41 Comments

  1. Thank you, Richard, for this informative article. I appreciate your commitment to traditional standards for hymnography, and your recognition that metered texts and model melodies are a tradition vital to both Byzantine chant and English Protestant hymn singing.

    I wonder, though, why you would not consider traditional English conjugations to merit equal attention. After all, traditional pronouns and conjugations are as ubiquitous in English hymnography as metered poetry. They were considered indispensable to ecclesiastic good taste right through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and even through most of the twentieth – centuries after they were disused in common speech. And here too, we have an exact parallel in Orthodoxy, because neither in Greek nor Russian churches are hymns sung in the modern vernacular, but always in an archaic liturgical form of the language.

    Personally, I find use of modern language extremely unsettling to the liturgical aesthetic. Why would we maintain a commitment to medieval-style painting, architecture, and vestments, and yet translate in a modern vernacular idiom, alien to our own language’s established liturgical form? Your thoughts?

    Reply
    1. Father Gregory Francis Desmarais

      May I respond with this question, why is it necessary to maintain a commitment to mediaeval architecture, vestments, and iconography, and for that matter archaic linguistic form?

      Reply
      1. Well, a simple answer is that the entire Orthodox Tradition is characterized by an extreme dedication to preserving medieval forms. Hence Orthodox architecture and music have not gone through a series of stylistic revolutions from one century to the next the way Western art has. It has maintained the Byzantine style and their regional variants for 1500 years, and done so with remarkable strictness, whilst also allowing an incredible flowering of diversity and originality within the parameters of those styles. To abandon the cannon of style and Tradition, and the medieval texts and ceremonial forms proscribed in our service books, would be simply to abandon Orthodoxy. Without the medieval stuff, all we would be left with is faith and morals – ie, we would be just like the Protestants.

        Reply
    2. Richard Barrett

      Thanks very much for the comment, Andrew. I’ll try to answer your question as best I am able; it’s a complex matter, and one that maybe merits its own article or counterpoint-style piece (written by people who are actually experienced translators in both a modern idiom as well as KJV-style idiom).

      First off, I tried to acknowledge the two registers that we hear in Anglophone churches — indeed, celebrate the embarrassment of riches we have today in both registers — without dwelling on it, simply because it is a huge topic. In my own parish, I use texts in a contemporary register a) because they are what my bishop prefers I use for English b) they are what my employer produces and I do my best to “eat my own dogfood” (to borrow a term from my years-back software work experience) c) there is an extent to which metered KJV-style texts are saddled with some heavy baggage in terms of church polity and liturgical unity. I allude to the problem in the article, but I don’t really want to get into the weeds with it for several reasons, so I’ll leave that there.

      In terms of writing the article, I don’t give metered KJV-style texts as examples for the simple reason that HTM publishes the books that contain those texts, I don’t have access to HTM’s materials beyond what they make available online (hence linking to their book of model melodies), plus they don’t meter their canons.

      As for the broader philosophical point — it is true that ecclesiastical/ancient Greek is not Modern Greek, and that even new offices (like that for St. Elder Paisios) are composed in ancient Greek. However — setting issues of comprehension aside — there is a consistent living Orthodox tradition of ancient Greek expressing Orthodox thought. This same tradition does not exist in English; there is absolutely a substantial tradition of English-language Christianity and English liturgical language, but that is, fundamentally, a Protestant tradition — that’s a trap with English overall, since much of our linguistic resonance has very deep roots in Protestant thought. It’s part of, I think, why many ears reject “Mother of God” as a title for the Virgin Mary and prefer “Theotokos” — the Greek word simply doesn’t have the baggage, even though, strictly speaking, “Mother of God” is just fine. That’s not a categorical indictment of KJV-style English, necessarily, but I do think it is something that requires careful attention of the translator-poet.

      Also, KJV-style composition is its own beast; you can’t just compose in modern English, do a search-and-replace to change pronouns and verb endings, and say you’re done. This is not an abstract point for me; I am working on a set of metered troparia for the Sunday Beatitudes (more here: https://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/the-typika-psalms-and-beatitudes-a-liturgical-opportunity/ ), and I am working in a modern register. I’ve been asked to produce a KJV-style version as well for parishes whose bishops have mandated such a register of English; I’m not going anywhere near it until I’ve finished the first set, because I’m going to have to approach it differently, and it’s going to be a much harder task. While I’ve done search-and-replace-style adaptations before, they’re really not any good, and I want to make sure these are up to snuff.

