January 20, 2012

The Mystery of Holy Language

In the following discussion of the use of traditional languages in contemporary Orthodoxy, Sister S., a European Orthodox nun and experienced Greek-English translator, reflects with the editor of Road to Emmaus Orthodox magazine on the deep connection between holy language and an Orthodox worldview.

RTE: Sister, I’d like to begin with a quote from Gifts of the Desert in a discus­sion between the author, Dr. Kyriakos Markides, and a Cypriot abbot, Father Maximos (now Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, Cyprus).

[Fr. Maximos begins:] “We must avoid addressing ourselves to God in a superficial casual way. For this reason Elder Sophrony goes so far as to say that the language we use in prayer must be different from the ordinary language of everyday usage. That is why he insisted that the language of the liturgy should not be translated into the contemporary spoken vernacular.”

“A lot of people today would strongly object to that suggestion,” I pointed out. “They demand that church services be conducted in the spoken ordinary language so that they can understand what is being said. Why did Elder Sophrony hold to such a position?”

“Elder Sophrony claimed that when we conduct the liturgy using everyday language, we lower the level of our communication with God.”

“How is that so?” I asked.

“He believed that ordinary language carries meanings and images from our daily reality that usually lack the element of holiness and purity. On the other hand, when we address ourselves to God in a language that has, as it were, an exclusive usage within the boundaries of the Ecclesia, the very words and sounds of that language evoke sacred feelings and images that facilitate communication with God. A special language that offers precise and exclusive meanings can automatically be experienced as the language of the Ecclesia. It carries greater spiritual force.” [1]

This is an astounding statement at a time when western convert churches are eager to translate everything into contemporary speech. Of course, the desire to hear the services in one’s own language is understandable and necessary, but underestimating the importance of primary church languages such as Greek, Latin, Slavonic, Georgian, Syriac, Arabic, and perhaps even Coptic and Ge’ez, too often ends in ignoring them, or even in a kind of disdain for the living traditions and original languages. I am not a Greek speaker myself, but I’ve been told that a single word in Greek often has several different meanings but when translated this richness is almost always lost. Is this so?

SISTER S.: Yes, this occurs all of the time. The person who reads the services and the theological books in the Greek of the Church Fathers gets much more out of it than a straightforward translation in French, German, or English can provide. In Greek, these words and terms have a long cultural history and theological meanings that were hammered out by great saints and theologians. They have a precision, a depth of meaning, and a breadth of context that is almost impossible to capture in another language. Probably Slavonic comes the closest because the Russians, Serbs and Bulgarians have had centuries of lived Orthodoxy that fills the words with meaning. But even Slavonic is sometimes poor in comparison to Greek. It lacks articles, so words may not be as clearly defined as they are in Greek.

Counting both the ancient and modern versions, Greek has an immense vocabulary, many times the size of the English vocabulary. For example, in my limited experience of translating from modern Greek to English, I have often had problems in translating words having to do with light. Greek has many terms for the action of light, while in English we have only a few that have the dignity that would suit the church context … such as shine, radiate, or gleam. Flash, sparkle, glitter, and so on, are too common or shallow, but in Greek there is a whole range of vocabulary to speak about light and the way light acts—so when you translate it into English, the translation often sounds flat, or the same words are repeated too often. The word “joy” has the same problems. This is a very simple example, but when you try to translate theological terms, it is even more difficult. These are words that have a history, that have been used by the Church Fathers to mean specific things within a specific Orthodox theological-spiritual context. When you translate them into English, the words have a whole different context. In one language, a word has a certain circle of meaning, while in another, the closest word might have an overlapping circle of meaning, but it will never be exactly the same. It has other echoes and other connotations. (Like the use of “gay” now in English, to use a crude example.) In addition, English theological terms are often shaded by centuries of use in a Roman Catholic or Protestant context.

So translations can never be exact from one language to another because all the words will never have the same exact meaning. To make it worse, an English text is often not only a translation, but a translation of a translation. English translations made by people from the Slavic tradition are from Slavonic, which is already a translation from Greek. As good as Slavonic is, to translate from it is like making a xerox of a xerox; you lose resolution, you lose the quality of the image.

