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Liturgical Texts for Church Worship – Dead and Alive

Fr Georgy Kochetkov

Fr Georgy Kochetkov

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– It is assumed that the translation of liturgical text is a very difficult affair, and requires a group of theologians, liturgists and academic philosophers. If this is so, this means that we should not attempt such a translation until such a group of translators has been pulled together. Would you agree?

– In my opinion, the question of translating liturgical texts for worship isn’t a purely scholarly question, though it is difficult and multifaceted. Nevertheless, translation requires the passing on of meaning, and the question of meaning is an ecclesiological and Christian-anthropological question, and can therefore be put forward in a theological and academic context. And, of course, a theological and philosophical question, insofar as we confess faith in the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we don’t simply affirm that the Three are One and the One is Three, but also discern particular interrelationships. We are creating a certain picture of the internal, divine life where there is a Father, His Spirit, who is His breathing, and His Word, who is the Divine Logos. We connect the Spirit with the gift of spirituality, with which every person is associated, insofar as he is a person, and the Word is associated with the mark of language or, in other words, the manifestation of meaning. Meaning is not only connected with rationality and with the human mind, but with reason, which picks up on meaning and even produces it – and this reason can also be sobornal (transpersonal) and personal, or non-sobornal (non-transpersonal) and impersonal.

The Church needs the type of translation of its texts for worship that will pass on the meaning of spiritual revelation contained therein – all their meanings, whether they refer to the Christian life, the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Church fathers and prayers, or various signs and actions. And this task of bringing out the meaning in texts for worship seems to have been forgotten. I don’t deny that this may be because of the fact that at some point Church Slavonic seems to have closed itself off from us and ceased to be a living language. People who maintain that Church Slavonic is a living language are, I’m afraid, very much mistaken. At some point in the past it was more or less a living language, although Russian speakers long ago sensed problems with Church Slavonic, even in pre-Mongolian times. But, at present, it is most certainly a dead language.

The main criteria for translation have to do with the perception and transmission of spiritual meaning, and their integrity and fullness. This isn’t about terminology, or formulae, but about the sense, which is often passed on with the help of symbols, though this isn’t always necessary. Meaning is one of the fruits of the spirit, just as is the gift of speech. And this means that any spiritual gift is both divine and human. Therefore, the question of translation is theological, anthropological, and ecclesiological. Clarity is very important, but cannot be achieved in the translation of texts for worship simply by decision vis-à-vis the rational understanding of a given text. For this reason, when people imagine that liturgical translations are, for instance, similar in terms of requirement to the translation of other ancient texts or even of the Scripture, this is a sadly lacking picture and quite insufficient. The issue of translation for church worship is an issue of whether our Church Tradition (predanije) is able to continue living, or whether we will be forced to look backwards to something which only existed in the past.

The past requires a discernment about what in history was good and what was perhaps not so good. Church Tradition (predanije) has always been in the stage of development – it was being revealed and continues to be revealed, while the canon of the Church, for instance, the books included in Scripture, both Old and New Testament, is a closed question. But no one has ever cut off the development of Church Tradition, nor can they, because Tradition is formed in the unstoppable wafting of the breath of the Spirit, and His living life within the Church. But not only the Spirit is alive – there is also a living life of meaning, and this is the action of the Word. Christ acts as the divine Word and, what is still more important, as the divine-human Word. And we need to respect both the divine nature of the Word and the human nature of the Word, just as we venerate Christ as fully God and fully Human. We might say that in this lies the internal spiritual culture of the Christian. And the lack of such a culture plays a very negative role in the life of the church today and has significant influence on the spiritual level of the life of Christians.

This is the reason that we so often run up against fundamentalism, ignorance and obscurantism, because people often don’t understand these things and don’t perceive the action of the Spirit of God within the Church as a continuous renewal of life and of the Church, itself.  They don’t perceive the action of the Word of God, Christ, as just such an opportunity to manifest divine-human life. They don’t perceive Him as an opportunity to develop. They think that if dogma has been approved and is unshakable, and if the canon of Scripture has already been closed, that this means that everything is closed. Hence, we have ritualistic stagnation and mystical, superstitious fear of changing anything at all within the church. And this really is superstition, i.e. faith which is in vain. And it is for this reason that it is so difficult to battle against contemporary tendencies to sectarianism. People are attached to these tendencies and believe that they are speaking out in favour of the purity of the faith and for the preservation of the fulness of Orthodox teaching while often, in fact, doing something absolutely non-Christian, which harms the revelation of the Spirit and the Word by closing them off and not giving God the opportunity to act within the church, her people, or in themselves, when push comes to shove.

