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Liturgy and language

13 April 2009

I came across an interesting blog post recently that pointed out that when the missionaries St Cyril and St Mathodius translated liturgical texts into Slavonic, this did not make the services immediately accessible to those who heard them.

…when Sts. Kirill and Methody did their translating, they were, on the one hand, translating into the language of the people, using what concepts there already were in the language, but, on the other hand, they had to create new words for new concepts that were absent in the Slavic language of the time.

Now, however, the translations made so many years ago are dated, and represent an archaic form of Slavic language, so that some are speaking of translating them into modern Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian and so on.

The blogger, however, goes on to quote Bishop Hilarion, who says

recalled how one time as an experiment he read the Canon of Andrew of Crete in Russian after which he himself considered and compared his feelings with the parishioners and that “it was no more understandable to anyone with the change of language.”

“It is such lofty language in which allusions are made to various biblical personages, whose names we don’t even know… In a translation into Russian it doesn’t become more understandable,” remarked His Grace.

Some years ago our priest, who lectured in a university theology faculty, invited some of his colleagues to the baptism of his son, which took place after Vespers on a Saturday evening. One of the visitors, a Baptist, told me of his amazement at how scriptural the service was. “We Baptists pride ourselves on being centred on the Bible, but we don’t have anything to match this,” he said.

And that is one aspect of what Bishop Hilarion was referring to. The hymns and prayers jump from one end of the Bible to the other with amazing rapidity, knitting and weaving things together to make a seamless garment of worship and belief, and that is, after all, what “Orthodoxy” means — it not only means right doctrine, but right worship. The church fathers who composed those hymns and prayers knew the scriptures forwards, backwards and inside out. You can sing them twenty times, and still not be aware of half of it. So as Bishop Hilarion says, understanding the liturgical culture of the Orthodox Church demands considerable energy.

English-speaking Orthodox, however, have a different problem from speakers of Greek and Slavic languages. The problem for English speakers is not the lack of modern-language translations, but the over-abundance of them, some of them very, very bad.

Take Lazarus Saturday, for example. We were asked, at short notice, to join a new parish for Matins and the Divine Liturgy, with little time to prepare. A web search for liturgical texts located three, which we downloaded. They were all different, not only in the words they used, but in the order the service followed. The full version had two canons, one had the first part of each of the canons, while a third version had the first one in full, with parts of the second.

But one hymn from one version read as follows:

To demonstrate Your human energy my Savior, You walk and weep and You ask where is Lazarus, and to declare Your divine such, you raise him from the dead.

Divine such? Val said she could not possibly sing that — it reminded her too much of Screaming Lord Sutch, the British rock singer and politician, who led the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. Fortunately someone else was there, who sang it.

Well, if you don’t like one translation, there are others, though not of the precise text that corresponds to that. But there is this:

The sisters of Lazarus stood at Jesus’ side
weeping bitterly they said to Him:
“Lazarus is dead, O Lord”
Though he is God, to whom all things are known
Jesus asked, “Where have you laid him?”
He came to the tomb and called Lazarus by name
The man who was four days dead arose
and worshipped the Lord who raised him.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 April 2009 2:36 pm

    Oh my! Those translations are different!

  2. 13 April 2009 4:19 pm

    I don’t really have anything to back up just how understandable the translations of Sts. Kirill and Methody were or were not other than what I heard at that presentation I mentioned and am very interested to read up on it; so if you ever come across anything, let me know.

    In my opinion, the problem with translating services into modern Russian, as shown by Bishop Hilarion’s experiment, is simply the fact that most Russian’s (even regular church goers) aren’t that familiar with the Bible. Whereas your average Baptist immediately notices the wealth of Biblical references, your average Russian probably just hears so many strange-sounding names. Another result of pernicious communism…

  3. 14 April 2009 3:30 pm

    I have had a number of experiences where some old hymns were sung in church, in English, but I had to ask for a translation afterwards from older members because they were in forms so unfamiliar as to be unintelligable, well for me at least.

    • 14 April 2009 7:07 pm


      I’ve experienced some very recent hymns that have been virtually incomprehensible, and it has been difficult to find anyone to explain them!

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