      To put it another way, while I don’t have a fundamental problem with the existence of KJV-style texts, I think there are pitfalls that make it tricky to historicize the register and say, “There, that’s English-language Orthodoxy.” I don’t think you can retroactively fabricate that tradition; such a project done right would, I think, be Tolkien-esque and require a linguist and poet of that calibre willing to make it their life’s work. And that would be just to lay the groundwork; there’s other work I think you have to do to get it up to snuff as a living tradition, and while on the one hand I would of course say it’s all worth doing, on the other hand I’m not sure why we wouldn’t just save a massive step and do the forward-looking work with the contemporary register.

      Which isn’t to say that I believe that there’s nothing useful about historical forms of English for Anglophone Orthodoxy; I think Old English literature and poetry like Beowulf, the Dream of the Rood, Caedmon’s Hymn, etc. can be useful and informative.

      I will say that over the summer, AGES Initiatives received permission from His Excellency Metropolitan Kallistos Ware to include his KJV-style texts for the Festal Menaion, the Lenten Triodion, and the Triodion Supplement in the Digital Chant Stand, so AGES’ own stance on register is not absolute. Those texts will not be metered, however.

      Your point about preserving medieval traditions of architecture, iconography, etc. is an interesting one. I would push back on it somewhat; you yourself have said that in your work, you try to instantiate architectural traditions so that they look like they belong in their surroundings, building from local materials, etc. To me, the register of English falls under the umbrella of “local materials”, and this is why I advocate getting real, living poets involved and composing natively using these metrical conventions, not just producing translations.

      Does this help at all?

      Reply
    3. Ryan

      I’m not Richard but I would say that addressing an individual as “you” does not thereby make a hymn “vernacular” in any kind of casual sense. If I sing, “Blessed are you, God of our fathers, for you are praiseworthy and exalted unto the ages” I am speaking quite differently from everyday English speech or even everyday English writing. Which is to say that the hymnographic texts are inherently elevated in their language and will remain so if translated well, whether one translates them into a “traditional” or “vernacular” English. An immediate intelligibility does not mean a dumbing down. Another thing is that when we create texts in “traditional” language, we are employing a literary device- archaism. That is, the creation of a sense of stateliness using archaic language. The effect of what we are doing is actually dependent on the time we live in and the fact that certain word choices and grammatical conventions are perceived as archaic and venerable. And we are likely going to be very selective in our use of archaism. Old grammatical forms might be used but much of the diction will be modern. I am not saying this as a criticism of archaism- I think it’s a legitimate literary device- but we have to recognize that it is something used by people outside of the time it evokes, and the purpose is to give a sense of dignity and solemnity. There are other ways to accomplish this without employing archaism.

      Reply
      1. Richard Barrett

        Yes, I agree, that basically what we’re talking about is a “high” contemporary English. The translations of Fr. Ephrem Lash, although not metered, generally accomplish this, I think.

        Reply
        1. Well, high and formal language certainly accomplishes much of it. But traditional English has several characteristics that are objectively better than their modern equivalents. One is that the pronouns indicate singular vs. plural with specificity. This is no small matter when trying to make a liturgical text clear in its meaning. As a choir director, I frequently need to adapt modern English translations of hymns to the traditional English that my parish uses. Quite often, it is unclear to whom the pronouns refer. I have to read it several times, and sometimes look at another translation, before I’m confident whether the ‘you’ at the end of the hymn is referring to some group of martyrs or to Christ. In traditional English, such ambiguities are mostly resolved.

          Also, there is the phonetic sound of the language. Any singer knows that ‘you’ and ‘your’ are terrible vowel sounds to have to sing, whereas ‘thee’, ‘thou’, and ‘thine’ roll off the tongue with ease and sound so much better. Since our hymns tend to have many lines that end with these pronouns, it makes a huge difference to the sing-ability of the text, and the beauty to the ear.

          Reply
          1. Richard Barrett

            Disagree categorically, as a singer who has sung in English, German, Greek, Italian, French, Russian, Slavonic, Spanish, Latin, Romanian, Arabic, and Czech that there are “terrible vowel sounds to have to sing”. I do not believe that’s a thing.