This is the thing that we have to keep in view most of all when we are speaking of translations. Because translation is, in some sense, an imperative for the continuous life of the Church to go on, given that life moves forward and the Church must in no way fall behind and become separate from life itself. Somehow or other, the ancient Church made good in this sense.  But as more and more centuries of Christian history flow by, all the greater becomes the tendency towards legalistic relationship to Her life, Her rules, her Tradition and Scripture… And this isn’t simply legal, it’s legalistic. And these things are not one and the same. Legalism is Pharisaic. And fundamentalism in favour of all archaic forms without the possibility of appeal and recourse to meaning is simple pharisaism, or self-righteousness. And those people who now stand against translations into modern Russian liturgical language don’t understand that they are Pharisees, fundamentalists, and suppressors of the spirit. And this, despite the fact that the Scriptures declare: "beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” (Mt 16:6) and “quench not the spirit, treat not prophecies with contempt, test all things, hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:19-21). But we need to test what is good with an open heart, having the gift of the spirit and the ability to test, and not in such a way as if someone thought so, therefore this means that all is fixed in stone, forever.

The question of translation is absolutely fundamental. When people say, “maybe people won’t come into the church if you translate everything”, this belies a basic misunderstanding of the fact that translation is only a question of mission and catechesis in a secondary or even tertiary sense. Yes, of course translation is necessary for mission and catechesis. In the first instance, however, translations are necessary to the Church herself, so that She can be Herself. 

Zoya Dashevskaya

Zoya Dashevskaya

– To what do you attribute such persistent opposition to the work of translation, or even to the idea of translation, itself?

– Some people simply don’t have the required experience, or have closed off the road to gaining such experience. Although there are also those who simply wish to provoke, too, i.e. people who don't really belong to the Church and are not worried for the Church, don’t really love the Church, or who have some sort of self-interested motivation. There are also simply unfortunate victims of the very widespread idea that any clarification of meaning is tantamount to rationalism, and therefore Protestantism, etc. But we need to understand that Protestantism also exists in various different forms, although it was always subject to rationalism, and that it is Orthodox Christianity, in particular, that has always positioned itself as an opportunity to live in the freedom of the spirit in loving both God and neighbour – and that this can’t in any way be reduced to “ratio”, though nor does it deny this principle. It is in this way that we must stand out as different from the Catholics and the Protestants if we want to be an inspiration, joy, and example for them. But if we just want to beat the other person over the head with various formulae, then they can easily do the same with respect to us, just as has often happened in history.

Good liturgical translation isn’t only a question of the beauty of the language used in church services. Of course, we value beauty; but beauty isn’t the blessing of highest value in the Church. The blessing of highest value in the Church is the blessing of Spirit and Meaning, the fullness of which we much strive for in our lives and in history, because this is what makes the church the Church, and puts Her in relationship to the revelation of the Heavenly Kingdom, bringing us into that Heavenly Kingdom and releasing the gifts of that Kingdom to us here and now, on earth, to the extent that this is possible within history.

I thank God that from the very start all my efforts in terms of translation were exclusively related to the demands of the church, therefore I never asked any blessings from anyone. I just knew, for instance, that if we are catechizing people, this means that we also have to be able to take responsibility for the people we are bringing into the Church. And the people must also be able to understand and take responsibility for their own faith. And in order to teach them how to take responsibility for their lives in freedom, it is vital that we be able to pass on to them the gifts of Spirit and Meaning. Our new entrants into the church need to be drinking in the living Tradition of the Church so that they can live by it, knowing God more and more deeply, and in this knowledge of God come to experience Christ, the Holy Spirit and the God’s Kingdom, and in this come to know themselves, and life and the world around them. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that they church services be understandable to those who are coming into the Church.  It is not possible to bring people into the Church and expect full-fledged participation from them not only in terms of prayer, but in all the different aspects of church life, if they don’t really understand what is going on when we gather together in church. Catechesis itself is an introduction to church Tradition, into the life of the Spirit; catechesis is an opportunity for people who want to become Christians and members of the Church to work out meaning in their lives. How is it possible to stand against the clarification of meaning in church services? This is a contradiction of the goals and tasks of the Christian life, itself!

The church should have been able to say openly and directly that there have been great difficulties with this in the past. The multi-century Constantinian Era, in which the church made various alliances with the state and often to the detriment of its evangelistic calling. This era was not the healthiest for the Church. In the 20th c. this resulted in a number of catastrophes, though even during previous centuries of the Constantinian Era much that was non-evangelical, and therefore against the Church itself, was said and done in the name of the Church. We need to understand that it isn’t possible to return to the time of the first apostles or to the period before the Constantinian Era. At the same time, we cannot simply continue the church life of the 19th or 20th centuries in a mechanistic fashion. Those centuries are behind us. They have left various important things for us in the Traditions revealed during those times and they have enriched our lives in so doing. But they have also left us problems – sometimes tragic – which now require solution.

