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We are making efforts to create some kind of Ecclesiastical Chinese

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We are making efforts to create some kind of Ecclesiastical Chinese


Sergey Vinogradov

Translation of the Holy Scriptures into Chinese is carried out by the parish of the Russian Orthodox Church in Taiwan. Over the eight-year period, a translation of the Gospel of Mark has been completed, and the Gospel of Matthew is in the process. The translators have made a basic glossary of biblical and theological terminology, and it is fair to say that they are working on the development of the Chinese Orthodox liturgical language.The rector of the Holy Cross Church in Taipei Kirill Shkarbul supervises this project. He shared with the Russkiy Mir, why this particular translation would be able to convey the Word of God unaltered and would not be a mere retelling as other Chinese translations of the Bible.

Fr. Kirill Shkarbul pictured during Easter at the Church of Christ the Savior in Taipei.

Tell us about your first text translated into Chinese.

Sixteen years ago, when I started learning Chinese, I immediately put my mind to collect all the available Chinese translations of the Holy Scriptures, including those made by our Orthodox Ecclesiastical Mission in China. There are quite a few translations - Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant ones, so I began to collect them. Back then, I was not an expert in this area and thought to take the best part from each available translation and put them all together. Later I realized how naive those thoughts were. When I took up this matter, everything turned out to be much more complicated.

Answering your question about my first translation... There were translations of books and small texts, but the translation of the Gospel of Mark was my first serious work. It took about eight years, for two of which our small team of translators was busy with the translation on a daily basis. We have completed the Gospel of Mark, and the translation of the Gospel of Matthew is about halfway through. God willing, the work will continue.

Has the Gospel of Mark already been published?

Unfortunately, it has not as yet, although everything is ready for release. His Grace Metropolitan Hilarion gave his blessing and wrote a preface, which is already translated into Chinese. However, publishing is a time-consuming process, and so far there is neither enough time nor energy for it. I serve in four cities across the island, plus additional missions. First, there was the Philippines, then East Timor, then Papua New Guinea. It is extremely difficult to manage all those things for one person.

Mission in Papua New Guinea

Speaking of volume, will the Bible in Chinese be thicker or thinner than the Russian one?

In fact, it will be thinner. One character corresponds approximately to three or four Russian letters. Chinese is a more concise language. The word mercy has 5 letters, and its Chinese translation has two characters only. Fifty pages in Russian will fit 20 to 30 pages of Chinese text.

Is there the Bible in Chinese available in Taipei bookstores currently?

Yes, there is, but those are not Orthodox Bibles. Again, all Bible translations into Chinese are unsatisfactory. My belief that different translations could be taken and combined turned out to be untenable because they all are very far from the original. The spiritual power inherent in the Holy Scriptures, in the Word of God vanishes in them. Those translations are quite a light reading matter, a retelling and paraphrasing of the Bible. Descriptions make readers understand what happened, who went where and what one person told another, but nothing more. They are manuals, textbooks, but not the Holy Scriptures. The translation we are working on should allow us to say (even if with some remarks) that this is the Word of God, only expressed in Ecclesiastical Chinese.

How has your translation work benefited you as a priest studying the Bible?

The benefit is enormous. There is evolution in two directions. First of all, the Gospel is studied at a deeper level, because you need to delve into the verses both in Greek and even in Aramaic. The deepest meaning of words should be found that I did not think much about before. My education at the biblical department of the Moscow Theological Academy was of great help. Above all, I am a biblical scholar by education and scientific interests.

Secondly, this work was very useful in learning Chinese, itsnuances andpeculiarities. Our team members, including professional native Chinese linguists, discovered many new things in their own language on a daily basis. We managed to come up with biblical terminology because many concepts have not been worked out in Chinese to this day.

Versions of the most fundamental concepts proposed earlier by Catholics and Protestants are wrong. For example, there was no such concept in Chinese as to bless. They used to replace it with other words that had a different meaning. But when it comes to the Bible, it is very important to convey the true unaltered meaning. There was a need to come up with a special vocabulary and phraseology. Biblical terminology is fundamental; then it is used in theology, worship, and all Orthodox texts.

Photo: The parish of Christ the Savior in Taipei

So, what Chinese equivalent of to bless did you find?

