Friday, August 10, 2007

Wisdom from a Failed Liturgical Experiment

Someone had asked my view of the use of "liturgical English," particularly the use of "Thee" and "Thou" vs. "You." For the Western Rite, this is simply not an issue: we use liturgical English (and this is true in both Antioch and ROCOR). I have no trouble with those jurisdictions who have used the pronoun "You" for God; I don't endorse Rev. Peter's Toon's "You-God" theory. For those with a large percentage of people who don't speak English, this also has a pastoral dimension. True, certain modernizations -- especially of the Lord's Prayer -- fall on one's ears like a ton of bricks, were often enacted out of modernist zeitgeist, and I have my strong preferences for tradition. But I don't have much wisdom to impart -- on anything -- and it's not my place to tell jurisdictions how to translate their language.

However, it's prudent to learn from experience, ideally sidestepping the mistakes of others. Therefore, it's worth exploring the experiences of those who have "updated" their liturgical language, and the results they reported. One such case is that of the Melkite Catholics. Abp. Joseph Raya, who translated the mammoth Byzantine Daily Prayer into English, recounts:
In Byzantine Daily Worship I was enticed to use the second person plural form in addressing our God for the fallacious reason that people would be better served. The pretext was “Everybody does it.” Everybody says “You” so I abandoned the formal “Thee” and “Thou” and replaced them by “You”...

This substitution proved to be a step in the wrong direction, a spiritual disaster that added fuel in the laicization of our religion. It re-enforced our carelessness and unconcern before the awesomeness of our God. We already were engulfed in confusion before the sacred and holy. We came to treat God as a next door neighbor. “Hey, you do this…You do that…” The “you” is too casual, too simple and easy. The use of the “Thee” and the “Thou” is more difficult. It requires attention and care and the form of verbs requires, sometimes, a challenge for a tongue twister. But the elegance of it all and the respectability are worth every effort in using them properly. They might open a path for the recovery of sacredness in our relationship with God. We are now so “laicized” that Christ, our Lord and God, became some kind of pragmatic prophet. He became simply “Jesus.” So now we have Buddha, Aristotle, Mohammed, Jesus, Martin Luther King, or any other benefactor of humanity. If the world does not know that “That Jesus” is our Lord and God where would they go to find out if they do not hear it from us? Besides, the “Thee” and the “Thou” have an elegance worth the effort they demand.
Again, I have no trouble with jurisdictions who translate as they feel appropriate. But it's worth hearing the lessons learned from others who have been down the same path to avoid those pitfalls.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Abu Daoud said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but technically "thee" is informal and "you" is formal.

We just used "you" so much that we dropped the informal in contemporary English.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Jean-Michel said...

in the semitic form, that problem don't exist - "Abba", in the Lord's Prayer, calls God in the "You", not in the "Thou".
The "Thou" or "You" is a post-schism stuff, unknown of Orthodox Westerners from the past.
Btw, any of the English versions and most French version of the Lord's Prayer are with the awfull "do not lead us into temptation", pure Protestantism. Take the Greek or the Semitic version of the Prayer, it's certainly not in it. Cos' God is not the temptator, at all.

JM

9:57 AM  
Blogger Carson Chittom said...

In the first place, I must humbly point out that the archbishop is simply incorrect: "you" is not plural. Perhaps it once was, but current formal English no longer retains a number distinction in the second person. Current informal English inflects for plurality in the second person in a number of dialectal ways—"y'all," for example, in my own dialect. Languages change; to insist that they not is to deny their very nature. One might with as much effect insist that the clouds stay in the same formation as they happened to arrange themselves on a particular day.

In the second place, I have not read any of Byzantine Daily Prayer, so I am not commenting on it directly or on any of Archbishop Joseph's work, but I will say in the general case that if a translated passage does not convey not only the actual meaning of the words translated but also their tone, then the translator has failed. It is entirely possible to write elegantly and reverantly in contemporary English; flaws in the work should not be blamed on the tools. This is not to say I am against archaisms necessarily, only that there is nothing special or hallowed about particular pronouns or verb forms.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Roland said...

1. The "formal" vs. "informal" distinction is secondary and derivative, even in languages where it is a formal aspect of the language, unlike English. The primary distinction is singular (thou) vs. plural (you). In a monotheistic religion, God ought to be addressed in the singular.

2. The distinction between the singular and the plural in the second person exists in the Greek texts of both the Scriptures and the Liturgy. It is most certainly not "post-Schism stuff."

3. There is no English translation of the Lord's Prayer that says "do not lead us into temptation." The traditional translation reads "lead us not into temptation." In this construction, not is modifying the phrase "into temptation." It most certainly does not modify "lead."

4. There is no reason to assume that "contemporary English" is the appropriate language for liturgical translation. The Greek texts of the liturgy that Abp. Joseph is translating are written in medieval Greek. Translating them into Elizabethan English accurately conveys the archaic feel of the original language. (In the preface to his translation of the Festal Menaion, Bp. Kallistos explains why Elizabethan English is the best vintage of English for use in translating liturgical works.)

7:35 PM  
Blogger Ben Johnson said...

Thanks for the comments. Just FYI, Jean-Michel is not a native English speaker, and that may have led to some of his confusion.

Good comments from Abu, Carson, and Roland. I appreciate such thoughtful posters.

Singular and plural in modern English are both "You." Whether it should be used is a matter for bishops to decide; I don't think liturgical English is insurmountably difficult for most. And the most ancient English translations all say "lead us not into temptation," as do modern translations from Greek by Greeks.

God bless,
Ben

5:51 PM  

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