Translating the liturgy

Translating the liturgy

‘I believe translating is the most intimate, most profound way of reading. A translation is a wonderful and dynamic encounter between two languages, two texts, two writers.’ (Jhumpa Lahiri)

If ever this were true it is in the case of translating liturgical texts. That is mainly because liturgical texts have not sprung from the mind of one particular writer, but from the long and colourful tradition of the church. Any translation should therefore not be the fruit of the mind of one particular translator, but reflect the liturgical tradition of both countries. Besides, it should have the same flow as the original text. As it is meant to help people pray, it should nowhere draw attention to itself by unusual words, clumsy grammar or hiccups in the rhythm.

In 2011 the archdeaconry’s Mission Working Party (MWP) decided to commission a Dutch translation of the main liturgies from the Book of Common Worship. Seven years later this ‘wonderful and dynamic encounter’ is still in full swing. Being a translator by profession, I have been part of the work from the beginning. In that capacity I’d like to tell something about the challenges we have faced.

When translating literature, the translator’s first draft is and always should be the most literal one. This is to make sure that she doesn’t overlook a single word from the original when modelling the text into its new ‘body’. This first draft often sounds very clumsy, and can make the translator despair of her mother tongue.

Let me give an example. I love the phrase in Eucharistic Prayer A ‘…with all who stand before you in earth and heaven, we worship you, Father almighty, in songs of everlasting praise’. Apart from what it says, it is the way in which it is said that is so very uplifting and pleasing to the ear. It has something to do with the rhythm, I guess, which enables the worshipper to emphasize the words that matter most: We worship you, Father almighty, in songs of everlasting praise.

How to convey all this in Dutch? We started with: ‘…met allen die voor U staan op aarde en in de hemel aanbidden we U, almachtige Vader, met liederen van eeuwigdurende lof.’ As a first draft this wasn’t too bad, but still it was immediately clear that something had to be done. Often the first response to a suggested translation is a very instinctive one, and a translator should work through this deeply felt reaction before she starts tinkering with the text.

First problem: the word order is still very English. Second problem: ‘voor U staan’ isn’t actually wrong, but the Dutch ‘just don’t say it that way’. Besides, the first meaning that might spring to mind for a Dutch speaker is ‘standing in front of somebody in a crowd or a queue’. Third problem: there is a shift of emphasis in: ‘… aanbidden we U, almachtige Vader’. Fourth problem: ‘de liederen van eeuwigdurende lof’ made me giggle, an instinctive reaction that should be taken very seriously indeed, when it comes to the liturgy. My reaction had partly to do with the Dutch word ‘lof’, which is also the name of a vegetable (chicory); this makes it a tricky word to use, especially at the end of a sentence.

On the whole, the English wasn’t just shimmering through, it quite forcibly elbowed the Dutch aside. The translation was an Englishman in a Dutch trench coat, but still every inch the Englishman. Our next move was to turn this phrase into natural sounding Dutch liturgical language. This wasn’t too difficult, as the Dutch have their own linguistic treasures when it comes to praising God. We chose the quite common phrase ’… met allen die op aarde en in de hemel voor uw aangezicht staan, almachtige Vader, zingen wij U voor eeuwig de lof toe.’ The songs have disappeared, but they reappear in disguise in the verb ‘zingen’. The same goes for the word ‘worship’, that is contained in the words ‘toezingen’ and ‘lof’. The shift of emphasis is still there, but it is less obvious, and the word ‘lof’ is no longer a possible stumbling block as it has been placed elsewhere and been given another grammatical function. The rhythm is good, as was confirmed when together we said the words aloud – something we do every time after we have worked through smaller portions of the text.

Not bad for a second attempt. We now had a Dutchman in a Dutch trench coat, which was what we had been aiming for. But using this phrase as an example for this article, I became increasingly unhappy with this solution. Exploring this feeling, I realized that indeed we had found the Dutchman in the Dutch trench coat, but nothing on the person of this worthy gentleman showed that he had been on holiday in the UK and attended an Anglican service there!

The expression ‘songs of everlasting praise’ is unusual. It appears only once in all the Eucharistic prayers. Replacing it with a rather common Dutch phrase doesn’t do justice to its special character. So when you read this, I am pondering several other possibilities. At the moment, ‘… zingen wij U ons nimmer eindigend loflied’ is the one I like best. But will I still think so after a couple of weeks? And will the rest of the team agree? For the answer to that question you will have to wait until after the authorization by the bishop, I fear, when the end result will be revealed.

At the Archdeaconry Synod last October, the Rev. Stephen Murray, chairman of the MWP and coordinator of the translation team, was able to report that some major progress in the translation work had been made. If you have made it to this point in the article, you will understand that this was a momentous occasion… The translations that are now more or less ready for submission to the bishop are the liturgy for Holy Communion and several Eucharistic Prayers, although they still have to be checked by the Archdeacon. The team are now working through the draft liturgies for Baptism, Marriage and Funeral. We still welcome any comments, as the texts were made available for road-testing at the synod of 2016.

At the latest synod several people mentioned the pastoral value of the translated liturgies, esp. in bilingual services and in services with many non-English speaking guests. So it seems fit to conclude this article with a quote from George Steiner:

‘Every language is a world. Without translation, we would inhabit parishes bordering on silence.’

Dorienke de Vries, archdeaconry representative for the Arnhem/Nijmegen chaplaincy and member of the translation team.