            I would also have a hard time seeing your preferences as “objectively better”. I will say that a good friend of mine who composes Byzantine chant in English refers to “traditional English” (and I’m not sure I agree that’s a thing, either, but I know what you mean) as “English with training wheels” from the standpoint of composition. Yes, you have all these extra syllables to play with, for example, which can be great for the composer, but that just means we have to go through the process of
            figuring out how to make these things work without the extra stuff. Yes, 2nd person pronouns take their number from context and not from morphology, but a well-composed text will make the context clear, and a native speaker will get it without the archaicism. Not only that, but we’ve completely switched around the understanding of the thee/you distinction in popular understanding, which also doesn’t help. Again, get living poets involved, compose new offices in English for saints in Anglophone lands. I don’t think the -ests are necessary; what’s necessary is for English to embrace the poetic forms and make them native.

          2. Richard Barrett

            (And, while certainly a worthy topic, I still think this is all pretty tangential to the specific question of model melodies. As I suggest, it’s a matter probably best dealt with in its own article or articles.)

          3. Yes, I now regret bringing it up, as it’s taking too much attention from your topic of meter. But I do see it as the same issue from a broader standpoint. Some would say that understandability to modern listeners is paramount, and therefore the awkwardness of metrical translations AND the archisms of traditional English are both unacceptable. Others (including me) would say the beauty of the presentation is paramount, and so translate and conjugate accordingly.

            So I am just puzzled why you would fall into ‘conform to the musical/poetic tradition’ camp when it comes to meter, yet would fall into the ‘modern/understandable’ camp on pronouns.

            Since my choir sings Kievan Chant, we would find no advantage to metrical texts, but we find that ‘you’s’ are seriously problematic. So many hymn lines end with this pronoun, and Kievan chant puts all the emphasis on the last syllable, setting it to a melismatic cadence. So we would end up singing something that sounds a bit like ‘yoo-hoo’ or ‘yo-de-lay-hee-hoo’ on almost every cadence. Maybe this phenomenon explains why Slavic churches seem so much more concerned with traditional pronouns than Byzantine churches.

            I do wish, though, that we had a way to do metrical hymns. If there existed some metrical form of Orthodox chant that suited the musical aesthetic of Russian churches, I would be all for it. As a former Anglican, I’m extremely accustomed to metrical translations of ancient hymns. Those English hymn-writers of the 19th century didn’t seem to have any difficulty turning ancient Greek and Latin texts into beautiful metrical English. But I also notice that they didn’t try to translate the texts terribly literally. Their translations were more impressionistic. We can see this in many Protestant hymns that are actually based on Orthodox hymns – for instance, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’. The Protestant versions are much more singable and memorable than our own English translations, but they wander from the original text significantly.

            I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on how much creative re-writing we are willing to accept as part of making beautiful metrical translations.

          4. So I am just puzzled why you would fall into ‘conform to the musical/poetic tradition’ camp when it comes to meter, yet would fall into the ‘modern/understandable’ camp on pronouns.

            Simply put, because I don’t find anything inherently more beautiful about early modern English (it’s not “Old English”, for those who might be inclined to call it that; Caedmon wrote in Old English, not Shakespeare). It’s beautiful when executed artfully in its own context, as is modern English; I don’t think there’s anything about modern English that intrinsically disadvantages it from being beautiful. Extra syllables and archaic morphology aren’t what make language beautiful; beauty of composition and beauty of execution are what make it beautiful.

            As for creative re-writing — I think some of it is inevitable. There’s a particular project that I’m in the early stages of planning that I hope to be able to use to demonstrate some of the points I’m talking about here; watch this space for details.

          5. This is not the project I mention above, but I’ll talk through a work-in-progress example of a point I discuss, that of writing offices for Anglophone saints in English following metrical conventions. My own patron saint, St. Richard of Wessex, is, shall we say, liturgically underrepresented in the Byzantine rite. I am no Scott Cairns or Nicholas Samaras, to be clear, and certainly no Fr. Seraphim Dedes or Fr. Ephrem Lash or Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, but I am somebody who has written and published in a lot of different genres (including poetry), I am a cantor who has a reasonable sense of how the melodies work, I’ve sung a LOT in English in many professional contexts, and I have some facsimile of reasonable facility with Greek, so I have something of an understanding of how the Greek texts are composed. Plus, my puns prompted Fr. Seraphim Dedes to say to me when we first met, “Can you put that skill to good use and become a hymnographer?”

