Tag Archives: Translation

Considerations on Liturgical Translation into English

When, mainly in the last century, it came to translating the Divine Liturgy into English, translators faced choices. Some of them, especially in the Greek and Ukrainian immigrant diasporas, chose popular street English as their preference. Others chose an over-ornate pseudo-17th century English, bristling with deliberate upper-class archaicisms and obscure words, completely incomprehensible to condescended to and patronised immigrants. The first always and aggressively used ‘you’, the second always ‘thou’, with even spellings like ‘Catholick’. ‘Esoterick’ indeed.

These extremes produced a couple of highly eccentric, literally off-centre, translations from England, the ultra-modernist of the late former Roman Catholic Vatican II intellectual, Fr Ephraim (Lash), and the elitist, conservative intellectual translation made by the former Anglo-Catholic Sister Elizabeth Fenton of Tolleshunt Knights, both of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. They were either modernist and ugly for the sake of it, or else archaic and obscure for the sake of it.

99% had already concluded that something else was necessary, a translation made not by an individual whose native language was not English, or whose native language was English and who knew nothing else, but by groups combining both. In our view the best translations to date have been those made by Metr Kallistos (Ware) and Mother Mary, who knew both Greek and Slavonic and also had a love of liturgical English and liturgical beauty. But even here, with the benefit of hindsight some fifty years on, there are perhaps improvements to be made. And, sadly, they translated very little.

But first of all, let us express our gratitude to those who worked on translations in the more distant past, often in very difficult and impoverished circumstances, especially in the USA. Today’s versions are superior to those of the 1960s and 1970s, but the new ones are built on them. We are indeed only dwarves who stand on the shoulders of giants. But let us make some considerations, in the hope that they may in years to come be reviewed by those in seats of authority who will have to work for definitive translations.


We do not worship the Cross or icons. This in fact is heresy. Let us avoid heretical translations, please.

The mistranslation ‘For those who travel by sea, land and air’ is such a case. Most who sail (which is what the original says) travel not by sea, but by river or by lake. All great civilisations were founded on rivers, be it the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Ganges, the Indus, the Yellow River, the Yangtze, the Nile, the Amazon, the Mississippi, the Rhine, the Seine, the Danube, the Thames, the Volga or the Great Lakes, not on seas. Are we to exclude prayer for those who travel by river and lake? We should be reading: ‘For those who travel by water, land and air…’.

Grammatical Mistakes

First of all, any translation should avoid grammatical mistakes. For example, to write: ‘For unto Thee is due all glory, honour and worship’, when grammatically it should read ‘For unto Thee are due…’, seems an elementary error.


Most literalisms also stem from translators not familiar with English as a first language.

How do we say ‘noetic’ in English? ‘Spiritual’? ‘Of the heart’? ‘Invisible’. ‘Noetic’ is meaningless and the translation ‘intellectual’ is clearly just plain wrong.

‘For a good God art Thou’ is Byzantine Greek word order. It is not English. And we do not distort English word order to fit in with the stress patterns of Greek or just to be literal.

We do not ‘chant’ in English, we sing. We are not Byzantines.

Why say ‘Under Thy dominion’, when in English we have the correct word ‘beneath’?

We do not ‘send up glory’ in English, we offer it up.

And what does ‘effulgence’ mean?

American English

As many translations come from the USA, they contain localisms, foreign to contemporary English English. For example, ‘in behalf of’ instead of ‘on behalf of’, ‘named for’ instead of ‘named after’ or even ROCOOR (German-US grammar – ‘ausserhalb’ takes the genitive, ’outside of’, but English ‘outside’ does not), ‘city’ instead of ‘town’,  and spellings like honor(able), favourable, marvellous, traveling etc

Stylistic choices

Here there are more controversial considerations, which require greater discussion.

For example, should we use the third person singular ‘eth’ instead of (e)s? Goeth or goes? Cometh or comes? The ending was written as ‘eth’ in the early seventeenth century, but it was most certainly not pronounced like that even then, since this was just archaic spelling by printers. Russian priests have great difficulty pronouncing ‘blesseth’, those it is easier for Greeks.

Or from the Great Litany:

For the peace ‘from on high’ or ‘from above’?

For the union ‘of all’ or ‘of all people’?

For this ‘holy house’ or ‘holy temple’. In English temple sounds pagan, Hindu or Buddhist, and of course in French ‘temple’ means only a Protestant chapel.

For ‘the imprisoned’ or for ‘those in captivity’? Many are captive, but only a few are in prison.

‘That we may be delivered from’/‘For our deliverance from’ all ‘sorrow’/’tribulation’, ‘anger’/’wrath’ and ‘need’/necessity’. Do we use English or Latin?

‘Most pure’ or ‘immaculate’. The latter sounds Roman Catholic and is not literal.

‘Most blessed and glorious’ or ‘Most blessed, glorious’? Do we go along with the English style of inserting ‘and’ between the last two adjectives in a row or are we literal?

Let us ‘entrust/commend/commit’ ourselves?

Finally, how do we translate the Greek Theotokos? It was long ago translated into Latin, Slavonic and Romanian. Are we not therefore to say ‘Birthgiver of God’ or ‘Mother of God’ in English? One ROCOR Metropolitan is opposed to Theotokos. It does seem strange to translate into Greek, when we are making a translation into English. And Theotokos is certainly not understood by Russian parishioners.