Of course, we must have translations, they are indispensable for us, but we mustn’t forget that there is a depth of meaning in the original that is inaccessible to us. We have to respect this, to see the the value of maintaining these old languages.

This difficulty in translation is not only a matter of vocabulary—there is also the grammar of the old languages. Both Greek and Slavonic are inflected languages, which means that while in English, we use strings of prepositions and strict word order to get our meaning across, in both Greek and Slavonic, the words themselves change—for example, according to whether they are the subject or object—which means that Greek and Slavonic have a great deal more flexibility. You can change the word order in the sentence to add extra nuances or emphases, while if you did that in English, it would change the meaning.

The Fathers who were masters of the Greek language used the structure of the language and all sorts of poetic rhetorical devices to add emphasis, meaning and beauty to their writings. They were trained rhetoricians. Much of this beauty, meaning and precision is simply lost in translation. A translation can have its own beauty, but it can never be the original.

RTE: One example of this would be “nous,” which is usually translated as “mind”, but is actually much deeper. When asked about this translation in a 2002 interview with Road to Emmaus, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware said, “If you just say “mind” that is far too vague. In our translation of The Philokalia, we, with some hesitations, opted for the word intellect, emphasizing that it does not primarily mean the rational faculties. The nous is the spiritual vision that we all possess, though many of us have not discovered it. The nous implies a direct, intuitive appreciation of truth, where we apprehend the truth not simply as the conclusion of a reasoned argument, but we simply see that something is so.”[2]

And this is the word that we often see simply translated as “mind”! It’s no wonder that we English-speakers often find ourselves going around and around, wondering what we are missing when we read Orthodox spiritual works in translation.

SISTER S.: In Greek there are also many words for love, while in English there is “love”, “liking”, “affection”, which really don’t differentiate the many different kinds of love as the Greek words do.

RTE: Yes. I recently read a book translated from Greek in which a well-known Greek elder talks about loving God with an “erotic” love (eros), which is sometimes surprising to non-Greek speakers, as “erotic” in modern English is so completely connected to the idea of lust. We’ve lost the meaning of the higher Greek term, which can mean a love for someone whom you love more than as a friend. I understand that this may or may not include romantic love; it can simply be an appreciation of the beauty within the other person.

Plato also said that eros helps the soul recall the knowledge of beauty and contributes to an understanding of spiritual truth; it inspires philosophers as well as lovers.

Another example that seems to have very wide implications is the Greek word logismos, which is usually translated in English spiritual texts as “a thought.” I’ve recently learned that the real meaning is much fuller.

SISTER S.: Yes, “thought” is the only single word equivalent we have in English. We don’t have a word that conveys the whole meaning of logismos. As it is used in spiritual and ascetic writings, a logismos is not a simple thought that comes to you, but a thought of particular intensity and power, especially one that can distract you and derail you from your spiritual path.

This isn’t something like, “Oh, the trees are changing color, it’s autumn, and soon the leaves will fall.” That’s skepsis—a simple thought, neither good nor bad. Logismos is something more like: “Oh, so and so was supposed to have raked up the leaves and he didn’t do it. Now, how am I going to deal with this, how am I going to speak to him about it? Is it up to me to do it? He never does what he’s supposed to do.” Also, a logismos is not only negative, it can also be a positive or seemingly positive thought, but it is a thought with consequences for your spiritual life, and you have to know how to face it and deal with it in the right way.

RTE: Do logismoi ever have demonic or angelic forces behind them, for good or ill?

SISTER S.: They can have either. A logismos can come from our passions, our own inner self, or it can come from the outside.

Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos dealt a great deal with the question of logismoi and the importance of confronting a negative situation with a good logismos. Of course, he said, this is not the highest thing. The highest thing is to have no logismoi and to be centered in God.

He gave an example: once a man came to him and was terribly upset because he’d had this nice house in the suburbs where his family was happy and his children could play in a quiet yard. Then some people came in and built a party center right next to his house and there was music, noise and partying day and night. He said, “Elder, I’m going crazy, I’m taking tranquilizers, my whole family is falling apart. We’re nervous wrecks, we’re yelling at each other all the time. I can’t sleep at night. What do I do?” Fr. Paisios said, “The only thing you can do is na valeis kalo logismo—to “put in” good thoughts. Imagine that you are in war time and the noise around you is tanks and shooting and bombs. Then, look at your situation now. Not only is there peace, but you aren’t in any danger, you aren’t being kicked out of your house, and even the people around you are so happy that they can have parties next door.”