The methodology we use for translation should in many ways begin from this understanding of its context. When we translate, we need to learn how to empathize with the creators of the original texts and understand the way in which one or another prayer was born within the Church: in which historical period did it appear, what demands of the Church did it respond to, what from within that picture is relevant to us today, or not? We should be at peace with the fact that situations will arise in which it is reasonable to simplify or shorten, allowing various materials to slip into the archive of ecclesial memory. Likewise, it may be reasonable to pull something to the fore and rethink it, because sometimes the very best things were lost and something other than the best has been kept, and sometimes the sense of liturgical texts has been lost due to incorrect translation.

A clear example of this is the liturgical invocation after the anaphora: “И сподоби нас, Владыко, со дерзновением, неосужденно смети призывати Тебе, Небеснаго Бога Отца, и глаголати…”. (Translator’s note: in English we say: “And vouchsafe us, O Master, that with boldness and without condemnation we may dare to call out to You the Heavenly God the Farther…”). Why was it translated like this? In Greek everything is clear, because in Greek “to call out to someone ”, “to name”, “to name the name of”…is all one verb. But for some reason in Slavonic the translators chose “призывать Тебя, Отца” (“to call out to you, Father”) – and this is right after the anaphora which was entirely addressed to the Father, during the course of which He has been called out to many times, already! Why call out to him again? This is nonsense and for no justifiable reason divides the liturgy into different parts. The meaning that makes sense here is “to call You, Heavenly God, [our] Father…” (“именовать Тебя, Небесного Бога, Отцом”). We have every right after the anaphora to ask God to confer to us the right to name him “Father”, i.e. consider ourselves to be His children, because we have just, in sacramental mystery, given thanks to the Father for the Son in the Holy Spirit, for the Church and for the whole world, and for the revelation of the Kingdom.

Such also is the somewhat out-of-sync placement of the Troparion of the Third hour in the Epiclesis. At the end of the Soviet Era, in one of the Patriarchal publications these troparia were already being printed in small print inside square brackets as if to say “this is an historical embedded juxtaposition” which destroys the logic of common worship.

Or, for instance, in the Liturgy of Basil the Great, where at the very important moment of anaphora we suddenly find an inclusion of the phrase “change by Your Holy Spirit”, from the liturgy of St John Chrysostom. This phrase is entirely unjustified historically and destroys the syntax of the original text. The only goal of the inclusion is to make the two anaphora prayers look more like each other. So much has been written and said about this by experts in liturgics, but still, nowhere has any change been made.

– Why hasn’t there been any reaction to all of this in the Russian Orthodox Church?

– There has been reaction amongst educated people, but there have been almost no consequences because such educated people are few and far between. Their opinion has practically no influence against the widespread inertia vis-à-vis the old, unclear and imprecisely translated liturgical text. The church needs strength in order to overcome this inertia, and that strength doesn’t, at present, seem to be on the side of educated, enlightened spiritual people, but rather on the side of people who remain uneducated and lacking in live spirituality.

The fundamentalist, obscurantist tendencies of the last decades have brought us to a place where the achievements of liturgical research – even pre-revolutionary achievements, not to speak of contemporary findings – are perceived as something that hasn’t even happened. This is what has happened also in relation to the translation of liturgical texts into modern Russian. The local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church had already spoken out in favour of translation, although it was then unable to put into action that which it ruled in favour of and should have been able to accomplish. But even those decisions which were ratified at the Council are absolutely sufficient to give every bishop and every parish the right to decide these questions for themselves, as Metropolitan Savva (Mikhejev) of Tver stressed at his meeting “with parishioners” on 20 February, 2020. The language you want to serve liturgy, whether it be Russia, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Slavonic, or something else – please, choose for yourselves. But don’t choose based on the whims of some small group of loudmouths or obscurantists, but in a way which is truly communal/sobornal.

And this isn’t simple: in order to make a sobornal, community decision, the church needs to be sobornal in the sense of having an internal depth, living as an integrated community with the ability to take responsibility for church worship and life. This differs from the sort of parish life in which people come if they want to and don’t come if they don’t want to. Specifically, because there are so few real living communities (obshchiny) in our church, it is difficult to decide in what language to serve liturgy at the level of the parish. When people stand up and declare, “I’m a parishioner and I want this, or that…”, first prove that you are really a parishioner of the parish in question, and support your position not in passion, but from a basis in church tradition and expediency. The Church should incorporate freedom and individuality, but there should also be a principle of sobornost (organic, living community), which is the very thing that constitutes the Church, as such, and keeps it from degenerating into a collective. 

