The language debate in American Orthodoxy has a number of dimensions to it. The first and most obvious of these is the ethnic issue: the degree to which an ethnic language will be used in liturgical celebration as a means of supporting and retaining the specified ethnicity. This, of course, has the effect of defining the identity of the Orthodox Church in a very particular way. While this particular aspect of the debate colors and shapes - if not overshadows - all other concerns about language in the Orthodox Church in North America, it will not be taken up here. However, what we can see in the debate over the degree to which an ethnic language will be used in a particular community is that language involves identity - both collective and personal - in a way that no other aspect of our humanity can. The sounds and syllables we use to communicate thoughts and feelings to others also have a reciprocal effect on us. Language shapes who we are and how we think, even as we use it to communicate ourselves to others. Language, in this way, is both the conduit and repository of culture and human society.
On the other hand, language, in the generic sense, is universally and even innately human. There is the interesting example recently uncovered of a group of deaf orphans in Nicaragua who, independently of any external influence, developed a complex sign language, complete with grammatical integrity. Language, as we Christians have always contended, is apparently hard-wired into our being. So even while a particular language carries with it a set of nuances of meaning specific to a given culture, human beings also have the capacity to transcend their own particularity of language and engage the "other" in a manner that can communicate. Hence, translation, while difficult, is possible. Something is always lost in translation, but something else is always gained. And it is this latter point that I would like to emphasize.
The issue of language usage and translation in religion is very old - millennia - and suffice it to say that it will not be solved by this article or in our time. It emerges and reemerges precisely because language itself is in constant flux. To expect that our language or any language will not change as the people who speak it encounter the world and other people in new and different ways is unrealistic. And, even if human nature does not change (whatever that may mean), the way in which we value and interpret our experiences, and the way we express those experiences, does change. Language lives as we live.
That religion is a "lagging indicator" in the flux of language usage is to be expected. Religion generally, and for a wide variety of reasons, tends to be the most conservative part of ourselves. Many studies have been made concerning the nature and role of religion in society, in human civilization, and indeed in human nature. Among other things, religion deals with the way in which we interpret the meaning of ourselves, the world, the universe. It reaches down into the very core of who we are both personally and cosmically; as individuals and as a race. Because the need for meaning is so deeply seated in our consciousness, any attempt to modify the externals of religion tends to be seen as altering meaning itself. And indeed, many times altering practice was and is precisely intended to alter meaning and the interpretation of reality. So the conservative nature of religion has a purpose in safe-guarding ultimate meaning, that is to say, true worship.
I would add, parenthetically, that precisely because religion is concerned with ultimate meaning, that the modern - especially American - attitude that religious controversies or even discussions are irrelevant hangovers from a more superstitious past is particularly dangerous. To see religion solely as a source of controversy and division is to mistake the dynamic at work. People today are no different than people in the past. We have always searched for meaning, but more importantly security of meaning. In a former time religion provided security of meaning by interpreting the world in very concrete ways. As we have come to see, myth (as a technical term) gave the framework for interpreting reality and hence gave meaning to existence. Today people look to science and technology to provide that security by presenting the world as a multitude of discrete, objective, knowable facts. However, science and technology become religion when they cease discussing how things are and enter into the realm of why things are. (Or, more precisely, the how of things becomes the why.) Conversely, religion becomes science when it tries to explain how things are by using arguments that belong to meaning, not mechanics.
This misunderstood dichotomy lies at the heart of the fundamentalist/evolutionist debate. It is relevant to our discussion of language because what the fundamentalist mentality fears is a loss or perversion of meaning through the application of "different" or extrareligious interpretive techniques. Conversely, the modern mind, by reducing all meaning to mechanics or function, labels the religious perspective as mere superstition. Language and interpretative techniques are employed to substantiate this scientific position. What is at stake in the debate is the way we can and do understand the nature of things and generally how we can know and understand anything at all. This of course means the way we understand ourselves and our relationship to God.
Translating religious texts then becomes very perilous, because it must employ not just scientific methodology (the historical/critical method) on the one hand, or literalism on the other, but most importantly, faith. It is not as simple as translating nonreligious texts, which are difficult enough. Translators like to remind themselves of the old Latin play on words between translator and traitor (traductor / traditor). Every time you translate a text it seems like you've betrayed the original meaning. However, translation also adds something. In many ways the translator rewrites and interprets a text so that it makes sense in the language of the translation.