Many people would have just dismissed this, but this man took it seriously, forming good thoughts about the people he saw and the noise he heard. He returned to Elder Paisius later and said, “Although I’d prefer to be in a quiet place, I’m no longer a nervous wreck. My family is better, I can live with it.”

RTE: So, a logismos is a thought with will behind it?

SISTER S.: It can be. The Church Fathers speak about different kinds of logismoi and how to deal with them, but to fully explain the idea in translation would take a much longer and more complex sentence than the word “thought” that we are usually left with. There simply aren’t equivalent words in English.

Also, in the Greek language, and probably in Russian and Slavonic too, certain words have a history. Parts of words have meanings, and if you know where a word comes from, its etymology, this helps you to understand the meaning of the word as the Church Fathers use it. Of course this is true in English too, but it’s far more true with Greek.

If we take a very simple word in English, like “sin,” we think we know what the word means—a transgression of God’s law. The Greek word amartia actually means “to miss the mark,” which helps us to understand what the Fathers meant when they used the word. This helps modern people also. Many people today have an aversion to a word like sin because for them it is a legalistic term that is used to pound people over the head. In its essence it means that your goal is union with God and anything that deflects you from that goal is a sin. If you understand this, it gives you a much deeper understanding of our relationship with God.

Another word that people react to is the word “heresy”—especially in the West where people immediately think of heretics being burned at the stake, which is what happened in some parts of Europe. The Fathers didn’t just come up with the word heresy to mean some kind of error of doctrine that will get you put on the bonfire. The root of the word is the Greek verb haireo which has a broad spectrum of meanings, but one of these meanings is to “choose your own idea.” The verb itself is not negative, it’s neutral. So, in this sense it means that you choose your own idea rather than that of the Church.

There is a depth and history to these words, that if you understand even a little, it helps you to understand the mind of the Fathers, the mind of the Church, and you can explain to people that a word like sin actually means missing the mark, missing the goal of your existence.

RTE: Then, when a language such as an Alaskan native dialect, or Spanish, or English doesn’t contain theologically precise terms for a word, it seems even more necessary for translators to use footnotes and commentary to explain the missing concept to a general reader or worshipper. Otherwise, it can end in the problems that eastern Christianity encountered where, at least partly, because of simplified equivalents of important theological terms in their native languages, some local churches veered off into unorthodox beliefs such as monophysitism.

Can we go on now to talk about the use of old languages in the liturgy?

SISTER S.: For traditional Orthodox Christians in Greece, their hair stands on end at the idea of doing the liturgy in the vernacular Greek. To them it is almost like blasphemy, because modern Greek is so flat and commonplace in comparison to the richness and beauty of ancient Greek. They feel the same about the translation of the New Testament Koine Greek, which is actually quite simple compared to the Greek of the Fathers.

RTE: Would this be as acute as the difference between the beauty of the King James Bible and one of the modern popular English versions incorporating slang?

SISTER S.: That’s perhaps a bit extreme, but something like that, although there are probably Christians in America who think that slang would be alright. Of course, many Greek people have the New Testament with the original Greek on one side and modern Greek on the other, to help them understand what they are reading, but there is no comparison between the two.

Even I, as a foreigner and not fluent in Greek, can feel the difference right away between the old language and modern Greek. The old is far more rich, dignified and beautiful.

RTE: I recently came across some interesting articles about Sir Thomas More, Erasmus, Colet, and their circle, who are remembered as the first European humanists. As it turns out, their aim was not at all to interest people in turning back to the classical period—they wanted to encourage a wider knowledge of Greek so that educated people could study the Church Fathers and the Bible in the original. They sensed that things had gotten off-track, even with the good Latin translations. Europeans after them took this in another direction, veering off into centuries of interest in classical Greek philosophical texts and pagan idealism.

