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Translate, or Why English is Just as Good

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Written by Basil on 01/6/2005 11:43 PM. Filed under:

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For some reason, this year I’ve seen twice mentioned the tradition of Saint Basil’s bread. I should get excited over a tradition associated with my name day and namesake, but I confess, the fact that everyone keeps referring to it as Vassilópita has dampened my interest. It makes it sound like some exotic, ethnic custom that is completely irrelevant to me as an Orthodox Christian in the United States.

Why must people use a Greek word when an English translation is easily used? Certainly, some words really do not translate well. Most of our liturgical words for the various types of hymns fall into this category. Yet, “prokeimenon” seems gratuitous when “gradual” will do just fine. Some people complain that, because they do not come from a liturgical background, this is just as foreign as “prokeimenon,” preferring a Greek liturgical word to an English liturgical word. I, for one, am not anxious to see perfectly good English liturgical terminology fade into obsoletion simply because somebody thinks Greek is better. Sounds like the people Ss. Cyril and Methodius were facing back in the day.

As far as the names for hymns go, I think it would be a good idea to append the word “hymn” to most of these. At least then, people would know they were hymns; it would not be so distancing for inquirers. Also, it would eliminate the pernicious plural problem: “troparion hymns” would be correct; no one would have to learn that “troparion” is made plural as “troparia.” (As an added benefit, I would have one less big, red, liturgical hot-button if the pernicious plural problem were dismissed.)

Besides, when everyone defaults to using Greek, it’s not easy to see why we don’t just go back to “Doxa Patri kai etc.” and “Sophia! Proskomen!” and all the rest.

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11 Responses to “Translate, or Why English is Just as Good”

  1. joseph Says:

    As you mentioned, “gradual” would be just as incomprehensible to me as prokeimenon is. I’ve gotten used to “prokeimenon”, but I don’t find any more use for Greek, Russian, or Slavonic when all I know is English. Something more descriptive would be more welcoming for newcomers or even oldcomers.

  2. Erich Says:

    I tend to agree, of course. You know, when the Greeks translated the Liturgy into Slavic, they did not leave any Greek words that I can think of. Even Theotokos became Bogorodina. However, the difference is obviously the immigrant issue, and that even non-immigrants have become accustomed to certain terms like Theotokos (I still think we should find a translation for this word). Still, I think the Greeks were on to something back in the day by translating everything. That way the religious terminology can develop its own meanings within the language instead of having to go outside to borrow a foreign connotation.

  3. matt Says:

    Thanks for the info on the gradual hymn. The last three services I’ve been to have been much enhanced by that knowldge.

  4. basil Says:

    Matt, I am glad I could be of service.

  5. James Says:

    Well, you no doubt know my feelings on all this. I sometimes think people become infatuated with the exotic, foreign aspect of Orthodoxy. For example calling the meal after the Divine Liturty “Trapeza” or calling all the priest’s vestments by their often difficult to pronounce Greek names (epimani-what? epigona-who?).

    Then again, I will admit that if you use terms like “gradual” (which doesn’t seem to be the same thing as the gradual in Western liturgies, but I could very well be wrong) then someone might say, “Let’s just do the same thing as the Anglicans.” Hmmm …

  6. Josh Says:

    I was at an ordination yesterday, and was surprised when instead of singing a robust, “Eis polla eti, Despota!� at the bishops entrance, the parish sang, “Many Years, Master� in a lovely English setting.
    Then, during the actual ordination, they sang, “He is worthy� in English, rather than the traditional “Axios!� At first, I missed singing the Greek, but each time the new priest was given something else, the English, “He is worth� seemed to hold more and more meaning.
    I say it surprised me because their parish uses more old world language in liturgy than my parish does, yet my parish would probably say Eis polla eti, Despota and Axios – because that’s how everyone else in our deanery says it.

  7. sockmonk Says:

    I think I might agree with you in principle, but your example leaves me confused. “Prokeimenon” appears to be used as a noun, but “gradual” is an adjective, or so I thought. So how does one substitute for the other? Is something like “transition” what you had in mind?