At first, translation may seem like a simple task. You pull out a dictionary, learn the grammar, and translate. But a literal, word-for-word translation can often result in gibberish. On the other hand, a translation of concepts over words can sometimes impose meaning that was not there in the original. It then becomes the work of the translator and not that of the original author. For the translator of religious texts, especially, the task is to make the scriptural and liturgical texts speak to us in the same way as they did to the people who heard them for the first time. They shouldn't be distant or remote, but near and close. It goes without saying that, like the iconographer who "writes" an icon by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the translator translates by the grace of the Holy Spirit. And just as not all icons are the same, neither are all translations the same. The God-given charism of the person can be seen in the work produced.
One of the temptations in translating sacred texts is to think that a certain language is itself sacred. This idea has great appeal at first. We want to think about the language that we use to speak to God, as we do indeed think about God Himself, as something set apart. But if that were the case then nothing could be translated. We would all have to read the texts in the original, as the Moslems do with the Koran. But Christians rejected this idea from the outset. The Jews themselves rejected this. The first translations of the Hebrew Scriptures were not done by Christians, but by Jews of the Diaspora. The Lord Himself did not speak in Greek - the language in which the Apostles wrote all of their accounts of the earthly life of the Lord - but Aramaic. And while we Orthodox Christians revere the Holy Scriptures as the inspired Word of God, we must remind ourselves that the Scriptures are not God, but "only" the account of those human beings who were inspired to write down their experience of God.
The Scriptures, and especially the Gospels, are the supreme icons. When God communicates with us, He does not speak language or words. The language and words come later as our attempt to write down and communicate to others what we have experienced. What does the Evangelist John mean when he says that, "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (John 21:25)? Simply put, the experience of God transcends language and words.
Thinking of a particular language or a form of language as sacred or more apt for religious usage can also be dangerous. This is the case with the Elizabethan English that many feel is the most appropriate form of English to be used in Scripture and worship. We might want to remind ourselves that Elizabethan English was the vernacular of the Elizabethans, and that many objected to that translation as well. And that the King James translation was a reaction to the work of William Tyndale, which was considered heretical and ordered burned. Be this as it may, the language of the King James Bible, Elizabethan English, remains essentially a foreign language for most modern Americans, even though it may seem very close to our own modern English. While we can understand it after a fashion, we don't communicate in that way any longer and many misinterpretations can occur. I think that one example of this should suffice.
In "Old" English the Thee/Thou usage is the second person singular. It was used (as that usage persists in many other European languages) to address only the most intimate of relations: mother, father, wife or husband, children, and close friends. So when the prayers bid us to address God in Thee/Thou language, they are calling us to address God in the most intimate way, the way we would talk to our parents, our spouse, our children, or our very closest friends. However, when a modern English speaker hears Thee/Thou, they assume that this is formal usage. One can pick this up when people are feigning pompous or stilted behavior; they invariably slip into some corrupted form of Thee/Thou. So we have a perceptual anomaly: what is in point of fact the most intimate form of language is now understood as formal and distant. At the very least this is a seriously distorted apprehension of the divine/human relationship. And by suggesting that we persist in this usage, we in fact preach what is pretty close to heresy. That modern English has no distinct form for the second person singular is an interesting sociological and anthropological point. But this is, after all, the language that we speak. So the usage of You, as the way in which we address those persons closes to us, more accurately reflects the real way in which we should be speaking with God, because He gives us that right as His adopted children to speak to Him in this fashion.
For another perspective, English adds a dimension to our theological language that is not there in other languages. For example, in Greek, Latin, and all of the Romance languages (and perhaps in others with which I am not acquainted) the word for conscience and consciousness is the same. Or put differently, in English we make a distinction between conscience - the personal and innate moral guide - and consciousness - the awareness of those realities external to our own person with which we must interact. Of course there is a lot more to both of these words and the concepts that they represent, but this isn't a philosophical paper on Descartes. The translator has a dilemma when confronting the word. Is it to be translated as the internal discernment of conscience or is it to be the wider awareness of consciousness? It depends both on the context in which the word has been used, but also the interpretation given by the translator. In many ways, it represents the particularly modern preoccupation with where "I" stops and "We" begins. In short, language can be very complex and subtle, and there is often more to the usage of a word than meets the eye - sometimes even more than the author intended.