SISTER S.: There was a reason why Greek was chosen as the language of the New Testament. In God’s providence, Greek was also the vehicle for the liturgy, and for the fundamental theological writings of many of the Church Fathers. Of course, in the West the Fathers also wrote in Latin, but Latin owes an incredible amount to Greek. I have heard that Latin has another feeling. It is more logical and has another spirit, and it doesn’t always capture the subtleties of the Greek.

RTE: Along with this, I don’t believe we can so easily dismiss this idea of “holy languages.” In their Lives and in contemporary accounts, Sts. Cyril, Methodius, and their disciples who assisted them with translation (several of whom were also saints) insisted that Slavonic was a gift from God: that He had revealed the formation of the early alphabet. Slavonic and Greek, as well as other traditional Orthodox languages have been hallowed by thousands of years of saint’s writings, liturgies, and prayer. If we disregard them as meaningless “ethnic accretions”, we are cutting ourselves off from our Orthodox roots.

I’ve often wondered if Protestant divergences from traditional Christian doctrine might partially have been a result of the King James and other English translations of the Bible not carrying the fullness of the Greek?

SISTER S.: That certainly could have played into it, because every translator, whether he knows it or not, injects his own views into the translation. You can see this in the Protestant King James version, in the incident where Christ is teaching the people, and “a certain woman of the company lifted up her voice and said unto Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bare Thee, and the paps which Thou hast sucked.’ But He said, ‘Yea, rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it.”[3] This is not correct. That “but” isn’t in the Greek. In Greek it is a continuation, as if it read, “And, he said unto her …” Also, the “yea rather” is better translated something like “yes, and even more.” It doesn’t have that feeling of contradiction and contrast. And we have to remember that this translation was done by people who were losing their veneration for the Mother of God, so whether intended or not, people’s views do enter into translation.

RTE: That’s very helpful. Another argument for widespread translation that western converts often raise is that “Orthodox tradition says that every country and people are to have the services and the liturgy in their own language. We are just following this tradition.” This is important as long as we understand that even a good translation is at best an approximation and that these translations took time. Many decades after the initial Valaam missionary effort in Alaska, St. Innocent was still requiring his missionary priests to translate one Gospel into each dialect (which often meant first creating an alphabet for the dialect), along with some basic catechetical books. At the same time, he strongly encouraged the learning of Slavonic and Russian, so that the native catechists and clergy would have a solid understanding of Orthodox belief.

In promoting this, I’ve even heard native English-speakers criticize Greeks and Slavic speakers for retaining Church Greek or Slavonic in services because it is hard for contemporary Greeks, Russians and Slavs to understand. They say, “It should be in modern Greek or Russian ….”

SISTER S.: Of course, Sts. Cyril and Methodius translated the Greek into the Slavic of the time, modifying it for different dialects, and as you said earlier, even developed the Glagolitic alphabet, because Slavic wasn’t a written language. Later, this alphabet was refined by their disciples, especially by St. Clement in Bulgaria, into what we now know as Slavonic. My understanding is that the Slavonic used in the Gospel and the services is a very literal translation of the Greek, where new words were composed to correspond to the Greek words. It was as exact as they could make it. Modern Russian speakers who haven’t studied Slavonic may only have a partial comprehension, yet it is very understandable that most Orthodox Christians in those countries do not want to throw out the richness of the Slavonic tradition for a necessarily inferior modern Russian translation.

RTE: As a vivid example of this, I recall that not long ago, an official in the Russian State Department told me that he had been present at a state function where an Orthodox bishop was asked to give a prayer. Wanting to “relate” to the mostly secular officials, the bishop gave the prayer in modern Russian. The whole contingent of diplomats were in agony trying to stifle their laughter, as everyone in Russia knows something of Church Slavonic through studying linguistics, history or literature, and even to the ears of secular civil servants it sounded deeply wrong. And, in fact, the officially secular Russian Federation celebrates the Church Feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius as one of Russia’s national holidays. Everyone recognizes the importance of their contribution.

Russian friends say that when Cyril and Methodius introduced new Christian terms into the Slavonic language, rather than simply identifying existing words, finding a better or worse match, and supplying an alphabet, they put together existing Slavonic roots to mirror Greek terms. The most obvious of these root combinations (called “calques”) is the Greek word Orthodox, which in Greek means correct + glorification. In Slavonic, of course, this is Pravoslavie, composed of the same pair pravo (correct) and slavie (glorification).