            And, not to put too fine a point on it, but nobody else is going to bother (which is how I’ve wound up doing 99% of the things I do, but never mind).

            So, at least for now, let’s say that it’s expedient to compose the apolytikion first; that way there’s SOMETHING to be sung on his feast day one way or the other. Then the question becomes, what do I use as the model melody? Well, there are three places to look — St. Richard is called variously St. Richard the Pilgrim and St. Richard the King, so are there are any obvious saints with Greek offices to look at? Short answer: searching through the Menaion, it would seem no. I briefly pondered Ss. Constantine and Helen as a model, and maybe I’ll return to that idea, but for the apolytikion, I don’t think so.

            Instead, I’ll go with the saint whose name is semantically equivalent to Richard: St. Basil (Βασίλειος means “king” or “ruler”, as does “Richard”) the Great. His apolytikion does not seem to have been used much, if at all, as a model melody, but as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says, Tradition does not mean we are forbidden from doing anything for the first time, so I’ll go with it.

            You can listen to the Greek model here. It’s not 100% pitch-for-pitch the score I’m following, but you’ll get the overall sense of it.

            After some writing, rewriting, starting over, etc. I come up with the following apolytikion:

            A pilgrim and king, you left for Jerusalem,
            * in saintly fellowship with your kin.
            * In Swabia you gave up your earthly life;
            * your children thus laid you to blessed rest.
            * Your proved your regal spirit by your miracles, fulfilling the promise of your name.
            * Holy Father Richard, king who in death revealed our God,
            * beseech our Savior Christ that he will save our souls.

            Listen to it here. Work in progress, but you get the idea, I hope.

          6. That’s beautifully done, Richard. And I can see that the constraint of meter has been a benefit to you in composing the text. It gives structure to the hymn, which could easily have come off as arbitrary otherwise.

          7. Thank you for your kind words! I will say that the arbitrariness you mention is something that I certainly see in a lot of English-language offices that don’t follow these conventions.

          8. Ryan

            I notice a lot of translators are straitjacketed into using the phrase “thou didst” because the second-person-singular past tense of a verb (e.g. “recalledst”, “circumcisedst”) is just too awkward.

          9. Hieromonk Herman

            Ryan, that’s a point that the late Fr Ephrem Lash often made, arguing that it was a confusion of archaic simple and emphatic past. In fact, however, it’s not hard to find just this use of “didst” in the Bible, in contexts where the “-dst” could just as well have been used: Ex. 15:10: Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters.

            Ex. 40:15: And thou shalt anoint them, as thou didst anoint their father…

            Deu. 9:7: from the day that thou didst depart out of the land of Egypt…

            Jdg. 13:8: Then Manoah intreated the LORD, and said, O my Lord, let the man of God which thou didst send come again unto us

            1Sa 3:6: And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, Here am I; for thou didst call me.

            Ps. 22:4: Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.

            Ps 30:7: LORD, by thy favour thou hast made my mountain to stand strong: thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled.

          10. Ryan

            Fr. Herman- I wasn’t aware of Fr. Ephrem’s emphatic and simple distinction. I am aware that there is plenty of precedent in English literature for ample use of “thou didst” and I’m not saying it is inherently awkward, but in many of our hymns we address God in second person past tense, so that sometimes the “thou didsts” keep piling up until it does become rather clunky.

  2. New Byzantium Publications at newbyz.org is also a reliable source for hymns with metered modern English texts in both staff and Byzantine notation. Over the 12+ years of its existence, it has been accessed hundreds of times every week.

    Reply
    1. Richard Barrett

      Yes indeed! Thanks to both of you for your work, Stan!

      Reply
  3. Ted Droppa

    As one who sings in Church and often in the choir, I would really like to see translations that use understandable language in a comprehensible order for singing. Sometimes the Kings English is not good for that. If the congregation does not comprehend what is being sung, then the whole purpose of opening one’s mouth has disappeared. Recently we sang a tune that used the word effulgent. No one in the congregation and only one person in the choir knew what it meant. That is a failure, though I am sure it is full of meaning (radiance) in its original setting. But if nobody “gets it”, then we might as well have sung the tune in elvish. The beauty of the music is not the main point of singing. It is the message. If the message gets obscured, whether by word choice or by contortion of the grammar, then it is losing it’s main purpose. In any translation or setting to music, I think that has to be remembered as the point of the whole thing. Traditional protestant hymnology suffers from the same disease in many cases, and is often further obfuscated by the obsession with rhyming.
    Another thing that sometimes happens is that the composition will stretch out syllables to the point of sort of dismantling the words by their extreme length. In some cases, by the time the word is finished, you have forgotten what the beginning of it even was. It is just another way that the message gets placed subservient to the tune.
    I am in no way an expert, but these are some things that I have noticed…
    God grant the translators and hymnographers success. I know it is hard work.

