Word Magazine April 1987 Page 14-15
THE LANGUAGE OF THE LITURGY
By Guthrie E. Janssen
Orthodoxy in North America is at a point of crisis with respect to the language of the Liturgy.
An ancient rule holds that the Liturgy must be served in the language of the people. For most Orthodox churches in North America this means English. One would think that a uniform text of the Divine Liturgy in good English could easily be written, and readily adopted by all Orthodox jurisdictions. Unfortunately, this is proving to be an immensely difficult task.
Orthodoxy in North America today has clearly been called by God to be zealously evangelical. And most North American converts are going to feel themselves not Greek, nor Antiochian nor OCA, but simply Orthodox. Thus the situation demands a uniform liturgical text. Moreover, the English must be the best possible. Educated, literate, sophisticated American converts who will constitute the “new blood” of Orthodoxy will not put up with language that is inept or ungrammatical, or lacking in euphony and felicitous expression. Liturgy is for the ear, not the eye, and it must sound right. It must be so written as to make the educated worshipper feel and experience its inherent beauty and exaltation.
I have at hand six English renditions of the Liturgy now in use, or proposed, and there are more. For fifty years I have been a writer and teacher of English, and as I review these translations that I have I would grade all but one of them no more than D minus. They fall far short of communicating the experience of the divine-human relationship or the heavenly exaltation that they ought to convey. Several amount to little more than words stodgily strung together. They grate on the ear like fingernails on a slate and afford all the spiritual uplift of a recital of stock prices in a falling market. Some are simply clumsy attempts at literal translation of the Greek original by persons with little or no feeling for the vast poetic resources of the English language, its capability of conveying subtleties, rhythms and majestic cadences — in a word, nobility.
I stress the importance of experiencing the glory inherent in the Liturgy. The Liturgy is not a spectator event. It is an exalted occasion into which we enter with our entire being. The priest is not just our paid agent before God. He is our leader in prayers that we appropriate as our own by participating with all our heart and soul and mind. Liturgy means, literally, work of the people. Yet how can we participate in something that is cheap, that falls wretchedly short of expressing our aspirations toward God and our response to his mighty acts for us? Liturgy is intended to carry us to the very gates of heaven. The language of the kitchen or of commerce will not do it. This is why we have song and chant, making exquisitely lovely sound; it elevates us toward heaven. So must the spoken words.
Shortcomings of the Present Translations
I have four specific objections to the new translations: ineptitude in rendering the ancient Greek; some downright bad grammar; infelicities of pace and cadence that subvert good oral communication; and the casual, not to say impudent, forms of address to God. Let me explain.
An example of ineptitude appears in the doxology chanted after the prayer of the third antiphon and elsewhere (I give it as it appears in the Antiochian Service Book): “. . .unto thee we ascribe glory. . . This is good. It certainly suggests that the source of glory is God, not ourselves. The new translations, however, read,” . . . we send up glory to You . . . “ Good heavens, how? This may be a literal translation of the original Greek, but I cannot believe the Fathers meant to evoke the image (inevitable for us today) of a celestial rocket ship loading on glory for dispatch to God. A more apt expression must be found.
As for bad grammar, the most blatant example occurs at the very beginning. The priest is made to say, “O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who is in all places . . .“ The is is simply wrong. The Antiochian uses art (the archaic form of are), and this is correct, because the context calls for the second person form of the copulative verb. The Spirit is being directly addressed. If I am addressing a close friend, for example, somewhat formally but enthusiastically (as we do God in the Liturgy), I will say, “Dearest friend, who mean so much to me. .“ The second person (you or thou) is implied, so I must use mean, the second person form of the verb, rather than means, the third person form. To say, “Dearest friend, who means. . . “ would make no sense. Neither does the is at this point in the Liturgy. Likewise, in the Lord’s Prayer we say, correctly, “Our Father, who art