Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Language of the People

I'm interested in the language used in church services. I have become pretty familiar with at least four different English translations of the Liturgy, based on the time spent in my ROCOR parish in Santa FE, our OCA home parish in C'ville, and two different OCA parishes here in Indy.

In two of those parishes, the translation was fairly recent, and it's clear that one of the goals for both of these translations was accessibility. In one of them, "Sofia, orthi," is translated, "Wisdom, let us pay attention." My husband and I have walked away from that service joking that soon, they'll revise it to "Wisdom, let us put on our listening ears." In other places, which I can't remember right now, both of the translations choose profusion over precision. They both use "you" instead of "thou."

The argument that I always hear for more accessible translations is that "The Church always strives to meet people where they are." St. Innocent of Alaska, who entered fully into Aleut life, and translated services and Scripture into their language, is cited as an example. That's great. I love St. Innocent, and that's obviously a good model for evangelism.

But what about the Greeks? They still pray in Koine.

The Serbs and Russians etc. pray in Slavonic. Russians who grew up under Communism and never even heard Slavonic have somehow been able to convert to Orthodox Christianity.

The whole country of Romania was Orthodox for more than a thousand years before the Church adopted Romanian as the language for services.

So what's up with that? Greeks, Serbs, Russians, Romanians and more are willing to die for a church that teaches them to pray in an unfamiliar language, but 20th century Americans can't deal with "thou," or "vouchsafe," or "let us attend"? I don't want our services to be incomprehensible. But I do not think that difficult language should be seen as an obstacle to "genuine" prayer.

I see the trend of "accessible" translation as a concession of victory to vulgar taste, even if it is well-meaning. The language used in the prayers is meant to teach us something. It says more than we ourselves mean to say, because we don't yet know what we should say. The language used in prayers should pull us up out of our lazy love of easy epiphanies.

Also, if we were simply more literate, this language would not be difficult for us! If the language is too hard, then you should go read some Shakespeare for practice, or even Dickens. Please don't let our prayer language descend to the level of our public discourse; it's simply too horrible!

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