    Reply
    1. Richard Barrett

      My exhortation in this piece is that we embrace the richness of linguistic expression present in our hymnography. We have simple responses, dialogue, prose hymns, and different kinds of poetic hymns. If we’re saying we can’t translate poetry as poetry (an argument I have certainly heard, and one I address in the piece), then that’s a real problem.

      Reply
    2. Hello Ted. You say the following, as though it is obvious: “The beauty of the music is not the main point of singing. It is the message. If the message gets obscured, whether by word choice or by contortion of the grammar, then it is losing it’s main purpose”

      If such were the mind of the Orthodox Church, then our services would look very different. We would not sing the texts at all, because singing always makes words hard to understand. And we wouldn’t build churches with resonant acoustics, as that makes understandability far worse. We certainly wouldn’t sing in ancient forms of language, not spoken by anyone in a thousand years, if ever. And we certainly wouldn’t sing texts incredibly slowly to long melismatic tunes.

      I imagine instead, we would have a lector stand in front of the congragation and read the hymns in a loud clear voice, prefacing each one with an explanatory title, and closing each one with footnotes to explain historical references and difficult vocabulary. What understandable services we would then enjoy!

      No, I think it is clear from the entire history of Orthodox liturgics that understandability of the text was never more than a secondary or tertiary priority. Beauty was always first, and ease or memorization was probably second (hence devices like meter and rhyme). And this makes sense. We don’t go to church to be educated in hymnography. We go to church to pray. The hymn texts are conducive to prayer if presented with beauty and grace – then they move the heart. But if they are presented with brutal clarity, they only enflame the intellect.

      Reply
  4. Ryan

    Great article, Richard. I think there badly needs to be more discussion in English on the nuts-and-bolts of sacred poetics.

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  5. Ryan

    And a metered English eirmologion would be an amazing resource, not just for singers but for would-be hymnographers.

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  6. Richard Barrett

    Also, melismatic singing is definitely a musical texture, particularly with short texts that accompany liturgical actions. It’s not a matter of being subservient to the tune; it’s a matter of the liturgical context being that you sing those pieces that way at such moments — “slowly and melodically” is the instruction in our liturgical books. But that’s a different matter entirely from metered translations.

    Reply
  7. aunteater

    Translations… they’re difficult. It’s exciting to think that we’re still very much in the middle of the process, and that somewhere on the other side, we will have a complete collection of beautiful liturgical music in English. But it’s still frustrating to be in the middle of that process and not at the end. I’m a chanter-in-training, having to do most of the “training” on my own, due to lack of teachers and resources in our church/area. At the start it was insane, I was trying to learn almost an entire Orthros service from scratch every week. It felt like a small miracle when I finally got the hang of the tune for “On the Mountain” and realized that it gets re-used nearly every week! Is there really an argument for *not* fitting things to the prosomia? Maybe for very experienced musicians that would not be a problem, but I’d be lost without them– we’d still be reading 60% of the Orthros music, instead of chanting it.

    Not that I don’t sympathize with people who just want it to “sound nice”. I love AGES, I deeply appreciate your work on it (and that it’s a free resource), and I’d be helpless without it, but I still run across the occasional humdinger of an awkward translation, throw my hands in the air, and say “I can’t sing this! There has to be a better translation!” and then go look for it on St. Anthony’s website, and the Antiochian music library, to see how it’s worded there. My kids get to hear me gripe about it enough that we were in the checkout at the grocery recently, and as I was loading fruits and vegetables onto the conveyor belt, my four-year-old chimed in (at top volume): “IT’S EVERY KIND OF VIVIFYING PRODUCE!!” I hope you don’t mind, but when that set of antiphons rolls around, I pencil in “life-giving fruit” and tamper with the meter to make it work. “Vivifying” is hard to pronounce, and trips me up every time. But that would be kind of a disaster on the congregational-singing level. We *need* things to fit familiar tunes. Obviously.