– Have you discovered any new meaning for yourself in the course of your work as a translator, which enriches not only your theological knowledge but even your personal experience in faith?

– I want to note two things that are fundamental and pervasive for our common prayer: to Whom our church prayer is directed and what action people in the church should take, as a result of our church prayer. I simply don’t have adequate strength to do everything I would like to, but I would like to make it so that every prayer has a caption designating meaning and context, so that people could immediately understand what they are praying about. Often there are no notes at all and if people don’t know meaning and context, which means that the prayer remains without effect, just an empty set of words. Furthermore, it should be made clear to whom a given prayer is addressed: to the Father, to the Holy Trinity, to Christ, to the Holy Spirit, to the Theotokos… Can we address prayers to the saints? We can. But we need to understand that any prayer, at the end of the day, rises up to the Father. Any and every prayer! When we address a prayer to the saints or to the Theotokos, we are asking them to petition for us before Christ, so that Christ can petition for us before the Father. This is what is important – not only in the case of the saints or the Theotokos, but even when we address our prayers to Christ or to the Holy Spirit, we are asking them to petition for us. And before whom do they petition? Before the Father. This is a central tenet of our faith in one God; before all else we bow down before God the Father. Yes, through Christ! Yes, in the Holy Spirit! Yes, within the Church! And this means also in unity with the Mother of God and the saints and with all of God’s world. This is what I have discovered, and it was something that moved me to my very foundation. Because there are some ecclesial texts in which everything is all mixed up together, in which a prayer is addressed to one of the persons of the Trinity and its invocation to another. Everything is free-floating if the prayer is composite and eclectic: one part can be more ancient, for instance, and there we see it is addressed to the Father, but then in the same prayer there can be portions addressed to Christ or have a final, unified invocation addressed to the Holy Trinity. You can find this, for instance, in the prayer for the blessing of the waters at baptism or at Theophany. These questions need to be clarified when translations are made. The translator needs to feel and understand these things, and not just translate, mechanically. Not to mention that there are many historical mistakes and translations that are simply incorrect. 

– You mean that some translators haven’t understood various portions of the original documents?

– The authors of our translations that we use in church worship had various different gifts and qualifications. Not all of them were geniuses, and many of them were not, if you’ll excuse me, even competent people. There are some fairly odd translations in which it is clear that the translator himself couldn’t come to grips with the meaning of the original text and didn’t even understand it.

– They translated the words, but not the meaning?

– Sometimes even words are mistranslated. It’s one thing to translate “to call upon you, Father”, as “we call you our Father”; from a purely philological point of view both versions are correct. One word or another might be translated like this or like that, and it’s up to us to determine how best to convey the meaning in a given context. But it’s another matter entirely when the structure of a sentence is improperly understood or translated in a purely mechanical way when translators run across idioms and set expressions that they need to be aware of and understand, in order to translate the text properly. Without this kind of specialist knowledge, we just get “abracadabra”. When our translation groups run up against such instances – and there are lots of them – our philologists and classicists tell us right away that the Slavonic text itself is simply wrong because either idiomatic expression or difficult vocabulary and syntax has been misunderstood.

And it’s also important to note that translations should always be reviewed and renewed. And when we renew them, we shouldn’t choose the most poetic version, but the version which best reveals the meaning of the original text. Unfortunately, those people who strive for beauty in form also wander far from the meaning of a text, and those who strive after meaning often lose beauty and eloquence in verbal expression. For this reason, sometimes people like the Church Slavonic translation, because it is often literal and “correct” from that point of view. For the majority of people, Church Slavonic sounds fairly beautiful but also remains impenetrable and non-understandable from the point of view of meaning. Do many people know that Russian and Greek syntax are constructed differently? For us, the main emphasis in a phrase is what comes at the end, but for the Greeks the emphasis is on what comes at the beginning. And a literal translation usually retains the syntax of the original, which always throw us off course if we are concerned with the sense and meaning of a prayer, and not only with how it sounds.

