Prayers, Ritual words, Mantras, Chants, Sacred books – the words that you use in spiritual practice and religion are not just prose – they are not just simple statements of fact that we can understand with our rational brain. They operate on at least three separate levels simultaneously, and in the combination of those three levels they do not just tell us something, or say something. They Do something – they change our state of consciousness. In the best case when well written they elevate us to the state of joyous connection with the divine and with all things, and people will report unexplainable happiness and inspired wisdom following the use of these words, but if they are not written with such inspiration that could put us in any other state of consciousness – they could create depression or loneliness, or a sense of passionate love and desperation, or even the sense that God doesn’t exist and there is no point to religion and spirituality.
In most cases this is not too much of a problem because ritual words are either written by spiritually elevated teachers who know what they are doing, or they are evolved slowly by the community, and the community will naturally choose the best and discard the worst and by process of natural selection create the best possible expression to suit their needs. (That second community based process can be rather slow and go through some less inspiring forms before it finds its inspiring form, and sometimes i think it is worth hurrying it along a little)
But where it does go wrong is when you translate those words of power into another language.
Let’s just take a little aside to understand how these ritual words work, and how they affect us so strongly. As I said above they work on three levels simultaneously. The first level is the meaning – what do the words say? They need to express something that is uplifting if they are going to be uplifting – they need to express something that is inline with their purpose – You cannot build inspiring texts from words of insult or other coarse language, and in the same way you cannot build inspiring texts from any language that is not inspiring in some way or other. This meaning level of the text is the most commonly understood, but perhaps surprisingly to some it is the weakest in terms of its effect on our consciousness – hence the common use of archaic language that we don’t understand in our spiritual services – it doesn’t matter too much what the exact words are as long as the general spirit is good.
The second level that words affect us is their poetry – the sounds and rhythms and ways that the words are put together. Do they have a rhythm that is pleasing to the ear? are their rhymes and recognised forms? Does the sound that we hear, and the feeling on our tongue when we speak them create an experience that is inline with the inspiration and upliftment that we are looking for from them? The sounds of the poems affect our consciousness in a stronger way than the meanings, but they can only have their desired effect if the meaning is also appropriate.
The third and by far the strongest level is also the most esoteric (of course) – it is the energy that is conveyed through those words. This energy is something that can be built up over time through use of the words – for example if people around the world are using the words in sacred, beautiful ways then those words take on an energy of sacred beauty, and share that with us every time we use them. Texts can also be energised consciously – empowered by putting yourself in a particular state of consciousness as you use them and thus sharing that consciousness with them. So the texts become a medium of direct communication of a state of consciousness from the people who have already experienced it and energised those words with it to those who have not experienced it, or need a boost. A well developed spiritual teacher with sufficient mystical experience should be able to consciously create and empower words to have particular effects and to create particular states of consciousness. Incidentally this can be done through other media as well – body postures, yoga postures, musical compositions, symbols etc. In some cases the power of the sounds are backed up with other elements that go along with them – eg in the Hebrew and Arabic texts the letters themselves also have a similar powerful effect on the consciousness as well as the sounds.
This energy that is carried through the words is by far more powerful in its effect on our consciousness than either the poetic sounds, or the meanings, but it depends on both of them. Without the appropriate meanings and sounds the energy does not stick (not that the words will have no energy, but that they may be appropriate for a different kind of energy – a different state of consciousness)
What does this mean for translations? It means that we translate the meaning – and this we manage reasonably well – though even here it can be difficult and we lose a lot of subtlety, the poetry is almost always completely lost, though some put some effort into recreating some kind of poetry. But the energy – the empowerment of those words is completely lost – even in the best translation the same energy does not translate with the words, and so we create words without power. If the words were truly without power this would not be too bad – we would have created a ritual that does nothing – and then at least we would be doing no harm, but words always communicate energies and states of consciousness – on some level everything always holds an energy and words are no different. Therefore what we have created is not something that has no power, but rather something that has a random power that we do not understand. And while if we are very lucky this might be an uplifting power – most often it is not – it creates an experience that is detrimental, or confusing to us.
Let me give you an example – until a few hundred years ago the Catholic Church had all its bibles in Latin, and held its services in Latin – and then they started to translate everything into different languages including English. Now the old Latin services were very uplifting – as attested to by the love that we still hold for the Gregorian Chant of those days.
[Here’s a latin christmas carol many of you may be familiar with – but listen to the subtle difference in feel and effect]
Now some very well meaning people decided that we should celebrate in language we can understand and so we created the English Liturgy. What they didn’t realise they had done is created words of power that have a sense of boredom in them – a sort of tiredness – so church became depressing – people kept going because they believed in it, but slowly that belief was leached away by the lack of inspiration and upliftment experienced in the service, and this fueled the move away from the church and to modern materialist rationality.
[The same hymn sung in English – see if you can feel the difference in effect]
We can never know what would have happened if the church had kept words of power that were inspiring and an inspiring service, but i would be sure that many more people would be attending church today if that were the case.
So don’t translate your prayers, ritual words, mantras, chants etc – leave them in their original sacred form. Or if you really do feel the need to translate make sure you have a genuine mystic or spiritual teacher who can help you to make sure that your translation is also formed and empowered such a way that it has a positive influence on your consciousness, and on the consciousness of others who attend your services.
P.S. And if you are not sure you believe me try it out – find a ritual prayer or chant from your tradition and its translation – and meditate with it – start by rating your happiness level on a scale of 1 – 10 then chant it 10 or 20 times or even more until you feel its effect – now rerate your happiness level, and do the same for the translation. If I am right (and I am pretty sure I am) you will find the happiness level much lower after reciting the translation.