There are calque equivalents for many Greek theological, aesthetic, and philosophical terms, such as speaking of Christ’s dual nature as ‘divine humanity’ (in Russian, Bogochelovechestvo), or the single Russian word Chelovekolyubets, which is the calque for the Greek word meaning “lover of mankind”. In this way, by using a language’s existing roots you can introduce terms for ideas or concepts that are previously completely unknown. For example, in English we simply don’t have the spiritual concept of “joy-making sorrow”, but this exists in both Greek and Slavonic.

SISTER S.: This results in Church Slavonic having an immediacy (and obviously it had even more in the past) for Slavic peoples because it is built using familiar root words. But it also conveys Greek meaning precisely and concisely, whereas English often needs a whole phrase or sentence, or has terms like “Orthodoxy”, whose meaning is not so immediate.

RTE: Interestingly, Chinese translators who are now working on translations of Orthodox books and services into Chinese are attempting to do the same as Sts. Cyril and Methodius. They are creating new words and characters to carry the full theological meanings of the Greek and Slavonic originals. Can you comment now on the current state of English translations?

SISTER S.: Most of the service books have been translated into English, which is a great blessing, but the quality of the translations is very uneven. Some are quite as good as we can get in modern English, while others are very inferior. Those who translate service books should have training in theology, including ascetic theology, a thorough knowledge of the Greek of the Church Fathers, and a good ear for English. There is also disagreement about which style of English is more appropriate for church use. Personally, I prefer the older Elizabethan style for its beauty and dignity as did Elder Sophrony, but only if it is well done—otherwise it sounds stilted and clumsy.

Elder Ephraim of St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona insists that all of his monasteries do all of the services in Greek. I don’t quite agree with this and I think it will eventually have to change—but I can understand that he wants the American novices who come to him to learn Greek so that they can read the Fathers, understand the services, and enter the mind of the Church through the language. Also, Greek monasticism is a whole culture in itself. The way people relate to each other in the monastery, the traditional Greek phrases they use, creates an atmosphere and relationship within the monastery that you simply don’t have with American converts using English. This all helps to bring people into the mind of the Church.

RTE: A few years ago I mentioned this language controversy to two British academics, both Orthodox converts, and they answered, “Well, there is only one real answer—everyone needs to learn Greek.” Although not of Greek heritage themselves, this is what they had come to, they felt it was of such importance. Obviously, this is not going to happen for most of us, who will continue to rely on our English translators. Yet, many of us are concerned that some of our English-speaking churches are moving towards adopting not the best of our translations, but colorless versions with distorted meanings. To be fair, this is often in an attempt to fit the English words to traditional music, but even so, we are in danger of losing whatever real beauty and meaning can be preserved in English.

SISTER S.: Yes, these original languages were formed by the mind of the Church, by saints, by great theologians who were saints, and by the practice of the people over two millennia. Even though the West has been Christian, it hasn’t always been Orthodox, so even words that might have originally corresponded to the Orthodox terms have acquired a different meaning or flavor and have to be reinterpreted and re-explained in light of the language of the Church Fathers and the New Testament. Many of these concepts have been lost and are now no longer intelligible to us.

Still, the Holy Spirit also helps, of course. You can be illiterate and become a saint, but these questions of language are certainly worth contemplating. I believe that we converts need to have a degree of humility towards the cultures that brought us Orthodoxy—to be grateful and humble that we are the recipients of these peoples’ centuries of piety and learning. And not to be like Jacob—a weaned child on his mother’s lap who grows fat, and kicks away. (cf. Deut. 32:15) Sometimes we read a few books and a smattering of Church history and think, “there we are”. Humility and gratitude towards these cultures are important in developing a truly Orthodox world-view.

[1]Markides, Kyriakos C., Gifts of the Desert: The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality, Random House-Doubleday, NY, 2005.

[2]Bishop Kallistos Ware, Becoming Orthodox: Thoughts on Personhood, the Philokalia, and the Jesus Prayer, Road to Emmaus, Issue #10, Summer 2002, pg. 49.

[3]Luke 11: 27-28

From: Road to Emmaus Vol. XI, No. 3 (#42).