At the moment, I am preparing a new version of the translation of St. Andrew of Crete’s Great Canon of Repentance. When you translate something for the first time, you look primarily at the meaning of the text, which sometimes isn’t so good for the style or beauty of expression. And two years after the first translation, I can see that there are some places where the meaning is a little bit inaccurate and things aren’t as good as they might be from the point of view of form. I am rereading the Canon now and see that it is unusually simple; it is this simplicity and compactness that make the Canon so amazingly beautiful. It’s never possible to translate such a text in a manner that is only exegetical, when you add words that are connected to the meaning of the text, as you understand it. If you don’t really understand the meaning of the original then you add something to make it clearer. Sometimes this distorts the original meaning and sometimes it changes it completely. This isn’t always completely bad, foolish or incorrect. But the original author had something different in mind and he accentuated different things and expressed this in an extremely laconic, elastic, and therefore very energy-filled form. This is the thing that amazes me about the Canon of St. Andrew: the author, in his wisdom, manages to maintain extremely short verbal formulae and, nevertheless, create a full-bodied, voluminous, three-dimensional image, though this isn’t always immediately clear from a rational standpoint. The Canon really does demand interpretation, despite the fact that it makes recourse to various well-known Old and New Testament themes. All these can be interpreted in slightly different ways. For this reason, I’ve done my best to remove all of the “interpretive” words that I allowed myself to include in the first version of the translation, and have tried to revert back to that somewhat cryptic form which is not always entirely clear, but which excites deep thought in the person praying the Canon. 

– You mean that this sort of laconic expression points a person toward his personal experience of faith and life, and calls him to reflect upon his experience?

– Precisely! What makes the Canon great – not only in terms of its volume, but as a great work of Christian culture and art – is that it includes everyone in this process.

– So these qualities are revealed when we have a good translation and when we pray in community and live into our understanding in community?

– Yes, otherwise the Canon is received in an individualistic manner. This is an amazing text: it would seem that it is addressed from a particular person to his own soul, but thanks to the fact that different people develop in different spiritual planes, it is as if various different registers are activated within this prayer.

This is why it is important that there should be many translations, so that we might read, compare and evaluate. Problems begin when church authorities want to choose the best translation for everyone. In general, the hierarchy that wants to take these decisions for everyone is entirely unprepared to evaluate translations. The same thing goes for many of our so-called theologians and liturgists who are often only partially literate in their subjects and who don’t have a serious grasp of Liturgics or the translation tradition, but who are overconfident in themselves. Who needs this sort of basis for reception of texts?

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov and Fr. Evgeny Gorjachev at the “Orthodox Church Worship” (“Pravoslavnoje Bogosluzhenije”) presentation of a series of translations, in St. Petersburg, 13 May, 2011.

Fr. Georgy Kochetkov and Fr. Evgeny Gorjachev at the “Orthodox Church Worship” (“Pravoslavnoje Bogosluzhenije”) presentation of a series of translations, in St. Petersburg, 13 May, 2011.

– How should the church determine best translations or, on the other hand, that a given translation shouldn’t be used?

– All we can say for the moment, is that this evaluative review function within the church still needs to mature and find adequate forms for embodiment. For me, for instance, it is of principle importance that I read, test and experience a new translation not alone, but within the context of the church gathering. When I read my translations in this way, I try to hear them with the ears of every person who is present, from within the church gathering, and I’m not sure exactly how – whether with my liver or maybe my back – I can feel the reaction of the listeners. I can tell when people are enchanted, when they are really praying and completely “turned on”. On the other hand, I can also tell when they begin to lose interest, are only marginally present on the edges of a prayer, because the text is either not very nice to hear or not very understandable. And questions also arise for me, myself, at the same time. 

I’d like to name one other Church Slavonic translation with which I was always dissatisfied. I mean the beginning, opening invocations of the Anaphora prayers in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, although this moment isn’t the only place where it figures.

– The pre-Anaphora dialogue?

– Yes. The Deacon says: “Станем добре, станем со страхом, вонмем, святое возношение в мире приносити”. (Translator’s note: In English we say, “Let us stand aright! Let us stand in awe! Let us be attentive that we may present the holy offering in peace.”) The people, or the choir which stands in for the people, answers: “Милость мира, жертву хваления”. (In English we say, “A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”) It doesn’t seem that there are any particular issues here. Everything is more or less understandable. “Добре” is straight/upright on the one hand, and “strictly”, on the other hand. The only question is which word is better to use.

– Straight/upright in the sense of “stand up straight”, yes?

– Yes, but you wouldn’t say “выпрямьтесь” (“stand up straight”) here, moreover “встаньте” (“stand up”) doesn’t make sense, as we haven’t been sitting. So, this is more properly understood as a call to attention, internal rigour and awareness, and not to straightness of the body, per se. Sergei Sergeevich Averintsev suggested “Станем строго” (“Let us rigorously poise ourselves”), and after a number of discussions, I agreed with this. So, we have a good translation of the Deacon’s first invocation: “Станем строго. Станем благоговейно. Будем со вниманием святое возношение в мире приносить”. (“Let us rigorously poise ourselves. Let us stand in awe. Let us be attentive to bring the holy offering in peace.”) And carrying on we have a phrase with which everyone is seemingly familiar. “Милость мира, жертву хваления”. (“A mercy of peace, a sacrifice of praise.”) It seems as if all the words are understandable: “милость”, “мир”, “жертва”, “хваление” (“mercy”, “peace”, “sacrifice”, “praise”). I think that we can guess without difficulty here that “хваление” means “хвала” – in other words, we bring a sacrifice of praise. This is more or less clear. But bringing a phrase together from these understandable words is more difficult. We are immediately bothered by “милость мира” (“A mercy of peace”). Sometimes it is said that a similar expression exists in the Old Testament. Maybe it’s taken from there? But what exactly is “A mercy of peace”? It’s unclear. Sometimes I’ve translated this as “mercy, peace”, and at others “mercy and peace”.

