Defilement or corruption?
There is a hymn that we sing quite frequently:
More honourable than the Cherubim
And more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim
Without defilement you gave birth to God the Word
True Theotokos we magnify you.
Recently our choir has begun to sing “without corruption you gave birth to God the Word”, which seems decidedly odd.
The change was not explained at all, and apparently the parish priest was not consulted about it, but I gather that similar changes have taken place in a number of parishes.
My wife was rather disturbed by it, and wrote
I need to know why we have suddenly changed the words to the Magnificat which we have been singing for the past 25+ years and inserted “corruptiion” instead of “defilement” – when it is simply wrong English?I thought I might be wrong in my concerns so I first went to the dictionary. There is simply no way that “corruption” can be used in any terms relating to Virginity.
But I was still worried whether there was a different meaning so I wrote to Bridget to check what the Greek acutally said. I took a couple of weeks before I brought it up with her on the phone but she said that although the word could be translated either way the correct English translation was “defilement”.
I also discussed it with the rest of the family, as I could see that “corruption” might be used if we were singing about her Dormition but not when we are singing about her Virginity, and the thing that Simon said (which was not something from the dictionaries) which only reinforced my feeling, was that Corruption is something which comes from within but defilement comes from without.
Last week I spoke to Father, after the Liturgy, as I thought that if we were making changes in what we do and sing in the Liturgy it would have been agreed with him as our priest first. But he said that he did not know where it had sprung up from and was also concerned, but that as English was not his first language he was not sure about it
As far as I can see, in that context “defilement” makes sense, but “corruption” does not.
I had a look at the Greek text, but I’m not a fundi in Greek, so I can’t really be sure, but it seemed to me that the only way in which “corruption” could make sense in that context would be if it were translated “you gave birth to God the incorrupt Word” — in other words, the “without corruption” applies to the Word. In English that does make sense, because a corrupt text is one to which unauthorised alterations have been made — words have been changed or altered.
But in the phrase “without corruption you gave birth to God the Word” the term “without corruption” applies to the “giving birth” rather than to the “Word”, and in that context it makes no sense at all, while “defilement” does make sense.
But it seems that quite a lot of people in our parish now believe that the text of the hymn has been corrupted, and find it quite disturbing.
It reminds me of meeting Graham Leonard, the late Anglican bishop of Truro (who later became Bishop of London, and then joined the Roman Catholic Church). He told us that in an ecumenical meeting with the Copts they were very concerned because of a proposal to print their liturgical texts. They feared that errors would creep in if they did so. Bishop Leonard said that in Western thought the printed text was seen as sacrosanct, and as reassuringly reliable, whereas the Copts regarded oral tradition as more reliable, and printed texts as liable to corruption.
And they were quite right to fear it. When the Copts began holding English services in South Africa about 20 years ago I saw their printed edition of the Liturgy of St Basil, and a more corrupt text I have not seen. It was written in very bad English, full of grammatical and spelling errors.
We have had some liturgical texts translated into local languages like North Sotho and Zulu, and we have printed parallel editions with English in one comumn and the other language in the other. Even the most careful proof-reading did not pick up some errors that stick out like a sore thumb when you try to sing them.
But in our parish, it appears, the oral tradition is quite strong, and people have been singing their theology for 25 years, and when you sing your theology, you notice changes to it more than if the changes just take place in academic theological texts that are only read by other academic theologians. So “corruption” sticks out like a sore thumb. Has our theology been wrong for the last 25 years?
One of the problems is, of course, that there are anything from a dozen to a hundred translations of Orthodox liturgical texts into English, some good, most bad, and some atrocious. We use the translations that originated with St Tikhon’s Monastery in the USA, and most native English speakers I know seem to like those best. I certainly do. There may be some weaknesses, but most of the other translations are far worse.
I’d be interested in hearing from people familiar with the Greek and Slavonic versions of the hymn, to know how they understand it. If the text we have been using for the last 25 years is corrupt, then we do indeed need to correct it, but as it is, a lot of people in our parish have the feeling that the text of the hymn has been defiled by the unexplained and inexplicable change.