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Anri Volokhonsky’s translations of liturgical texts open up space for inspiration

Moscow, October 3, Yulia Zaitseva, Blagovest-info. A presentation of translations of liturgical texts by poet Anri Volohhonski took place in Moscow on September 30. These translations have long been used in the liturgical practice of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). In Russia, they were published as a special volume in 2016 by «Probel» Publishing House. Clergy and laity participated in a discussion of the characteristics and advantages of the new translations. A foreword to the book was written by poet, translator, and philologist Olga Sedakova. The presentation was timed to coincide with International Translator’s Day.

The meeting was led by publicist Sergei Chapnin, who reported that on the day of the presentation, a Moscow priest celebrated the sacrament of the wedding according to Anri Volokhonsky’s translation. “These translations have long been used in the Church in Russia and abroad, but there is no meaningful conversation about them yet. It is not a question of whether or not we need translations of the liturgical texts into Russian – the answer to this question was given some 200 years ago. What’s important is to talk about church practice and the feelings these texts provoke in the priests,” he said.

Fr. Mikhail Aksenov-Meerson (NYC, OCA) sent a video presentation in which he described his first encounter with A. Volohhonski’s texts many years ago. According to Fr. Michael’s observations the text of the liturgy in Slavonic is clear to the faithful of the parish, as they hear it regularly. The parish discussed the possibility of using Russian texts, and it was decided to continue serving the liturgy in Church Slavonic. On the other hand, every Christian hears the order of baptism or wedding several times in the course of his life, and the “theology of the sacraments” is usually difficult to understand because of the peculiarities of the Church Slavonic language. When Fr. Michael, with the blessing and even “the initiative” of the ruling bishop, began serving in Russian, “the attitude toward the sacraments changed radically,” and many rediscovered the meaning of the sacraments, the priest witnessed. He considers the publication of translations of the Liturgy “a very helpful service,” also because he has often heard OCA priests recite prayers in Slavonic and “translate the difficult passages as they go along,” in the form of “semi-literate improvisation. In these cases, Volokhonsky’s translations may be especially in demand.

“The publication of this book is a significant event for the Church. It is important that these translations were made by a deeply religious man, a fine poet.”

Archpriest Mikhail Aksenov-Meerson, OCA

Another remote participant, Archpriest Sergius Ovsyannikov (Amsterdam, ROC), sent a letter in which he spoke of “courage and freedom” as essential qualities for all translators, beginning with St. Cyril and St. Methodius.

Larissa Pevear-Volokhonsky, Paris.

The consultant for the new book, the poet’s sister, translator Larissa Pevear-Volokhonsky, spoke about the peculiarities of the translator’s work. According to her, “an ideal translation is a miracle,” because it must walk the fine line between “the curse of the Tower of Babel” (which made translation as such necessary and possible) and “the miracle of Pentecost” (when the Holy Spirit Himself became a “translator” and made it possible to spread the Good News in different languages). It is important that the translator work on the basic task of “translating in the same spirit in which the text is written. Spirit, meaning, and beauty, all closely related to excellence, can together “breathe new life into the text.” All of this is inherent in Anri Volokhonsky’s translations, believes his sister, who has received international recognition for her translations of Russian classics into English.

Archpriest Alexei Uminsky sees Volokhonsky’s translations as “a new creative word.” He sees in the texts presented “a remarkable tactfulness: the translator allows the priest not to ‘take advantage of the text,’ but to co-create with it; this text immediately introduces him to the space of creativity.” Anri Volohhonski managed to translate the Slavonic text so poetically, “as if he had invented the prayers rather than translated them,” the priest emphasized. He believes that the problem of the language of the Church must be “redefined”: on the one hand, there are ancient prayers that were only understandable in the context of their time, and they should hardly be translated (“As if something bad will fall into a well…” etc.); on the other hand, the need to create new prayers (for example, prayers for peace in Ukraine, which are recited in every ROC church during the liturgy or prayers to new martyrs) forces us to stylize modern words to match Church Slavonic and this practice breaks the “connection with reality.”

Archpriest Alexei Uminsky, Moscow.

Volokhonsky used quite a modern vocabulary, but “the result is a simple and transparent text,” which has absolutely no sense of a formal approach, Alexander Kravetsky, a philologist at the Institute of Russian Language, Russian Academy of Sciences, assessed the translator’s work. “The author does not follow the form, but the Russian language, the rest “pours itself”. He uses different language tools, but his translation is amazingly ascetic, avoiding the temptation of language games,” he said, referring to the advantages of the new edition as compared with many others.

According to Hieromonk Dimitry (Pershin), chairman of the Moscow Missionary Commission, the tone of freedom and trust distinguishes Volokhonsky’s translations. He’s confident that these texts will cause a lot of criticism in the Church communities, but they “are already part of the life of the Church. Making the language of the Church understandable – this trend is evident in some of the services that Patriarch Kyrill has been performing for many years, reading the Gospel in Russian, noted Fr. Dimitry. When there is an “expectation, a demand,” new translations must appear, he believes.

“The author does not follow the form, but the Russian language, the rest “pours itself”. He uses different language tools, but his translation is amazingly ascetic, avoiding the temptation of language games.”

Alexander Kravetsky, The Institute of Russian Language, Russian Academy of Sciences

Alexander Kyrlezhev, a staff member of the Synodal Theological Commission, reminded us that the Synodal translations of the Bible, which saw the light of day 150 years ago, “took root” for a long time and proved to be difficult: At the time, they perceived them as a “micro-reformation. In the same way, new translations of liturgical texts – they can be used, first of all, the rites of baptism and marriage, and it will be a “new breakthrough” in the “endlessly sealed hieratic stream,” but it will not be realized and accepted by the Church for a long time.

“We are a bit afraid to allow this text into practice, but the spirit of freedom, joy, creativity, the spirit of Pentecost is felt when reading these texts,” said Priest Gregory Geronimus, who also considers A. Volokhonsky’s texts “a real breakthrough.” Deacon Leonid Dzhalilov called the new translation “awakening,” unlike many “soporific” translations. Fr. Ilya Solovyov had the opportunity to use A. Volokhonsky’s translations twice at weddings and baptisms, at the request of participants in the sacrament. “There are such virtues in these translations that they will open the door to ecclesiastical practice,” is Fr. Elijah.

The conversation about the new edition then continued in the format of a free-flowing discussion.

Full video from the presentation and discussion (in Russian). Artos Fellowship Youtube channel.

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