    Repeating tunes are 100% worth the occasional weird translation– as long as it’s still a work in progress and there’s some hope it will get better. It’s getting better! We will make it better! We are making it better!

    Reply
    1. Richard Barrett

      Yes, the process is definitely iterative, and it needs to be. That’s okay. We’re getting better, as I point out.

      And as for AGES — yes. A lot of Fr. Seraphim’s older translations are in the process of being reworked, and we prioritize the things that people bring to our attention. Christ’s ascension is no longer an “awe-inspiring lift-off”, the conception of Christ is no longer “ungamic parturition”, and Moses is no longer inscribing a cross with his rod extended. You can always contact us with feedback and comments: info AT agesinitiatives DOT org.

      Reply
      1. aunteater

        That’s wonderful! I’ll have to check and see if the water is still “congealed” on either side of the Israelites 😉 And I didn’t know there was a feedback route– I will avail myself, next time I run face-first into one of those. Thanks!

        Reply
        1. Richard Barrett

          There are lots of feedback loops that you can tap into; we’ve got a YouTube channel (just search on “AGES Initiatives” and you’ll find it), a Facebook presence (search for “eMatins+”), and a Twitter handle @AgesInitiatives. Please keep in touch and let us know what you think!

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  8. James

    I appreciate this very much. You make strong arguments regarding the use of model melodies as normative in English musical tradition as well as Greek. Your example of the sonnet as a prosodic form created for one language and adapted effectively for English is another powerful argument.

    Still, it’s the weakest point of the argument: sonnets are rarely sung in English. English-language song lyrics are rarely composed as sonnets. This is because iambic pentameter (Shakespeare notwithstanding!) does not come naturally to English prosody. Few English melodies are written in iambic pentameter. Even Amazing Grace, although it’s iambic, alternates tetrameter with trimeter. Oh Susannah alternates trimeter and tetrameter, using mostly trochees. The melodies that sing easily in English, and that come naturally in English, are composed for English prosody. And there remain very good reasons to look back to Anglo-Saxon verse as a metrical form most naturally suited to English-language prosody.

    This is an argument for composing model melodies at the same breath as composing English-language translations of automela– or composing translations of automela to fit existing English-language model melodies. Prosomia, then, would be translated to fit these English-specific model melodies. The translator’s task becomes a great deal easier when the target prosodic form is one that is natural to the target language.

    Such translation was not uncommon in the 19th century: in fact, you’ve referenced John Brownlie’s work. It fell from favor in the 20th century because it was seen as inauthentic to the experience of the text in the source language: using Russian, or Persian, or Japanese metrical forms in English-language translations gives the translation an “exotic” feeling that makes readers imagine they’re experiencing the original language. The question is whether, for Church hymnography, deliberately evoking the experience of a foreign linguistic form is an appropriate goal.

    There are other questions and challenges– plenty of them. If rapid alternation between English and Greek throughout the service is an aesthetic to be nurtured in liturgical music, then it’s impossible not to stick with Greek-specific melodies for the English. A large library of strong English-language translations, composed for Greek-specific melodies, that are translated and sung so well as to *sound* as though they were in their element, would be the strongest rebuttal I can think of to my concern. You’re making the case, I think, that not only is such a library possible, but that it already convinced. My experience of English-language Byzantine chant has not yet convinced me, but I *am* very willing to be convinced.

    Reply
    1. Well, regarding the singing (or non-singing) of Shakespearean sonnets, that’s not at all my experience. Perhaps look at this: http://www.lieder.net/lieder/show_poems_in_group.html?CID=246

      Trying to compose a new set of model melodies specifically for English texts that you then match new translations to is certainly something some advocate. Nicholas Roumas argues for such an undertaking in his book The Musical Ark. I’m not sure about the utility in the short-term of having to generate a NEW set of metered translations for new model melodies when there are already is a substantial amount of work that’s been done for the existing melodies. That library does in fact exist, and it’s growing; I think it would be far better to continue in that vein. In the long run whatever modifications that need to be made for English will be made without such a radical reinvention.

