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Alliteration in liturgy, or things that don’t work in translation

Something that anybody accustomed to the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in English hears on a regular basis is, right before the Koinonikon, is the priest saying:

Holy things are for the holy.

And the response:

One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

I noticed something the last time I attended a Divine Liturgy in Greek, however. The priest says:

Tα Ἅγια τοῖς Ἁγίοις.

And the response is:

Εἷς ἅγιος, εἷς Κύριος, Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, εἰς δόξαν Θεοῦ Πατρός. Ἀμήν.

εἷς and εἰς are homophones, the former being the masculine singular word for “one,” the latter being the preposition which usually means some variation of “to”, and with ecclesiastical pronunciation (meaning, among other things, all of the diacritics are ignored except insofar as they indicate stress accent — sorry, classicists), they are pronounced the same way as the first syllable of Ἰησοῦς. (There is a slight glide at the beginning of Ἰησοῦς the way some say it, but I’d argue it’s undetectable for all intents and purposes.) Rendered more or less phonetically, with italics on the sound in question: “Ta Aghia tees Agh-ee-ees.” “Ees aghios, ees Kirios, Eesous Hristos, ees dhoxan Theou Patros. Ameen.”

So, the response is alliterative, set off by the last syllable of the last word of the priest’s part. I don’t know that this suggests anything earth-shattering, beyond being something interesting that appears to be unique to the Liturgy in Greek. Anybody know if this also happens in Slavonic? I don’t know that there’s any real way to reproduce the effect in English, unless we were to do something like “Gee, he’s holy, gee, he’s Lord, Jesus Christ…” Or, um, maybe not.

If I were really digging for a practical point, it would be that maybe this allows the call and response to overlap somewhat? That might possibly make sense from the standpoint of a live acoustic. Probably this is just a fun little nugget of evidence that those writing the liturgical texts knew what they were doing.

I’ll also add a Latin note, while I’m thinking about it: I’m reading the Life of St. Hilarion right now, as noted earlier, and the following line is in the third section, when St. Hilarion is still learning from St. Anthony and observing his ways — “cibique ejus asperitatem nulla umquam infirmitas frangeret.” Fremantle translates this as St. Anthony never on account of bodily weakness deviating “from the plainness of his food,” but asperitatem is actually a more interesting word than that. It can also mean “dryness”, which would make this line a reference to the practice of xerophagia “dry eating”, or eating only raw fruits and vegetables. This is certainly a practice associated with monasticism, and I pointed it out to my advisor, for whom this was evidently news.

Anyway — the little bits and pieces one gets from the source languages are an enrichment of one’s understanding of the texts, to say the least. They may not be showstoppers, necessarily, but they definitely make the flavor more complex.

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3 Responses to “Alliteration in liturgy, or things that don’t work in translation”


  1. 1 Chris Jones 15 October 2009 at 7:39 am

    Interesting observation.

    I don’t know that there’s any real way to reproduce the effect in English

    Perhaps it cannot be reproduced but it may be echoed a bit. If Tα Ἅγια τοῖς Ἁγίοις were translated

    Holy things unto the Holy Ones

    then the response could be rendered

    One is Holy, One is the Lord: Jesus Christ, unto the glory of God the Father

    where what is echoed is the whole word “one” rather then simply its initial vowel. The echo of the word “unto” is a bonus; it won’t work if the dative of Ἁγίοις is rendered “for” (which, of course, is a perfectly valid rendering), because we don’t say “for the glory of God” in English. And of course it won’t work if we are not translating into the slightly archaic, “hieratic” English in which “unto” is available to us.

  2. 2 rjhargrav 15 October 2009 at 4:49 pm

    It’s also a bad pun: Iisous sounds like eis ous[ia] .

    In Slavonic, the Creed rhymes.

    A really good translation of liturgical texts into English will be similarly inventive with our own language– not attempting to reproduce the alliterative Koine pun or the rhyming Slavonic, but doing something entirely unique to English.

  3. 3 Esteban Vázquez 22 October 2009 at 11:56 pm

    How does the Creed rhyme in Slavonic? This is news to me!


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