– And you’ve also sometimes inserted a hyphen…

– Yes, we’ve done that, too. “Mercy – peace, a sacrifice of praise.” We’ve had several different attempts at translation and none of them really satisfies me. And then I learned – thanks to our wonderful specialists at SFI, that in ancient versions this phrase had various different versions which are full of content and interesting. Despite the fact that this is such a short text and the context is clearly given, there were nevertheless two ancient versions: “жертву хвалы” or “жертва хвалы” (“[we bring] a sacrifice of praise” or simply, “a sacrifice of praise”) And we have either “милость мира” or “милость, мир” (“a mercy of peace”, or “mercy, peace”). I was elated, because this helped provide a way out of the conundrum. “Mercy, peace” – separated by a comma, was wonderful! Because “a mercy of peace” is a sort of artificial expression – making so much of muchness and a little bit extravagantly archaic. And then “жертва хвалы” (“a sacrifice of praise”): in other words, we either bring a sacrifice of praise or announce in the name of the whole People of God, in the name of the Church, that this is what is happening and what we are going to do. In this case, the phrase isn’t simply an answer to the deacon’s call, “Let us rigorously poise ourselves. Let us stand in awe. Let us be attentive to bring the holy offering in peace.” Yes, we are going to bring the holy offering, but this offering is itself the gift of mercy and of peace, and it is sacrifice of praise. In this case, we can connect mercy with the gift of the Father, peace with the gift of Jesus Christ, and a sacrifice of praise is that which we now wish to bring as the main event: we are praising our God in the mystery of thanksgiving, in Eucharist. This ancient form seems the best to me, and I am only sorry that it hasn’t been continuously preserved, and that the main place of honour came to be occupied by the unclear and ineffective verbal formula, “Милость мира, жертву хваления” (“A mercy of peace, [we bring] a sacrifice of praise.”), which is used currently in the Church Slavonic version of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The expression has seemingly lost its “saltiness”.

– And its dynamism (from the word dynamis). It somehow loses its strength and doesn’t really head anywhere.

– In the last translation I made, I finally introduced a correction in this place. But I can only imagine what the reaction will be when the books with this latest translation start to circulate more widely all across the church. Many people are unfamiliar with the liturgical tradition and don’t think hard about what is going on at that moment in the liturgy. They are used to not understanding fully, and this always bears its bitter fruit. If people don’t understand something for a long time, or understand something incorrectly – just as in the instance with "we call out to You, Father” instead of “we name you as Father”, then they don’t make the connection in meaning, and keep the old formulae just because they are familiar. And our prayers are emptied of their power.

– And there is also the issue that we are dealing with the impression of understanding.

– The impression of understanding is one of the main problems we face in our common church worship. In order to get rid of this impression, we’ll need to translate and translate: within the church, quality translations from a liturgical point of view and from the point of view of theology and spiritual meaning. The experience of working on translations is capable of convincing us that the texts we use in worship can teach us how to live, in faith, and how to pray. We need to learn how to translate texts for church worship without stylizing. Stylization is another danger for translations, along with incorrect understanding and incompetence. This happens when people who have insufficient education yet are stylistically talented and acculturated within the church take up translation. And there are also cases, of course, when people begin to translate independent of their level of preparation or gifting, simply because there is no choice; one such instance of this is the community of Fr. Theophan (Adamenko) in the 1930s.

– Even in the 1920s?

– Yes, but at the moment I am speaking specifically of the 1930s, because there really wasn’t any other option at that point; everything was closed or had been destroyed by the Soviet authorities. Fr. Theophan and his helpers did what they could and never stopped doing so. True, it’s almost impossible to use those translations at this point, but they are a monument to the spiritual achievement of a truly saintly man who understood what the Church needed and did everything within his power to answer God’s call. Thus, even when we relegate his translations to the proverbial archive, we remain thankful to him, honour him and know that his name is written in Heaven.

