RTE: Have the services been translated into Chinese?

IOANNIS: The work of translating the services followed the establishment of the mission in Beijing. In the 300 years of Orthodoxy in China, many Chinese and Russian priests worked hard at this. Unfortunately, some of these translations were destroyed during the Communist Revolution, others during the Cultural Revolution, and many that remain are not so useful for today.

RTE: Why not?

IOANNIS: Over the centuries there were varying ideas of translation. In the scattered texts we have left, some of the services (or even parts of the same service) are translated into ancient Chinese, others into the Chinese of two centuries ago, and still others into local dialects. They are completely different. We cannot put them together and say, "These are the Orthodox service books."

RTE: It would be like us mixing old Anglo-Saxon with Latin, Chaucer, King James English, Robert Burns' poetry, and modern American.

IOANNIS: Yes. Also, although I can find the common parts of the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and the Sunday Matins and Vespers, I cannot use them. Without the Menaion, without the Octoechos and our other books, I cannot even do a reader's service of Matins and Vespers. So, this is why I am now translating everything from the beginning. The translations from the past are unusable and not understandable to modern Chinese. Of course, I've received some good ideas from these older translations and I use them as a reference, but we need something more consistent.

RTE: As a trained philologist, are you using modern Chinese, or are you using something older that has reverent overtones, like our more formal King James English?

IOANNIS: My translation is in modern Chinese. You know that traditional Orthodox countries, except for Romania, have always used the contemporary language and the older liturgical language side by side: Slavonic for Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia, ecclesiastical Greek for Greece, but this wouldn't work in China. It would be artificial to try to create an ecclesiastical language. The language of the New Testament and the language of the Greek liturgical texts at the time of the Holy Fathers was the daily language. This is why ecclesiastical Greek is not identical to ancient Greek, because the Holy Fathers didn't use the language from before Christ, they used the language of their own time. In the same way, as we begin the work of translation, we translate into the language of our time. Of course, we follow a gracious way of translating, using beautiful and venerable words, but this does not mean that we must use ancient Chinese.

RTE: Are you translating into Mandarin?

IOANNIS: Yes. Mandarin is the only official language for all of China, and most of China speaks this one language. The variants of Shanghaiese and Cantonese are not separate languages; they are just local dialects of Mandarin. Even if we wanted to, it is impossible to translate into Shanghaiese or Cantonese because they do not have a unique grammar; they just use different pronunciations.

RTE: What are you working on now?

IOANNIS: I am trying to finish a simple service book that will include the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great, Presanctified Liturgy, the proskomedia, and the preparation and thanksgiving prayers for Holy Communion. I have already translated the baptism and marriage services, confession, holy unction… the sacraments. I hope to finish it soon. I am also working on a daily prayer book for lay people, as well as a book for catechumens on Orthodoxy.

Many years ago a priest from Shanghai wrote a catechism, but this was in a question-and-answer form. Many Orthodox topics, however, do not fit into one simple dogmatic answer, so I have tried to write articles on things that people would be interested in, like the differences between Orthodoxy and the other Christian churches, how you conduct yourself in church, the veneration of icons, how to make metanias (bows and prostrations), what the difference is between antidoron and Holy Communion. These things are practical but important. It is better to address things that people can see, that they are curious about. You can't start from pure theology; you have to start more simply.

After these books are finished, I want to begin working on the Festal Menaion and the Lenten Triodion, and go on to the daily services for the saints and the whole cycle of the liturgical year.

RTE: Can you explain to me, as a non-Chinese speaker, how you translate Orthodox theological terms?

IOANNIS: Sometimes I use the characters that are also used by Protestants and Roman Catholics, but not always. For example, in referring to the Mother of God with the Greek theological term of Theotokos, or "God-bearer," the Chinese Catholic Church doesn't use this. They've translated the Latin forms of Mater Dei (Mother of God) or Dei Genetrix (Birthgiver of God), but they aren't quite the same as Theotokos. So, I made a new word. Of course, it is according to the linguistic rules and people understand it quite easily.

RTE: Does each Chinese character convey a whole idea, or can they also be syllables, like sounds, that together make up words?

IOANNIS: It is difficult to explain. In the Chinese language every character is a symbol and every symbol has only one syllable. Usually every symbol can be used as a word, but also we have words with two, three or four symbols. Nevertheless, every symbol is also a word in itself.

RTE: I know you speak Chinese, Greek and English. Do you speak anything else?

IOANNIS: I have studied Latin but, of course, it is no longer a spoken language.