      Reply
      1. James

        It’s not that Shakespeare hasn’t been set to music. It’s that neither Amazing Grace nor I’ve Been Working on the Railroad nor Greensleeves nor most (any?) model melodies that most English-speakers know by heart are melodies that suit iambic pentameter.

        Your argument for continuing current efforts is more than fair.

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        1. Right, but what you said was “sonnets are rarely sung in English”. That’s not exactly the case.

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          1. James

            But I’ve got my meaning across by now, yes?

            I mean, I could be wrong: I’d be very interested to peruse a classic English-language hymnal, or other songbook, for model melodies based on fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. (Or on iambic couplets.) Perhaps they’re more common than I believe.

            The model melodies that spring readily to mind are mostly tetrameter, or alternating tetrameter and trimeter. Trochaic verse is at least as common as iambic verse. Am I wrong?

          2. You may be right, but I’m not sure what it has to do with what I’m talking about. Even if what you’re saying is the case, I don’t take that to establish “iambic pentameter doesn’t work for model melodies in English”; I take that to establish “tune writers have chosen to do other things”. I don’t grant linguistic fittingness as a category, since language generally adapts to whatever it needs to do. A Greek man once said to me, “English is a strictly utilitarian language, only good for barking orders. It’s not a language for creating great works of art and building great societies.” I just looked at him and said, “My wife’s a linguist, and I happen to know that’s” — well, I won’t say what I happened to know it was, since this is an Orthodox Christian blog, but you get the point.

  9. James

    When it comes to the way sounds are organized, different languages *do* work differently. When people use that as a value judgment, we happen to know what that is. But the fact is that specific sonic structures *are* inherent elements of specific languages.

    One element fundamental to many languages, for example, is tone. Because English is not a tone language, when we compose melodies we can make any word have any pitch we choose. But in a highly complex tone language like Vietnamese, the words themselves have given pitches or pitch patterns, and song melodies have to be fit those pitches/ patterns. When English pop songs are translated into Vietnamese, the melodies *have* to be altered to fit the inherent pitch of the words of the translations. An extraordinary translator, perhaps, *might* be able to create a translation so brilliant that the pitch of each Vietnamese word fits the pitch of the place it falls in the original English melody… but that’s not at all a realistic goal.

    The prosody of some languages is based on contrasts between unstressed, secondarily stressed, and primarily stressed syllables. English and Russian fall into this category. This is inherent to the way the sonic structure of English works. It’s not the way writers or composers or whatever decided to work with English; it’s fundamental to the system. This is why English poetry primarily counts stress– counts feet– rather than counting individual syllables. This is why “Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary” fits the same pattern as “Open here I flung the shutter when with many a flirt and flutter” even though the former has sixteen syllables and the latter seventeen. They both have eight feet, and it’s the feet that count.

    The prosody of other languages is based on patterns of evenly-stressed syllables. Swahili works this way, as do many Bantu languages– although some also have tone systems. I think Japanese works this way, to some degree. Poetry in these languages is just a matter of counting syllables. Because stress patterns aren’t inherent to the grammar of the language, a musical score can place stress anywhere it likes. But adding an extra syllable to a line in Japanese would be like adding an extra foot to a line in English.

    IIRC, the prosody of Homeric Greek is based at least in part on the contrast between long vowels and short vowels– a distinction that is meaningless in modern English. (What our elementary-school teachers call “long” and “short” vowels do not differ meaningfully in duration– it doesn’t take more time to say the vowel in ‘cane’ than it takes to say the vowel in ‘can.’ That nondistinct distinction was dreamt up by trying to map the grammar of classical languages onto modern English. It’s an unreal rule like the rule that prepositions are unfit to end phrases with.) I don’t know if the long-short distinction exists in Byzantine Greek or not. If it does, it’s pretty clear that long-short contrasts don’t map well onto a system that has no such contrast.

    Going into more detail than that– even within the set of languages whose prosody relies primarily on stress contrasts– different languages have different natural patterns. This is inherent in the shapes of the words themselves, as they are pronounced, and in the structure of phrases, as the syntax of that language puts them together. These distinctions are not value judgments– certain stress patterns are not more “utilitarian” or more “artistic” than others– but they are sonically distinct.

