Each Hearing in His Own Native Tongue

August 6, Repose of John Mason Neale (1818-1866)

The miracle of Pentecost is one which I think we take for granted in this age of google translate. That each of those diverse peoples present at the coming of the Divine Spirit could hear the good news proclaimed in his own native language is not only astonishing, but a source of great comfort.

In our own time and historical circumstance, we can be grateful for many reliable and storied translations of the Scriptures in our mother tongue of English. Indeed the King James Bible, for example, which recently celebrated its 400th anniversary, is not only a reliable translation of the original text but an inspiration for countless works of English literature.

So much is well and good for the Scriptures in English. But what of other important modes for divine communion? What of the Divine Services, especially the ancient Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great which form the setting for the jewel of the Scriptures in the Eastern Orthodox Church? For us Orthodox Christians in English-speaking countries, we have the Anglicans of the nineteenth century to thank, especially the Rev. John Mason Neale.

Fr. Neale is perhaps most famous for his translation of many important Christmas Carols: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (from the Latin text), Good Christan Men, Rejoice (again from Latin), Good King Wenceslas (from Czech, German and Latin) and the lesser known but personal favorite of mine Of the Father’s Love Begotten (from the Latin). But his appetite for ancient hymnography would not end with the Latin West. He became, as far as my research can tell, the first translator of our Eastern liturgical hymns into English. Quoting from an article on him at Hymnary.org:

Dr. Neale conferred even a greater boon upon the lovers of hymnology than by his translations from the Latin, when he published, in 1862, his Hymns of the Eastern Church. In his translations from the Latin he did what others had done before; but in his translations from the Greek he was opening entirely new ground. “It is,” he says in his preface to the first edition, “a most remarkable fact, and one which shows how very little interest has been hitherto felt in the Eastern Church, that these are literally, I believe, the only English versions of any part of the treasures of Oriental Hymnology.”

I leave it to the musicologists among my readers to correct me, but if Neale’s own assessment of his work is accurate, then he should be considered the John Wyclife of our English Divine Services, the forerunner of many other great translations that we use today.

Here is just one sample of the way he reworked the Paschal Canon:

1 The day of resurrection!
Earth, tell it out abroad;
the passover of gladness,
the passover of God.
From death to life eternal,
from earth unto the sky,
our Christ hath brought us over,
with hymns of victory.

2 Our hearts be pure from evil,
that we may see aright
the Lord in rays eternal
of resurrection light;
and listening to his accents,
may hear, so calm and plain,
his own “All hail!” and, hearing,
may raise the victor strain.

3 Now let the heavens be joyful!
Let earth the song begin!
Let the round world keep triumph,
and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen
their notes in gladness blend,
for Christ the Lord hath risen,
our joy that hath no end.

By comparison, here is a more literal rendering in multiple languages (including our own English!)

His translations are admittedly more like paraphrases, but given that he was breaking new ground without the help of being in direct contact with living Orthodox authorities, I think we owe the man at least an honorary, posthumous doctorate from one of our best beloved American Orthodox seminaries, can I get a witness?

At the very least, I hope I have increased the gratitude among the Orthodox for a man who worked behind the scenes in the great and important work of translating the Church’s divine services into the English language.

7 thoughts on “Each Hearing in His Own Native Tongue

  1. Reblogged this on The Ladder to the Paradise of God and commented:
    Here is a wonderful post on a priest: Father John Neale who was instrumental in translating many of the the ancient and timeless hymns of the Church of Christ some of which include O come,O come, Emmanuel. The beauty of this is that Father John recognized the necessity of having hymns written and translated in the the native tongue of every tribe in every nation. May this be a testimony to the universality of the Christian faith and may we pray for our brothers and sisters who are engaged in the endeavour of bringing the Word of God and the Hymns of the Saints and Angels to all people in every corner of the world,Amen!

  2. Pingback: New England’s Pentecost | Boston Pilgrim Tours

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  5. Pingback: The Day of Resurrection | Like Mendicant Monks…

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