Philip Newton (pne) wrote,
Philip Newton

The language of formal prayer; or, "to Thee or not to Thee"

Next week, it'll be my turn to give the lesson again, and the General Conference talk the bishop had chosen is “Lessons from the Lord’s Prayers”, by Russell M. Nelson.

That talk included a bit about the specific words we use: one passage mentioned that we close our prayers with “Amen” and another that we can use “right words”—special pronouns—in reference to Deity, that we have been asked to protect the formal, proper language of prayer, and that using respectful pronouns helps us to be humble, which can also enhance our prayers.

You probably know what I think about labelling “Thou” and friends as specifically “respectful” or that doing so was originally calculated to help people be humble when they prayed.

Anyway, so I wondered how the translators grappled with that bit of KJVism, and had a look at the translations of the Liahona online in PDF format: Danish, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Portuguese, Finnish, Swedish, and Russian. For good measure, I also watched the ASL version of the talk (Conference footage with a simultaneous interpreter in an inset).

And they tackled the problem in several different ways.

Several languages simply said that “When we pray in English, we use…” or talked about “special pronouns (in English)” in some way or other; these were Danish, German, French, Norwegian, Finnish, and Russian. Dutch had a puzzling (to me) mixture of what I'd consider “respectful” (“U” and “uw”) and “traditional” (“Gij”); Portuguese was similar, recommending “o Senhor” (respectful, AFAIK) on the one hand and “Tu, Ti, Teu e Tua” on the other hand rather than “você”; the latter set looks like straightforward derivatives from the Latin second person singular pronoun so I’m guessing that in modern Portuguese, they’re used mainly in prayer for being archaic but were originally simply the intimate form of address. The Swedish translator seemed to be grasping at straws a bit for how to convey the message; he settled for “vi säger till exempel Fader i ställe för far” (“for example, we say Fader instead of far”).

I found the Spanish example particularly amusing: “En nuestras oraciones conjugamos los verbos apropriadamente para los pronombres Tú, Tuyo, Te y Ti en lugar de Usted, Su y Suyo. El hacerlo nos ayuda a ser humildes” (“In our prayers, we use verb forms corresponding to the pronoun ‘You, Your, Yours (informal)’ rather than ‘You, Your, Yours (formal)’. Doing this helps us be humble.”). Since AFAIK “tú” and friends are still in use in Spanish for the regular informal pronoun, this seems to convey that using the non-respectful form will help us to be humble! (Now that I think about it, that probably makes as much sense as imagining that a 15th century Englishman would feel more humble for using Thou than for using Ye.)

Finally, the translation I found best was the Italian: “Quando preghiamo, facciamo di tutto per mostrare il nostro rispetto, facendo attenzione alle parole che usiamo.” (“When we pray, we do everything to show our respect, paying attention to the words we use.”) I can live with that: by all means encourage people to show respect and to use “proper language”; it's more the declaration that “proper language” requires “Thou” and friends, and moreover, that these forms are particularly humble ones, that gets my goat.

For that matter, I personally think that God doesn’t care that much about the exact words we use, as long as there’s no disrespect; if a person thinks that “Hey, God dude, I’mma have a big test tomorrow, so can you, like, help out a brother, big guy? Thanks, yo.” helps him cultivate a closer relationship to their Heavenly Father than using language that conveys distance or oddness, that's between the two of them. For that matter, I’ve always found the German custom of using the informal pronouns to be more natural than the Dutch custom of using the formal “U”, since it’s how you’d address someone you love and feel close to here on earth, and I think God should be someone you feel you can talk with rather than someone you have to feel in awe of and using respectful/formal/distant language. (But then, I’m biassed by what I grew up with. It wouldn’t surprise me if Dutch people feel that their manner of praying is more appropriate.)

Oh, and ASL? I didn’t understand the bit about the “Thou” vs. “you” bit; the main difference seemed to be that the signer signed upwards and looked that way for “Thou”, but I don’t think that’s specifically respectful, but more a reflection of the fact that you sign to the direction where the listener is, and God is considered as being “up in the sky”.

But in the bit where it talked about ending prayers with “Amen”, I noticed a difference. The paragraph in question is this:

As the Lord closes His prayer, He acknowledges God’s great power and glory, ending with “Amen.” Our prayers also close with amen. Though it is pronounced differently in various languages, its meaning is the same. It means “truly” or “verily.” Adding amen solemnly affirms a sermon or a prayer. Those who concur should each add an audible amen to signify “that is my solemn declaration too.”

Now, each time the word “Amen” was mentioned, the interpreter fingerspelled it, so I imagine the substance of his interpretation was, “At the end of our prayers, we should close with [the fingerspelled word] a-m-e-n”. Which doesn’t jibe with what I’ve seen in ASL interpretations of LDS prayers (e.g. at General Conference); there, prayers seem to be finished by placing one palm around the other fist and moving those hands upwards and inwards in front of your chest, and I’ve always interpreted that sign as being roughly equivalent.

So should LDS ASL prayers now fingerspell “Amen” rather than use this sign? I doubt it, somehow.

Oh, and another random amusing bit: I copied-and-pasted the paragraph about Thou and Thee in the various languages into a document, to have them together for easier comparison, and I also put all of them through Google Translate and/or Babelfish (depending on the languages each translator offered), to help me get a better idea of what they said.

And the French translated the use of “right words” as Nous pouvons utiliser les « bons mots » en rapport avec la Divinité, which Babelfish rendered as We can use “witty remarks” in connection with the Divinity. Heh :)

And another fun bit of machine translation was where Google Translate (which uses statistical methods for learning, AFAIK: looking at texts available in multiple languages in order to draw conclusions what phrases are rendered by specific other phrases in the target language) translated the Finnish quotation from the scriptures “Ole nöyrä, niin Herra, sinun Jumalasi, johdattaa sinua kädestä ja antaa sinulle vastauksen rukouksiisi.” as “Be humble, the Lord your God will lead you by the hand and give thee answer to thy prayers.” (underlining mine). I found it funny that it used “Biblical” pronouns for the second portion of that sentence; presumably, it had learned that from “reading” the Bible in Finnish and English, using an archaicising Bible for the English :D

Tags: religion
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