    Just like it’s hard work to get a melody composed for an English text to fit a Vietnamese text if that text is to be intelligible, it is hard work to compose phrases in a given language in a way that fits the natural prosody of a different language. It can be done. But the better thing to do is to adapt the melody to suit the sonic structure of the language. Because English grammar depends *so* heavily on word order, it’s especially tough to reorganize an English phrase along prosodic lines that don’t come easily to English prosody. It can be done beautifully, but to do it consistently and beautifully takes genius. It’s wonderful to *have* geniuses doing translation, but demanding genius is perhaps too much to ask.

    Perhaps it isn’t too much to ask. And perhaps the particular task– of shaping English text into Byzantine prosody– isn’t as demanding as I imagine it is. I will stick to my guns defending the fact that different languages have different inherent sonic structures, but I’m willing to be convinced that I’m exaggerating the difficulty of the task at hand. I think what I need to do is give it a try. I’d like to give it a try. I’m glad you’re doing it.

    What I’ve tried in the past– with some amateur delight– is to translate into Anglo-Saxon prosody: each line has two pairs of stressed feet; each pair separated by a pause and linked by alliterated consonants. It’s remarkably productive: that is, it’s not *hard* to get words and phrases in English to fit this pattern and to sound nice. It’s a form that favors economy of sound, rather than begging for extra syllables. But I recognize that it’s not a form suited at *all* to Byzantine music.

    Reply
    1. A number of thoughts here —

      But the better thing to do is to adapt the melody to suit the sonic structure of the language.

      Unless the melody is part of a bigger system with mutually intelligible parts that you’re trying to preserve, as I am arguing it is in the context of Orthodox liturgy. Otherwise you’re isolating English from that system.

      Because English grammar depends *so* heavily on word order[…]

      Really disagree here, particularly where poetry/lyric is concerned (and as I tried to suggest with the examples of Hamilton and Christmas carols). Read an Anglican hymnal. There is so much that is tolerated there that we Anglophone Orthodox wring our hands to death over as being “awkward”.

      All of that said — the modal thesis charts on the St. Anthony’s Monastery websites catalog all the theseis according to stress accent in word patterns, 1s and 0s. That’s not really sufficient to describe how Greek composers understand what they’re doing, nor is it really sufficient to describe how it needs to work in English. It’s a starting point, and it’s a good and necessary starting point, but — to borrow a phrase from John Michael Boyer — you have to get past the 1s and 0s. English has consecutive one syllable words, diphthongs, consonant clusters that have to be taken into account. Even so, the system is being quite well adapted into English by the current crop of composers and translators right now without a drastic reinvention along the lines of what you’re suggesting being anywhere close to necessary. It’s still not perfect — nor do I claim it is in the article — but we’ve gotten a lot better at it, and the current level of work shows it can be done. It doesn’t take geniuses, it just takes people willing to take the time to wrestle with the words. “I need this tomorrow!” has been one of the prevailing translation strategies for much of Orthodoxy’s time in Anglophone circles, which doesn’t exactly make for texts that roll off the tongue.

      Regarding ecclesiastical Greek — it’s something of a hybrid system. The tonal system had fallen out by the time the Epistles and Gospels were written, certainly, as did any meaningful distinction between long and short vowels. Stress accent prevails as a result. However, the stress accent still relies on understanding what the distinction used to be – e.g., iota and eta are pronounced the same, but iota counts as a short and eta counts a.s a long, which impacts where the stress accent goes. In Modern Greek that memory is really blurry (“this is an eta but it USED to be an iota the way it spelled 500 years ago, so the accent assumes that it’s a iota”), which means that the accents of some (not all) words are changing.

      Reply
      1. James

        Thanks for taking the time to unpack all this. I’ve learned a lot.

        Reply
  10. James

    The ordering of phrases in English is far more flexible than many people claim. But it is less flexible than most languages. And the ordering of words within constituent phrases is almost totally fixed. English-language writers and translators have fewer options, vis-a-vis words order, than writers and translators in most other languages do. Even though, as you point out, there *are* lots of options.

    Reply
    1. There are more options than I think people assume; it just takes a bit of thought. The options are not a binary choice of either “See Spot run” or Yoda. I was listening to Gilbert and Sullivan this morning; W. S. Gilbert, much as with his present-day equivalent Lin-Manuel Miranda, knew exactly what he could get away with. I would say we need more confident wordsmithing and less handwringing about what’s going to be “accessible” or what’s going to “suit English”. Again, English can handle it.

      Reply
      1. James

        I dig that.

        Reply

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