April 20, 2010

On the Translation of Liturgical Texts (Part 1 of 4)

The following text was written in January of 1981 regarding the translation of liturgical texts from their original Greek to Modern Greek. The issue was a hot topic then, but even more so in recent weeks when the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece officially condemned the translating of liturgical texts into Modern Greek. For those outside Greece however, the following text illuminates the essential core behind this controversial issue encountered throughout the world and how one should form their views even in societies where translation becomes a necessity, with much care and sensitivity.

By Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos and Agios Vlasios

Lately there has been much talk by both clergy and lay people about the translation of the liturgical texts, and we have examples of some people who are actually doing this work. Contemporary Greeks, being permeated with the passion to change everything, even enter into the place of worship with passion, claiming that it is difficult to truly participate in divine worship when we are obligated to hear the "incomprehensible" hymns that are chanted in the Church. They also claim that liturgical reform is necessary. Also, they add that one of the primary tasks of the Church is to take care of this part of ecclesiastical life.

This issue is very serious and sensitive. We do not believe that these few lines written here will cover it all, nor that the things that are written here are free of weaknesses, but we will try to present our thoughts clearly and succinctly.

We will not examine the issue from the view that the Greek language today is under cruel and "inhuman" pressure. Nor will we examine the case that most revolutionaries, who want our separation from the past, want to "destroy" our language because of this, separating life from tradition, thereby destroying it. For life is life because it is connected with tradition. As biological life is passed on from generation to generation, so also in a similar fashion the cultural life of people is passed from generation to generation. And if life is separated from the past, it becomes dead. We wanted without commentary to lay down the following thought: "From 1958 until today, they will try with three successive educational reforms (which are openly expressed for the interests of foreign embassies in Athens) to extremely reduce the so-called classical education, subordinating Education to the demands of technology."[1] We know well that language is one of the primary concerns of education reform.

We put aside these issues to emphasize some other points.

First. The Church brings about the transformation of space, time and the entire world. The transformation of the whole world takes place in the sacramental life of the Church by the energies of the All-Holy Spirit. The Church receives the whole world and transforms it. This is clearly seen in the case of man. Through the Mysteries [Sacraments], man escapes his irrationality, death and insipid non-existence, and he enters into life. He becomes a member of the Body of Christ and receives the gifts of the All-Holy Spirit. The whole person (spirit, body, nous, desire, will) is assumed by the Church and deified. Nicholas Cabasilas clearly says that man with Holy Baptism receives new birth; with Holy Chrismation movement; with the Divine Eucharist life; and with Noetic Prayer, as with the whole struggle of purification and asceticism, he puts Christ in his nous and will. In this way, he lives in Christ, which means restoration to true life. Specifically, in his book The Life In Christ, he writes: "This is the work of baptism: the remission of our sins, the reconciliation of man with God, the becoming of man like God, the opening of the eye of the soul, the tasting of the divine radiance, the universe speaking and preparing us for the future life." The work of the Mystery of Chrismation "transmits the energies of the Good Spirit; and the myrrh puts in him the Lord Jesus, who is the Savior of all people, the Hope of all good, and in our transformation with the Holy Spirit, brings us to the Father." With the Divine Eucharist, we acquire true life: "After the chrism, we come to the table, which is the ultimate purpose of life...from this we receive the resurrected Christ, and not only the gifts of the Spirit which we are entitled to receive, but the Benefactor Himself."[2] Thus, all our senses become the senses of the Body of Christ.

This transformation takes place in all creation, as well as in all the social institutions of man. In the Church, everything is transformed, is sanctified. Through the Holy Spirit, the wheat becomes the Body of Christ, and the wine becomes the Blood of Christ; the oil becomes Holy Oil; the myrrh becomes Holy Chrismation; the water becomes Holy Water, while the candle and the incense become Prayer.

Therefore, the Church's task is not to follow the changes in society nor to adjust Her preaching and pastoral activity, but to change and transform man, the world and life. Her ultimate criterion should not simply be to accommodate society and adjust Herself, because this is called Secularism, but it should be the transformation of people and life through the Holy Spirit. The Church must not be influenced by other factors (psychological, social, etc.), but with the Holy Spirit to receive the world and to offer it as a gift to God. The comment of Archimandrite Irenaios Deledemos is truly correct: "The Fathers did not conform to the condition of the world. They did not secularize the Church, but they themselves created new conditions for the encounter of Christianity with every era. Their work was creative and not an imitation of the work of the world. The Fathers determined the changes; they did not follow the changes that already took place outside the Church. On the contrary, there is talk today about adjusting to modern reality in exactly the same way as the world. Generally, a feeling of inadequacy prevails in such attempts, with a tendency to abolish whatever differences distinguish the Church from the world."[3]

On the issue of the translation of liturgical texts, we believe that very secular criteria prevail, and that the phenomenon of secularism is expressed. "We do not understand the texts. We need to translate them." We subordinate our whole tradition on instant, arbitrary, personal initiatives that might last for one generation, but later, succeeding generations, by doing other changes, will totally change tradition.

Part Two