Orthodox Christian



A Note on the Translation of Rachmaninov's Vespers

Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther 


The translation is in a substantial sense American. According to H.V. Milligan, The New Music Review, 1921, the Vespers service was translated into English by Canon Winfred Douglas  ‘and has been issued in this English form with revisions by the composer.’  It is not clear whether this means that Rachmaninov revised Douglas’ translations, or the music for the English-language version. Canon Charles Winfred Douglas (1867-1944) brought into the Episcopal Church in the United States the traditional music of the Roman Catholic Church and adapted it to the needs especially of Episcopalian nuns, the Community of St Mary, Peekskill, N.Y. As Mother Miriam of that Community has said, ‘His primary principle of adaptation was that the sense of the words must be supported by the flow of the music.’  The Community of St Mary used translations of the traditional prayers of the Catholic Church. Internet data re Douglas do not refer to his association with Rachmaninov and his Vespers, but this setting has introduced Douglas to the world more effectively than anything else he did.  It makes very accessible the prayers of the Vespers service in Rachmaninov’s version.  It may not be realized that Church Slavonic (a form of proto-Bulgarian) is not well understood by Russians, who seldom hear literary Russian in their services.  Perhaps 12 percent is understandable by an average Russian congregation.

A similar approach to that of Douglas was adopted by Isabel Florence Hapgood (1850-1928), a polyglot translator whose greatest achievement was the translation of the main Orthodox services as Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church (Association Press, 1922; first pubd 1906). This had the support of the Russian Church and Government, and the Imperial Family.  Indeed, Patriarch St Tikhon was actively involved in examining and making recommendations on the translation as the work came into being.  The translation is widely used in the Antiochian Orthodox Church in America.  This was fostered by the Russian Diocese in America in the early 20th century.  Hapgood was an Episcopalian devoted to Russia – and to relief of exiles etc after 1917 – and to efforts at union with the Russian Orthodox Church.  She was greatly admired for these things by the Orthodox. 

There are certain differences between Douglas’ work and that of Isabel Florence Hapgood.  His translation is simpler, and meant to fit into Rachmaninov’s music.  The characteristic of her translation is that it faithfully echoes the kind of language of which Orthodox prayers are full: poetic, rhetorical, florid.  It echoes these features with a general approximation to good literary English written in the manner of the Elizabethan and Jacobean rhetoric.  So, for example,

‘O come, let us worship’

 appears as:

‘O come, let us worship God our King.  O come, let us worship and fall down before Christ, our King and our God.  O come, let us worship and fall down before the Very Christ, our King and our God.  O come, let us worship and fall down before him.’

And again: 

‘In that we have beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us bow down before the Holy Lord Jesus, the only sinless One.  Thy Cross do we adore, O Christ, and thy holy Resurrection we laud and glorify: for thou art our God, and we know none other beside thee; we call upon thy Name. O come, all ye faithful, let us adore Christ’s holy Resurrection.  For lo, through the Cross is joy come into all the world.  Ever blessing the Lord, let us sing his Resurrection: for in that he endured the Cross he hath destroyed Death by death.’

Translation is an attempt.  The translator intends to make available the meaning of the original, to provide sounds as authoritative as those of the original though they will probably not be the same. In addition, he must give meaning.  There is no sense where there is completely a contradiction and no adequate sense if there is a misrepresentation of the original meaning.  The translator aims at a mark: the original with its distinctive features.   His hope is to convey an equal degree of quality by his translation.

It is regrettable that most modern translations of church services fail to convey the poetic, rhetorical, florid character of their originals; whether they are translations from ‘a foreign language’ or from English.  Few if any poets appear to have been involved in these banal endeavours.  The fundamental issue is this. Oratory – including the oratory of prayer – is either demagogic or elevated; but prayer is elevated language, noble language.  Public prayer - liturgical worship - is not the language of an advertisement or popular newspaper.  Nor is it the simple, direct language of the believer alone with God.  It should be the language which will organize the spiritual powers of the group and allow all to speak with nobility, which resonates in the mind and opens the soul of each believer.  The failure to maintain a high level of quality for prayer may be far more corrosive to faith than modernizing people generally understand.

 © Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther, SS. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Church, Croydon, London 2003


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