In times to come the mass of translations will be standardised, as liturgical sense takes over. It is towards that which we work.


Liturgical English and Missionary Needs


The English-speaking world is divided by various forms of English: American, Australian, British, Canadian, Irish and New Zealand. For example, even the name of the Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) differs. In American English, with its German-influenced grammar, it is called ‘outside of Russia’, in Britain ‘outside Russia’. American also uses the archaic (for Britain) ‘in behalf of’ instead of the British ‘on behalf of’. However, most of our liturgical translations have been done in the USA. And we are profoundly grateful for them, especially for the amazing and always grammatically correct work of the ever-memorable Brother Joseph (Isaac) Lambertson. Eternal Memory to him! Today, we need translations which avoid literalisms, archaicisms, Latinisms and Hellenisms.


In liturgical translation we should avoid word order that is unnatural for English and complicates clarity and understanding. This means avoiding unnecessary inversions, such as ‘Him do we praise’, as opposed to ‘we praise Him’, or ‘ever didst thou’, as opposed to ‘thou didst ever’, or ‘for a good God art Thou’, as opposed to ‘For Thou art a good God’. This includes, with rare exceptions, avoiding inverting adjective use (we are not French!), such as forms like ‘light Divine’ as opposed to ‘Divine light’. Byzantine Greek (and therefore Church Slavonic) word order does not work in an established and codified language like English, where it sounds unnatural and unclear.

Similarly, the literalist translation of ‘philanthropos’ as ‘Lover of Mankind’, rather than ‘Who loves mankind’ clumsily introduces the word ‘lover’ into liturgical English. Calling the Mother of God ‘Mistress’ instead of ‘Sovereign Lady’, is equally clumsy.


There can be no question of not using ‘thou’ and its verb ending est (in reality pronounced ‘s’) in translations: the ‘you’ form is simply not a translation, but an ideological  modernization. On the other hand, archaicisms need to be rejected, since they only obscure the meaning. For instance, the ‘eth’ ending of verbs for the third person singular (‘he cometh’) is an archaicism. In the 17th century, although the ending was still printed as such by printers, it was already pronounced ‘s’, as it has also been written ever since.

Similarly, the use of the archaic imperative ‘do thou break’ instead of ‘break’ or ‘hear ye’ instead of ‘hear’ is unnecessary. The old form of the subjunctive, ‘pray that he come’ was long ago replaced in contemporary English with ‘may’ – ‘pray that he may come’ etc. Forms such as ‘unto’ instead of ‘to’, upon’ instead of ‘on’, ‘wherewith’ instead of ‘with which’, ‘thither’, ‘hither’ and ‘whither’ instead of ‘to there’, ‘to here’ and ‘to where’, ‘wherefore’ instead of ‘therefore’, ‘in that’ instead of ‘as’, could be avoided. Such archaicisms simply obscure meaning.

Latinisms and Hellenisms

Simple and poetic English, retaining its Old English roots, is always preferable to Latinate Victorianisms, sometimes very obscure, favoured by such as the Episcopalian translator, Isabel Hapgood. Thus: ‘assemble’ could be replaced by ‘gather’, ‘carnal’ by ‘fleshly’, ‘disperse’ by ‘scatter’, ‘distribute’ by ‘give out’, ‘effulgence’ by ‘shining forth’ or ‘radiance’, ‘emit’ by ‘give out’, ‘illumine’ by ‘enlighten’, ‘incorporeal’ by ‘bodily’, ‘inundate’ by ‘flood’, ‘lambent’ by ‘softly shining’, ‘laud’ by ‘praise’, ‘luminary’ by ‘beacon’, ‘manifest’ (adjective) by ‘plain’ or ‘clear’, ‘manifest’ (verb) by ‘show forth’ or ‘reveal’, ‘rescue’ by ‘deliver’, ‘solicitous’ by ‘attentive’, ‘suspend’ by ‘hang’, ‘traverse’ by ‘cross’, and ‘unoriginate’ by ‘without beginning’ or ‘from everlasting’,

Since the terms of Patristic Greek (often itself only a translation from Hebrew or Aramaic) was translated into Patristic Latin from the end of the second century on, there seems to be no reason at all to use Hellenisms. Thus, ‘asceticism’ can be replaced by ‘ascetic life’, ‘chant’ (a clumsy attempt to translate the Hebrew ‘psaltizo’, even though Slavonic uses the ordinary word to sing – ‘pet’’) by ‘sing’, ‘hymnody’ by ‘hymn singing’, ‘Hypostasis’ by ‘Person’ (already used in Latin in the fourth century), ‘noetic’ by ‘spiritual’, ‘invisible’ or ‘of the heart’, ‘stichos’ by ‘verse’, ‘theologize’ by ‘make theology’ and ‘Theotokos’ by ‘Birthgiver of God’ or sometimes simply ‘Mother of God’.


Looking now to future generations and refining the extraordinary pioneering translations of previous generations, mainly begun in the 1960s and 1970s, we have to take into account the pastoral needs of our contemporary flock. Our need for English is because the children of our flock, whatever their national origins, use English as their common language. We need a liturgical English which is both faithful to the spirit of the original but also grammatically correct, clear and accessible.