language hospitable to loan words from other languages, while resisting structural and grammatical innovations, and it is “cruel to archaisms” (as witness, he observed, the unreadability of the Book of Mormon).

English Among the Orthodox

As on the preceding day, the afternoon session featured three reports on the history and current status of English as a liturgical language in three Churches: The Orthodox Church in America, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Paul Meyendorff began his presentation on the OCA with a discussion of Mrs. Hapgood’s pioneering translation, begun in 1895 and published in 1906, in terms of its strengths, limitations, and continuing influence. Insofar as English was employed in the OCA before the 1960s, it was based on the Hapgood version.

In 1967 a committee appointed by the church’s bishops produced a new translation of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. It marked a cautious movement toward a more contemporary style, although the pronoun “thou” and the appropriate verbal forms were retained; also, in an attempt to encourage the audible recitation of the celebrant’s prayers, all references to their silent repetition were deleted. It has had a mixed reception, some thinking it went too far in the direction of the contemporary and others not far enough. In 1973 Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas produced a “thoroughly Elizabethan” translation, the fruit of fourteen years’ labor, the use of which, alongside the 1967 translation, the Holy Synod subsequently approved. In 1986 the OCA Liturgical Commission began work on a “contemporary English” translation, which has not yet appeared, although in 1987 St. Tikhon’s Seminary published a Trevnik (a priest’s prayer book) in the modern style.

Today there is neither uniformity of practice nor agreement on how to proceed. About 77 percent of OCA parishes use the 1967 text, 11 percent Bishop Dmitri’s translation, and the remainder a variety of versions. Yet informal surveys indicate that about two-thirds of the clergy would prefer a greater use of contemporary English, while the rest would wish to insist on the older forms.

As to the Greek Orthodox Church, Fr. John Chryssavgis said that its practice could be summed up, in the words of Frank Sinatra, as “I did it my way.” Since the use of English, previously fiercely opposed, was first authorized thirty years ago, there has been a proliferation of translations, nearly all of them endorsed by the former hierarch, Archbishop Iakovos, but none of them made official. Indeed, it has become so much a matter of private enterprise (and potential profit) that there would be strong and immediate resistance to the imposition of any official version. These translations have generally all been in contemporary English of variable adequacy and accuracy, with the Lord’s Prayer always in older English. The use of inclusive language has generally been resisted, and among the clergy its advocacy has been associated with revisionism. There has also been strife over the reform of “anti-Semitic” language, especially in the Holy Week services. In 1985 Holy Cross Press published a translation prepared by several of that college’s faculty members that proclaimed itself to be written in “modern American English.” The archdiocese approved its publication but did not authorize its use; the book, however, appears to be available in about 75 percent of the parishes of the archdiocese. New translations continue to appear, however.

The Antiochian Orthodox Church, according to Archimandrite Daniel Griffith, has been characterized by strong loyalty to “sacral English” since it began to encourage the use of English over ninety years ago. It is due to the Antiochians that the Hapgood translation has been kept in print since 1956, and where and when there have been revisions (or additions, such as the translation of other services and of the Septuagint Psalter) the same fundamental outlook has prevailed, with revisions being made primarily for the sake of greater intelligibility or for the correction of mistakes in Hapgood; nor is there any likelihood of major changes in the foreseeable future. It was agreed on all sides that a common English translation for Orthodox Christians is, at best, a remote prospect.

Music & the Future

The symposium concluded on Saturday morning with a session on “Singing the Translation,” at which Michael Thompson, Director of the Schola Cantorum and an Eastern Catholic, and Mark Bailey, Director of the Yale Russian Chorus and a Lecturer at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, spoke one after the other. There was a good deal of comparative discussion and singing. There was also a strong emphasis on the integral nature of chant to the life and worship of the churches of the Byzantine tradition—it is not an “ornamental addition” as in the Latin Church.

In America, the various Eastern Catholic churches have been remiss in publishing translations of the liturgy unaccompanied by chant notation in situ, while the Orthodox Church in America in the 1920s and 1930s relentlessly suppressed the primordial practice of congregational chanting of liturgical services in the belief that it was a papist custom. Thompson insisted that it was a very bad idea (and yet the constant practice) to translate texts without any attention to musical considerations, and then to hand the finished texts over to the musicians to deal with; far better to have musicians on the translation committees.

I could have wished that the case for the use of traditional English and (especially) against inclusive language could have been made more forcefully. But the relative lack of representation of those stances probably reflected all too well the balance of sentiment in those academic fields from which the participants were drawn. The benefits of such a symposium on such a vital and controverted topic should not be underestimated even if it is difficult to weigh them accurately, and the intention to make it an annual event deserves both furtherance and prayers.  

Information on the published papers, audio and videocassettes of the proceedings, and information on future meetings may be obtained from: The Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, St. Paul University, 223 Main Street, Ottawa, Ontario K1S 1C4, Canada. Phone: 613-236-1393 ext. 2648. Fax: 613-782-3026.

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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