Since Chinese is comprised of characters that are five thousand years old, you cannot simply take a word from another language and adapt it. Suppose there was no such a word as president in Russian, so they took and adapted it from another language, thus a new word appeared. As to Chinese, a new word must be invented with characters. It is required to pick such characters that their combination would convey the intended meaning.

The Chinese language is inconvenient in a sense because it is not really flexible and has a rigid grammatical structure. And it is a rather challenging task to use it for conveying rhetoric of the Greek language that is flexible and rich in undertones. On the other hand, the Chinese language allows you to create new words that a Chinese understands intuitively. We create a new word that did not exist, and it is understood by the Chinese right away. That’s an interesting phenomenon. The same thing happened with to bless - we introduced a new word to be used.

What other words from the Church Slavonic vocabulary presented challenges for you?

There were a lot of them, for example, to be sober. There is no relevant word in Chinese. There is a phrase that means to stay awake, to wake up and so on. To be sober could be translated with a long phrase, but I wanted to find one word to be used in the imperative mood as well. And when we came up with it and made the suggestion, it was accepted by native speakers and fit the language very well.

Photo: The parish of Christ the Savior in Taipei

The Bible verses in Russian are majestic, deliberately foreign; they lead you away from everyday life with its secular simple language. Have you incorporated these features of the Holy Scriptures into the Chinese version?

This is the issue that any translator into Chinese faces, especially a translator of sacred texts. Our ecclesiastical mission in China also faced it 160 years ago. We have come up with an approach that we believe to be the most correct one, even though it is criticized by some people. We have started to create or are making efforts to create a kind of Church Chinese.

In ancient times, the Church Slavonic language was created. It was different from the everyday Slavic language but was required to convey the Greek original of the Holy Scriptures in a better way. Here is the same case. There is an opinion that there are several Chinese languages - classical, semi-classical, vulgar one and so on. We proceeded with the fact that all of them are manifestations of one language, and our task is to get the soul or essence of this language.

We used some elements of Classical Chinese to convey the meaning more precisely and be closer to the original and then enriched the style making it higher than in ordinary Chinese speech. Thus we killed two birds with one stone - the text became cleaner from some linguistic impurities, as well as more beautiful, nobler and richer in style.

At the same time, this text is not for easy binge reading like any book or newspaper. Here readers need to pause on each sentence, think, understand the literal meaning first. It requires effort but enables readers to take time and think the text through, which is very important when it comes to the Holy Scriptures. Nowadays, people are always in a hurry, they get through a book skippingly, but in this case, a different attitude is required. Reading for the first time will be difficult and slow. But when the text is read for the second or third time, it becomes clearer and closer, and the reader will be able to feel all the power of Gods Word in it. Over time, each phrase will become familiar and clung firmly to the memory and heart as a true seed bearing fruit.

Orthodox Cross procession through the streets of Taipei. Photo: the Parish of Christ the Savior in Taipei

Can your translation be termed literary?

No. Our translation is milder or, put it another way, more careful. If any Apostle, let us say Mark, had studied Chinese and retold everything from the Gospel, it would have been the perfect Bible in the Chinese language. And he would have had the right to an author's translation. We do not have that right and must convey the sacred text with utmost accuracy. This refers not only to the meaning but also to rhetoric features, semantics, verb tenses and other nuances.

This is what makes our translation special - we build upon the originalOld Church Slavonic, not the Chinese language. And other translations went by peculiar features of the Chinese language and aimed to ensure that readers had familiar phrases and traditional clauses for the ultimate smoothness of the narrative.

Is Russian literature that brings up theological issues known in China and Taiwan? I am referring, first of all, to the works by Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Leskov and others.

It is better known in China, even to the general public. Many people read Russian classics. In Taiwan, they hardly read even their own writers, let alone foreign ones. This is probably caused by educational and social reforms geared towards globalization and Western postmodernity.

Do you have an Orthodox text corpus that you would like to translate into Chinese?

Such a corpus has not been compiled yet; and in this case, we build upon our capabilities. Currently, I am translating the Exordium of Ohrid by Saint Nikolai of Serbia, since it has not yet been fully translated into Chinese and published. This is a very important text for daily spiritual reading. Lives of Saints are important for missionary work; and there are hardly any such texts with illustrative examples from the lives of saints translated to Chinese.

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