There is a similar dilemma when translations attempt to employ gender-neutral language. Again, it is not as simple as it first appears. One major predicament concerns how to translate the Greek word anthropos, which means "human being." Traditionally that word has been translated as "man." Some would argue that man is gender neutral, and perhaps it was at one time. The reality is that we hear that word differently today, and it no longer conveys the same meaning. The difficulty is that English does not provide a singular form of the word anthropos that is very felicitous. We have been awkwardly using: human, person, human being, human person, humankind, humanity. Eventually we will solve this linguistic dilemma, but we haven't yet. On the other hand, gender-neutral language has sometimes been used in a way that betrays the original text. For example, the first verse of Psalm 1 reads: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked." The New Revised Standard version reads: "Blessed is the one. . . ." However, the Hebrew and Greek do not use the generic anthropos. Rather, they use the word that is specifically "man." Patristic exegesis has always identified Psalm 1 as a messianic psalm referring to our Lord Himself. So to "neutralize" the language does harm to both the original meaning as well as to our faith understanding of the text. Examples of both kinds could be multiplied.
Then there is the issue of using male names for God Himself. Here the problem is more delicate. We are now trying to penetrate not only the mystery of who God is, but also what gender difference means for human beings. This is not an issue for translators, but for theologians. And the substitution of pronouns here has deep theological implications. We are in the middle of this controversy, and so I would not pretend to offer any definitive answers, just a few observations.
The first thing that needs to be emphasized is that God has no gender. We use words, but as I said above, words are used after the fact as an attempt to explain the experience of God. No theologian of the Church, no Father or Mother of the Church, would ever claim that God is male. However, God is a personal, a tri-personal being. When the title Father is used, it is meant to describe the relationship of one person to another. Similarly, when the title Son or Holy Spirit is used, the same interpersonal dynamic is implicit. Why the Scriptures do not use Mother/Daughter language is an issue of much debate and speculation. Whether we Orthodox can accept such terminology remains to be seen.
However, there is another trend employed to circumvent the gender question. It is to take the names of the persons of the Holy Trinity and turn them into functional titles: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. The problem with this is that it reduces persons to functions. While we use many words to describe the way God works and acts in creation and in our lives, every person transcends their works. This is true of human persons and is certainly true of divine persons. Name remains critical to identity. (Remember Moses and the Burning Bush?) So while this seemed at first blush to solve the dilemma, in reality it creates more problems than it solves.
The debate here is not about translation, but about identity, and in particular gender identity. It is not even a theological question, in the strictest sense; it is an anthropological question. Here we can see how language is bound up with identity. For the argument is that gender bias is built into the theological language, despite protestations to the contrary. And, perhaps it is. We need to discuss this more, to work this question out, before any of us can speak about it with certainty or clarity.
In my approach to liturgical translation, I have been helped enormously by the example of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Romanian never developed a frozen religious language like Koine and Byzantine Greek or Old Church Slavonic. Rather, liturgical texts are constantly reviewed and refined. I find them remarkably close to the Greek originals in content and rhythm. But they are in thoroughly modern Romanian. This is not profane or street Romanian, but a language appropriate to liturgical usage that is at once totally comprehensible and immediate to the modern listener. The Romanians have been at this for at least three or four hundred years. They changed their alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin. They have gone through at least four major spelling (orthographic) revisions in the last one hundred years. And each new edition of the liturgical texts has been reexamined and honed. They view liturgical translation as a work in process. Many people are upset by the multiplicity and content of recent English translations. Frankly, I myself find some of them fairly poor. But I rejoice, because even in the worst of translations I oftentimes find a word or a phrase that is a true insight into the original text. As we grow as an English-speaking Church, we will incorporate all of these efforts into what will be a new and remarkable American Orthodox tradition.
Religion touches on meaning in much the same way as language, except that religion - true religion - is relationship with the living God. Language is one of the means by which that relationship as well as other relationships are maintained. Religion, faith, is the relationship itself. In this sense, language is a tool, a medium. It should not be confused with the reality of what is being conveyed by it. As we continue this discussion about translation, we should not let the discussion about language distract us from our primary calling: relationship with the living God who saves us.