Fr Georgy Kochetkov’s “Orthodox Church Worship” (“Pravoslavnoje Bogosluzhenije”) translation series. Photo: ogkochetkov.ru

Fr Georgy Kochetkov’s “Orthodox Church Worship” (“Pravoslavnoje Bogosluzhenije”) translation series. Photo: ogkochetkov.ru

– At present a very common approach to translation is to give laypeople materials for edifying and devotional home study, so that they will better understand what is going on in the church services. Why do you believe that it is of fundamental importance to translate the texts of prayers for common worship themselves – those prayers which are uttered in the church gathering?

– Simply because prayer to God isn’t an optional extra that you do at home, nor is it an official ceremony; prayer to God is the manifestation of spirit and meaning, and the life of the Church, itself. It’s the very thing for which the People of God gather together, and the reason that we perform the service of the mysteries. Of course, supporting materials also have their place, and before the revolution there were some excellent materials for church parish schools and gymnasia in publication. I’ve seen them in two languages – both in Church Slavonic and in Russian. The translations were not always ideal, but they were of sufficient quality. These books were used both by children and by people who had just newly come into the church. 

It’s difficult for people to study languages – who’s going to argue with that. They say, “if you can learn English you can learn Church Slavonic.” But the people who study English are the people for whom it becomes a matter of necessity in life, whether for professional, cultural, or some other reason related to communication. They need to travel, write letters and so on. People don’t “need” Church Slavonic in the same way – not to speak of the people for whom Russian isn’t their native language – and there are many such people in the ROC. Church Slavonic is a wonderful inheritance that we need to preserve and study – and if you want to be a person who is educated in the church heritage you had also better have at least a basic knowledge of ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew. If you are educated and have graduated from seminary or a spiritual academy it is mandatory to know your way around these languages at least in an approximate fashion, so that you can feel their movement and feel how they are different from Russian and why they are important for our tradition.

But the question of church education, enculturation, etc., is a different question from that of prayer, faith and the life of the church. Prayer, faith and the life of the Church belong to everyone, whether they have received a spiritual-theological education or not. Reading a primer or explanatory materials should in no way replace worship in a language which is clear to you and able to reveal the spirit and meaning of the Orthodox Christian life to you.

– In previous versions of your translation you used “Главы наши пред Господом преклоним” (“Before God we bow our heads”), and in your new version you use “Пред Господом наши главы преклоним” (“We bow our heads before God”). Why did you change the word order?

– I’m very concerned with stimulating the efficacy of prayer. This is one of those instances where different word orders more or less effectively excite a person to action. This is a good example, because here the words in Church Slavonic may not be entirely clear to a Russian speaker. It is not difficult to hear “Господу” (Russian - “to God”) in the Slavonic “Господеви” (Slavonic – “to God”), though we have to keep in mind that there are people who don’t know this, just as there are people who don’t know that “паки и паки” means “again and again”, or that “миром Господу помолимся” means “in peace we prayer to the Lord”. Some people think this means “всем миром” (“with the whole world”), instead of “в мире” (“in peace”).  There are many, many such people, and we need to understand this to clarify translations even on the most basic level. We need to take a step in the direction of the people, remember that the past 100 years were a crisis situation in church life. Culture isn’t at its best and our tradition has been broken off and exposed to discontinuity. 

In the current case, it’s also a chasing after the best version in terms of style and, most importantly, the effectiveness of all that is going on in church. We need achieve a situation in which no empty words are uttered and in which our words quickly translate into actions in life.

– Not long ago you said that you are making this translation, first and foremost, for those who serve in the altar…

– And for all the people who participate in this prayer. Our services are disproportionately long. They don’t fit in with the rhythm of modern life. People can’t help becoming distracted in church services. Even when they have the Russian text in front of them, they find themselves having to exert a great effort so as not to “turn off” or get lost amidst the enormous field of diverse texts, with an enormous number of different embedded layers, not all of which are justified.

– And with all this image-laden, expansive Byzantine verbosity, you also have medieval layered verbiage.

– Therefore, so that people can understand what is going on, captions before the prayers in the church services are very important. I’ve looked specially in to how to prepare such captions so that they will be worthy additions, because headings often get all mixed up between various manuscripts in various centuries. Captions need to help people understand what is going on at a given moment – this helps us to find the main focus when we are preparing translations, which can be differently expressed in different literary forms. It’s important that the translator himself should know for what reason a particular prayer is read out. Punctuation and syntax are positively dependent upon such understanding, which is necessary if we want to know what to put at the end of a phrase – what word in a given prayer has the principle effective force in a given prayer or phrase.

Translation forces us to come to grips with the vanguard of serious, contemporary liturgical studies. We aren’t changing orders of service themselves – orders of service remain just as they are. But we can, with the help of various tools of verbal expression, clean the text a bit and make it more transparent, integral and consistent. Obvious insertions which, for instance, exist only in Slavonic versions of the prayers and can’t be found in Greek texts, are better left out, as they have come to be included only incidentally. Some things I’ve taken out of the main text and removed into the footnotes, and other things I’ve left in the main text but in small type-face, inside square brackets.

