Some Remarks About Biblical and Liturgical Translations

Archbishop PETER, D.C.L. / Reprinted from: Jacob's Well, Fall 1996

To begin, I would like to underscore that in this small article, I do not intend to deal with all aspects of this complex problem. My purpose is to express some reflections and. by the same token, dissipate some misconceptions which seem to be widespread in America. As a matter of fact, nowadays in our Country the English language tends to be used more for Holy Scriptures and Iiturgical services. Such a trend is absolutely natural and reflects a tendency which has existed from the very beginning of Christianity and was strongly encouraged by St. Paul (1Cor 14). Moreover we know the veneration of the Church for holy men who have accomplished such endeavors as, for example, SS. Cyril and Methodius, the Enlighteners of the Slavs.

Translating biblical and liturgical texts is not an easy task especially in the case of the English which has considerably evolved throughout the ages and has been used as the language of worship from the sixteenth century. Presently, notably regarding the Bible, the debate seems to be too much focused on an artificial dilemma, namely the use of Elizabethan English versus colloquial American idiom. To be sure, almost all Orthodox agree in their rejection of inclusive language which constitutes a betrayal of God’s Word. Doubtless it is appropriate to utilize a dignified language and therefore one must avoid a radical departure from the biblical and liturgical English, but this does not mean that a good many archaisms should be necessarily kept.

Furthermore the principle of having a dignified language needs qualification. First, in Holy Writ one finds a large variety of stylistic levels. Suffice it to mention, as an example, the huge difference of style between the Gospel of Mark and the Second Epistle of Peter. Besides, it is worth noting that the Old Testament was translated in the vernacular (koine) Greek of the second century BC although the Attic dialect was used by the overwhelming majority of the authors of that time.

Regarding the English rendition of the Old Testament, some Orthodox believe that it must be based on the Septuagint and the New Testament on the so-called Byzantine text. Actually those opinions reflect neither the historical reality nor a doctrinal stand of the Church. Some quotations of the Old Testament in the New do not exactly correspond with the wording of the Septuagint. The entire book of Daniel used in the Byzantine Church reproduces the translation made by Theodotion at the beginning of the second century of our era. The Latin translation of the Old Testament made by St. Jerome was directly based on the Hebraic original. After the invention of the printing press, Western scholars of the Renaissance followed the Byzantine-Lucianic text of the New Testament only because it was found in the great majority of the manuscripts available at that time. We do not see why the manuscripts extant in the sixteenth century should be preferred to much better ones found thereafter. Moreover one has to bear in mind that textual variants are seldom significant given the respect shown by ancient copyists for inspired Scriptures.

Regarding liturgical translations, it is necessary to observe the principles based on Church Tradition and partly spelled out by ecclesiastical Authorities. For example, one must take into account an official statement enunciated by the Standing Synod of the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate in 1195 responding to various questions raised by Patriarch Mark of Alexandria. This document was drafted by the famous canonist Theodore Balsamon on behalf of the aforementioned Synod. Question six bore on the legitimacy of using other languages than the Greek for liturgical purposes. The answer, of course, is entirely positive in agreement with the continual tradition of the East. But what is interesting because it keeps a permanent relevance is the mention of specific requirements. Balsamon states: "Those who profess completely the Orthodox Faith but do not know the Greek language at all, are allowed to celebrate [the divine services] in their own language, provided that they use versions of the prayers presenting no divergence with the original texts as found exactly in Greek manuscripts" (emphasis mine).

This statement shows how wrong and futile is the debate which agitates some milieus about liturgical translations into English. Some people consider that the text contained in contemporary Greek Evkhologia (i.e. service book) is normative. Others affirm peremptorily that we must scrupulously follow the textual rubrics figuring in the Slavo-Russian Sluzhebnik produced during the time of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow (1603-81). In fact, all scholars specializing in this area know that the liturgical reforms initiated by Nikon were often questionable, precisely, they did not meet the criteria indicated by Balsamon. Addressing such a subject would lie far beyond the limited scope of this article; suffice it to mention the thorough enquiry of Dr. Paul Meyendorff in his work entitled Russia, Ritual and Reform (SVS Press, 1991).

With regard to the texts found in various Greek Evkhologia, they are by and large reliable; however, on some points we can notice relatively recent additions and omissions. Since critical editions of the Greek text and its Slavic translation have been published in our time, one can hope that in the future a common English text will be established and, after a blessing of competent authorities, used in America.

This does not preclude that such an endeavor will have an immutable character. Actually, throughout History good and bad modifications have taken place. Since critical editions, both of the Greek text and Slavonic renditions, have been published in our time, one can hope that in the future they will be taken into consideration for the establishment of an English translation universally used in America. Let us say that this endeavor should not cause a revolution because the new text will be very little at variance with those presently used.

As for Holy Scriptures, the translation must be written in a dignified and understandable language; it should be accurate and consequently, conjectural interpretations and turns of phrase to render a single word are to be a voided as far as possible.

Heretofore, we have not addressed the highly controversial question of the use of "Thou" or "You." Personally, I prefer the former as more in harmony with the requirement of a dignified language and with the norms of liturgical English. However, I understand that many pious Orthodox have another perception. Therefore in a pastoral spirit and with the permission of the local bishop, the form "you" can be used since this choice does not involve the infringement of an axiomatic rule.

The work which is envisioned here needs the cooperation of all those who are competent in the areas of liturgy and philology and obviously they should come from the various components of the Orthodox Church in this country. Thereby it can constitute a milestone in the way of the full canonical unity of Orthodoxy in America.

Archbishop PETER is the bishop of Diocese of New York & New Jersey of the Orthodox Church in America.


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