On Translating The Church’s (and No Other) Bible

Lately I have been occupied with revising my preliminary Spanish translation, now nearly four years old (!), of an abbreviated version of the formularies for the daily morning and evening prayers as generally used in the Slavic Orthodox Churches. Although the more ancient practice is for the Midnight Office and Small Compline to be read privately as morning and evening prayers, respectively, formularies like those in the Slavonic books arose at least several centuries ago to fill the need for a simpler rule of private prayer. (Such formularies exist even among the Russian Old Ritualists, which fact testifies to their multisecular use even in the strictest of contexts.) Although I had originally intended to translate the Midnight Office and Small Compline for private use, I soon realized that I simply did not have time for such an undertaking: this would involve, among other things, producing a full translation of Psalm 118 [119], with its 176 verseswhich make up, in fact, 22 Psalms of average length. In the end, time constraints (and rather urgent need) forced me to settle for an abbreviated translation of the formularies which I hoped (and still hope) to complete at a later time.

My policy in rendering these prayers into Spanish has been to translate from Greek whenever the text is available in that language (because in that case, the Slavonic text is itself a translation rather than an original composition), but otherwise I translate from Slavonic. This makes for quite a bit of book shuffling, but I don’t mind it terribly. In fact, to work with the Greek and Slavonic texts side-by-side is often downright exhilarating.

One of the more amazing, even shocking things about Slavonic texts is that they systematically preserve the Greek word order. This was a great help to me when first learning the language, because I could sit to compare the Slavonic translation with its Greek original until I made full sense of the former. But although I had a sensitive eye for linguistics even then, I didn’t fully grasp what a truly astonishing thing that isthat one can pick any random text, find the ninth word from the beginning, and, without fail, it will be the the same in both languages. Imagine the degree of syntactical fluidity that required from Church Slavonic, to have been able to assimilate the syntax of another language wholesale!

Because I find such extensive agreement to be quite extraordinary (and frankly, also a little too precious), I’m always looking for instances when the Slavonic does not, in fact, represent the Greek, and last week I thought that I had found one such instance. While translating portions of the Slavonic service for the Feast of the Transfiguration (which we celebrated last Sunday, August 6 by the Old Calendar), I found Psalm 77 [78]:54a quoted as follows:

и введе я в гору святыни своея

This means, roughly, “And he brought them to the mountain of his holy place.” However, Rahlf’s Septuaginta reads:

καὶ εἰσήγαγεν αὐτοὺς εἰς ὅριον ἁγιάσματος αὐτοῦ

Which, again roughly, means “And he brought them to the territory of his holy place” (cf. also the NETS rendering: “And he brought them to a territory of his holy precinct”). As far as I can tell, this is rather close to the Hebrew וַיְבִיאֵם אֶל־ גְּבוּל קָדְשֹׁו (“And so he brought them to the border of his holy land,” TNIV; cf. also KJV and ASV), but I’d be glad to accept correction on this point from people whose grasp of Hebrew is better than my own.

I thought, then, that I had before me a clear instance of a mistranslation of the Greek text in the Slavonic: the translator would have simply misread the LXX’s ὅριον (horion, territory or border) for ὄρος (oros, mountain). This would have raised all kinds of interesting questions concerning the Slavonic translator’s knowledge of Greek, the dating of Slavonic Psalter, etc. Ah, I could feel an article coming! But then I scrupulously thought to check the ecclesiastical Greek Psalter, which is ultimately the canonical text of the Psalms in the Orthodox Church, and there it was:

καὶ εἰσήγαγεν αὐτοὺς εἰς ὄρος ἁγιάσματος αὐτοῦ

This is, of course, identical to the Slavonic: “And he brought them to the mountain of his holy place.” And so it turned out that even here the Slavonic Psalter had slavishly translated its Greek text. Interestingly, the Vulgate too reads here “et induxit eos in montem sanctificationis suae” in its Psalter “iuxta LXX” (but “et adduxit eos ad terminum sanctificatum suum” in its Psalter “iuxta Hebraicum”; cf. the RSV’s “and he brought them to his holy land”).

In light of the upcoming release of projects like the New English Translation of the Septuagint and of the complete Orthodox Study Bible, I was reminded by this brief comparative exercise that any translation of the Church’s Old Testament intended for liturgical use (and this includes translations of readings, quotations and allusions in the Divine Services, and even in the private prayers) must be made not from the modern critical editions of the Biblical texts, but rather from the texts printed in our liturgical books, with reference to patristic exegesis and the context in which they are used liturgically. For as my hero Father Ephrem Lash says in the introduction to his translation of the Prophetologion:

The Orthodox Church has always used the Greek Bible of Alexandria as its text of the Old Testament and therefore the text on which the translation is based is that of the Greek Septuagint (LXX), as it is found in the Greek Menaia. This qualification is important, since the lectionary text often differs quite sharply from that of the critical editions of the LXX and even more sharply from that found in the bilingual edition published by Samuel Bagster and frequently reprinted [i.e., that by Sir Lancelot Brenton, currently printed by Hendrickson]. This is not the place to discuss in detail the relationship between the standard Hebrew, or Masoretic (MT), and the Greek texts of the Old Testament, but is worth noting that the Greek text represents a very ancient version of the Hebrew which predates the Masoretic text by several centuries. In places where the Greek and Hebrew differ, it cannot automatically be assumed that the Hebrew has the better reading. Moreover, the text is a living text and reflects the living tradition of both Jews and Christians. (emphases and brackets mine)

Unless those involved in the various projects aimed at producing an English translation of the Greek Old Testament take this to heart, I hope we don’t rush to use their finished products, without critical examination, in the public worship of the Church.

[UPDATE: I'm glad to report that both the Eastern Orthodox Bible and the Orthodox Study Bible translate at least the verse here discussed according to the ecclesiastical text. One hopes that this is true across the board for each translation, but that remains to be seen.]

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2 responses to “On Translating The Church’s (and No Other) Bible

  1. This post puts me strongly in mind of the latter half of Chapter 14 in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”

  2. Fascinating stuff, Esteban.

    the Greek text represents a very ancient version of the Hebrew which predates the Masoretic text by several centuries.How is this justified? I find the whole issue of textual criticism confusing at the best of times, but I’ve never heard that the LXX has definitively preserved a the most ancient version of the Hebrew (since we’ve discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, at least). Either way, our approaches to the issue stand at two poles of a spectrum. I’m not sure that they cancel each other out …

    As for agiasmatos and Ps 77, I’ve just posted on this here. I was confused about Pietersma’s rendering in the NET, as it didn’t seem consistent (“sanctity” and “sacred precinct” are two different things, aren’t they? One represents holiness in and of itself, the other represents the sanctuary).

    Another question: does the Ecclesial Psalter use the adjective agió or the noun agiasmatos in LXX Ps 23:3? The critical versions differ (cf.NET vs Rahlfs).

    I’d also love to hear/read more on the theology of textual traditions. How do you understand the differences between orion and orios? Did the Holy Spirit inspire the later version? How does it relate to the Hebrew (which is accepted as the older)? Is this a matter of progressive revelation? I ask this because I too am committed to venerating a textual tradition which is not the oldest nor the most pristine (at least in some cases, e.g. Samuel): the MT.

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