Somethings need to be compensated for – for instance the less than successfully-evolved order of confession, which at present is an obscure conglomerate of various prayers.  Making use of various skills and techniques available in the field of contemporary liturgical studies, it is, as a rule, possible to clarify how and why a given prayer ended up where it did. It’s not right simply to mechanically read everything from beginning to end; every person who serves the order of confession has himself to choose what he needs at this time, requiring him to be oriented within the tradition. I believe that this sort of individual approach in preparing for confession is very important at this time, but neither priests nor bishops turn out to be ready for this. For them, it is an unbelievable difficult – they aren’t used to trusting people, or themselves, to choose the necessary prayers. Therefore, they are unable to allow variation. But a translator sometimes has to propose such variation.

– All the more, when we are dealing with “coalesced” orders, where different layers reflect different church practices.

– And sometimes these are unsuccessfully evolved layers, and to pick them apart represents enormous liturgical work…but there can be amazing inspiration available in this. The translator-interpreter who knowingly strays from a literal interpretation can sometimes enrich the tradition, sensing new emphases and meanings that are necessary to the Church.  

In this regard, I remember one conversation I had with Sergei Sergeevich Averintsev about the perpetual virginity of Mary. In Slavonic we read, “пресвятую, пречистую, преблагословенную, славную Владычицу нашу Богородицу и Приснодеву Марию” (Translator’s note: in English we read “most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary”). First of all, “пресвятую, пречистую, преблагословенную, славную…” we translate into Russian as “всесвятую, непорочную, преблагословенную, славную нашу Владычицу Богородицу” (i.e. “our most-holy, pure, most-blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos”). “Приснодева” literally means “всегда-дева” (“always-virgin”), and is commensurate with the decision of the 3rd Ecumenical Council which ruled that before, during and after Christ’s birth, Mary is a virgin. But it turns out that the meaning here may be deeper and more interesting. I searched and searched for an expression, as I wasn’t satisfied with “всегда-дева” (“always-virgin”). At one time I used “всегда-дева” (“always-virgin”), but always tripped over this. And so I asked Sergei Averintsev, and after a long conversation and much consideration suddenly he said, “how about instead of “всегда-дева” (“always-virgin”) we use “Вечнодева” (“Eternal virgin”). I immediately understood what he had in mind and remembered all the discussion about the eternal virginity of Mary at the beginning of the 20th century. It’s genius. But that Sergei Sergeevich for you! And I, of course, took up his suggestion with joy.  

There’s a spiritual meaning here, and dogma exists precisely to serve spiritual meaning, and not to serve rational, everyday explanation. I think this is an excellent example of how translation can breed meaning and work at the level of inner depth! It is this sort of nuance which so often goes unnoticed. This shouldn’t be something that screams out at you and takes pride of place; but it precisely this sort of nuance without which there are no good translations, in my opinion.  

Good translation helps in our time to sum up the results of 2000 years of development of the Church’s rule of prayer before we go on and delve into the creation and writing of new prayers and rites, which might better correspond to life conditions in the church in the Post-Constantinian Era. Translation helps us to understand what from that 2000-year inheritance works and should be preserved, and what can be quietly put into the archives. Not destroyed, forgotten or cursed, but simply set aside into the second layer of memory as no-longer having primary importance. Within the liturgy it is possible to leave out some dialogues, phrases of second-degree importance, and bodily motions which fill out the rites “with themselves” and distract the person praying from the main thing going on, which shouldn’t be the case.

– It is interesting that at the beginning of the 20th century we came directly up against this. There is the Kiev translation by Fr. Sergei Petrovskij, made in 1908. This is a translation of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom into Russian, and not for Sunday schools, not “an elucidation in idiomatic Russian”, but a real, scholarly publication, allowed by the censor, Fr. Aleksandr Glagolev. It is, of course, probably exegetical and commentative and not published as a book for use in services, however this attempt serves to show that people came to the Council of 1917 well prepared for the discussion of what language should be permissible in church worship.  

– There was also a very good cultural translation by Nikolay Nakhimov; this translation was more focused on literary form, and you might say “non-liturgical” – but in terms of meaning, it is quite good. These examples are not known to everyone, but nevertheless, some attendees of the Council knew that there was something to go on and understood that a Russian translation needed to appear. Not, obviously, simply an “elucidation of the text in Russian idiom”, but a translation for worship. And now we need to work in that direction!

First published in an abridged version in the SFI Quarterly Journal, Issue №36

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