    Based on other comments, I suspect that “gradual” might help former Anglicans or Episcopalians, but not be much more helpful to the rest of us than “prokeimenon.”

  8. basil Says:

    See the bit on gradual, to see that it has current use as a noun for English-speakers. See the Catholic Encyclopedia article for the history of the gradual/prokeimenon in the West.

    Part of the argument here is not dispensing with English liturgical terminology simply because Orthodoxy is coming via non-English speakers.

  9. Tabitha Says:

    Well, I checked out the two articles you linked and I am only slightly more enlightened than before. I still can’t make out why it is called a gradual. What does it have to do with grades or levels or progressions? I suppose I found the latter article so difficult to follow because, before Orthodoxy, I had absolutely no background in liturgy. English language liturgical terms are as foreign to me as their foreign counterparts. BTW, I saw several Latin and French terms being used among the English ones, so Western tradition seems to have this difficulty too (although one would expect it given the recent change from Latin among the Romans). I for one would certainly like to understand the headings or sections of the service but I confess I have little patience for the Greek terminology, so I haven’t really asked.

    OTOH, I fear I may have to disagree with you as regards Vassilópita. I would say first that your translation “St. Basil’s Bread” seems a happy one. The Greek would appear to me to say only “Basil’s Bread”, but I fear this would lead one to think of Italian herbed yeast bread which isn’t at all the thing. An American context (so lacking in the inherent understanding of all things to do with the Saints) really does need the clarification of St. Basil.

    But as to whether or not this must be translated I must voice other opinions. Frankly, as near as I can tell, this IS an ethnic custom peculiar to the Greeks. Obviously it has religious implications. Separating ethnic from religious can be very difficult in a culture so informed by its faith. Do Orthodox churches in other countries (Russia, Romania, Syria, wherever) also have this custom? If not, then I would say that this is no more relevant to us as Americans than we want it to be. Personally, I think it is great and has much in common with other such traditions around the Christian world (especially around the Nativity and Epiphany). But that is not particularly germane.

    When an ethnic food is brought into America one of three things happens. 1) It is never absorbed by the mainstream. It retains its original name and its ethnic association. It is rarely known outside of the circles of the descendants of that ethnicity. 2) It is widely absorbed into the American diet (or at least recognized) but retains its original name. I’ve never heard you complain that we don’t use English words for hamburger, taco, pizza, poi, baklava or latkes. 3) The food is absorbed into the American diet and given a new name (often existing alongside the old one). Examples here include bow-tie and wagon wheel pastas (but I defy you to find an American alternative for “spaghetti” or “lasagna”.

    In short, there is no hard and fast rule for how foreign concepts come into English or any other language for that matter (just watch the French trying to keep their language pure!). Angst and Gestalt are as much English now as patio and plaza. One of the challenges of translation is to decide whether to borrow a term, translate it directly or to coin a new one. Ultimately it is common usage which will decide the matter. If the custom should become widespread (even among American Orthodox), then I would vote for St. Basil’s Bread. If it remains a tradition peculiar to the Greeks then I think it should stay the same.

  10. basil Says:

    Tabitha: indeed. I guess I would be more enthused about spreading the word about St. Basil’s bread if people would just call it that.

    Gradual is an anglicization of a Latin term (I cannot remember it). The argument for retaining English Christian liturgical terminology, in my mind, is the same for retaining English Christian theological terminology, like Incarnation instead of enfleshment. However, I not very consistent on this, depending on whom I’m talking to. For example, I would rather dispense entirely with the archaic Nativity and use Birth instead.

    I guess with gradual and other English liturgical terms, people still have to learn new meanings (at least, when they come from non-liturgical backgrounds), but at least the form is not alienating.

  11. basil Says:

    Allow me to clarify about St. Basil’s bread: It is not irrelevant to me, since St. Basil is my namesake. I’m also all for acquiring Orthodoxy from a variety of Orthodox sources, not just Russia. I think this best represents the multi-ethnic character of the Orthodox missionary effort. Just do it in my language, please. Otherwise, it’s phyletism.