Engaging in conversations about the Orthodox faith – with others born and nurtured in the West – I sometimes feel that something is “lost in translation.” I say, “Church,” and something else comes to the listener’s mind: either something Roman or something Protestant, perhaps Anglican. I begin to explain that Orthodoxy cannot be explained or defined in terms of either Rome or Protestantism, for Orthodoxy did not come from Rome or from Protestantism and does not owe very much to them (occasional influences here and there that remain a matter of debate within Orthodoxy but nothing of great significance). There may be common roots – but the Western experience of the Church began to move in a different direction very early on. The common history of Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy is, in many aspects, slim, at best. But, of course, we human beings want to understand one another and so we struggle on, speaking words of the same language whose context has given them radically different meanings. East and West are “lost in translation.”
I had this come home to me recently while reading my way through the latest copy of the Smithsonian Magazine. I like the magazine – it has wonderful pictures and articles that are informative and just the sort of length that such casual reading demands. In just such a casual moment the other day, my eye was caught (the magazine was lying open) by wonderful pictures of the frescoed Churches of Romania. Some parishes, others monasteries, they have long been part of the ecclesiastical treasures of the Orthodox world. The pictures were enticing enough to demand reading time as well.
All was going well (even if the article seemed to lack depth) when suddenly I read a description of the Churches as:
modest, three-room Gothic churches, covered from bottom to steeple-top with Byzantine iconography in vivid, intense colors.
There it was – lost in translation. I can only hope the author was using “gothic” in the literary sense of the word, as in “gothic” novel. However, when speaking of churches, the word “gothic” tends to have a very specific meaning – something that is radically opposed both to the architecture and the intention of an Orthodox Church. There is a theology of space related to architecture – a theology that is proper to the gothic style – and there is a theology of space related to Orthodox Churches that runs from Constantinople, through Eastern Europe and on into Russia.
What becomes “lost in translation” is convincing someone from the West that “gothic” doesn’t just mean “old church building style.” Or, more than that, convincing someone that the difference in architecture is signficant and represents a very different way of perceiving the human relationship to God.
This is not just a question of comparative architecture; it is a difficulty that runs throughout Church life, East and West. For many centuries, the West has been the dominant culture – dominant in economics, politics and war. It has long been a Western habit to see other cultures as a subset of something already familiar – thus when someone else says, “God,” it is assumed that he means the same thing that anyone in the West means when he says, “God.” And this is simply not the case.
There are many words that are more like “place-holders.” We use them because there is nothing better at hand or no equivalent in the language we now must use. Translating Byzantine texts, and translating Eastern Orthodoxy into a Western language, such as English, and not creating confusion is nearly impossible. Thus from service to service the Orthodox pray, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” Western ears hear blasphemy where none is intended.
The translation problem can work both ways. A conservative Protestant asks an Orthodox, “Are you saved?” If the answer comes back with anything less than, “Absolutely!” the assumption is made that this is a person who has no relationship with God, a person who regularly prays for Christ to save them and have mercy on them. Lost in translation.
It is important for Christians to listen to each other – if only for the sake of understanding what is being said. A standard work on the history of Christian doctrine continues, in edition after edition, to say that the Eastern Church never developed a doctrine of the Atonement. How absurd! What Christian Church would have no understanding of how it is that God has reconciled us to Himself? And yet, there the charge remains, lost in translation. In the end we may have irreconcilable differences. What differences there are will never be overcome by calling something gothic when it’s just Romanian. With more than 250,000 words in its vocabulary, surely English can do more. With charity in our hearts we all can do more.