On Englishing the Bible of the Orthodox Church: Further Updates and Reflections

I.

While moderating my queue of unapproved comments, I was delighted to find a note from Michael Asser, whose fine KJV-LXX Psalter and Old Testament I have mentioned in the past. He writes:

I’m very glad to inform you that Archbishop Mark of Berlin, Germany and Great Britain (ROCOR) has blessed my ‘King James Septuagint’ (an adaptation of the OT of the King James Bible to the Greek Septuagint), and it is expected that it will be published by September 2013 by the St Innocent Press of Middlebury, Indiana.

This is very good news indeed. As I have noted before, the full text of his excellent KJV-LXX Old Testament is already available online at the Orthodox England website. It appears that the published volume will comprise the entirety of the material on that pageincluding, one hopes, the substantial Slavonic appendix. Needless to say, I enthusiastically look forward to the release of the printed edition, and congratulate the indefatigable translator on finding a suitable publisher for this invaluable work. Beyond this, allow me only to restate a wish I have expressed before:

I have read somewhere that Mr Asser has tentatively started to work on the KJV’s Gospel of St Matthew in order to bring it into conformity with the 1904 Patriarchal Greek New Testament. While he has not committed himself to a full-fledged New Testament project, I, for one, hope that he does carry out a full revision of the KJV New Testament to supplement his KJV-LXX Old Testament. In this way we would have, at long last, an accurate and stylistically consistent English edition of the entire Church’s Bible suitable for use at the Divine Services.

II.

Most Orthodox readers of bibliophile proclivities are no doubt already aware of the publication of A Psalter for Prayer, edited by David James (Jordanville: Holy Trinity, 2011). This project was several decades in the making, and at least a couple of editions, under such names as The Augmented Psalter and The Russian Orthodox Psalter, had been previously released electronically. This is a remarkable book, which includes not only a revision of the Coverdale Psalter (the one given, as is well known, in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer), but also an admirably full compilation of the devotional and catechetical materials often printed in Church Slavonic Psalters. I understand that in some places this new Psalter has already come to replace that old staple, The Psalter According to the Seventy (Brookline: Holy Transfiguration, 1974). Having never been an Anglican, I lack the attachment to the words of the Coverdale Psalter that others seem to have; however, I can certainly attest to their verve and beauty, since I privately used Coverdale for a long stretch as a substitute for the HTM Psalter (my distaste for which I have never exactly kept a secret).

A Psalter for Prayer retails for $44, but in a most unusual development in the marketing of Orthodox liturgical publications, the book can be purchased from Amazon for a mere $28.69, while a Kindle edition (!) sells for $12.99. Interested parties would do well to promptly take advantage of this.

III.

Some might worry that the publication of Michael Asser’s KJV-LXX and David James’ A Psalter for Prayer within a couple of years of each other will needlessly cause them to be in direct competition: after all, both of these books seek to find a place in the private and public prayer life of Orthodox who use “hieratic English.” I rather doubt that this will be the case, if only because the books have different, and in fact complementary, goals. It might well be desirable to use the same Psalter liturgically that one uses in private reading, and this is the rationale behind such publications as the CTS New Catholic Bible, which prints the text of the Jerusalem Bible together with the Grail Psalms as used in the official Roman Catholic lectionary for the UK. Still, the use of different Psalters for liturgy and private reading need not be at all disruptive, as witnesses the long coexistence of the Authorized Version and Prayer Book Psalters, on which our publications are respectively based.

IV.

The need for a suitable liturgical Psalter in contemporary English has occupied my thoughts of late. There is, of course, The Septuagint Psalms by José de Vinck and Leonidas Contos (Allendale: Alleluia, 1993), which is certainly not without its charm, but in my judgment is gravely lacking in matters of editing, accuracy, and style. There is also The Psalter According to the Seventy (Westport: WORDsmith, 2001), published under the auspices of the OCA Archdiocese of Canada, but now out of print and nearly impossible to find. In spite of my best efforts, I have regrettably never had a chance to examine this volume. I understand, however, that a second edition is in the works and hopefully will appear at some point before the Parousia. Better by far than Contos and de Vinck is the Kathisma Psalter with Canticles (Otego: Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery, n.d.). As I have said many times before, while not perfect, this is a lovely and clear translation, and eminently suitable for reading and singing. It is truly a pity that it is not more widely known and used.

I should note that in his recent Prayer Book of the Early Christians (Brewster: Paraclete, 2012; also available in a Kindle edition!), Fr John McGuckin intriguingly uses the Grail Psalms, lightly emended for this purpose. Now I am aware of the many merits of the Grail Psalms and can certainly sympathize with, and even admire, this decision. It occurs to me, however, that Fr Lazarus Moore’s Psalter, at once laconic and lyrical, shares many of these merits and has yet other advantages. Could we not, with a little bit of effort, produce a revised contemporary text of this wonderful Psalter instead?

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23 responses to “On Englishing the Bible of the Orthodox Church: Further Updates and Reflections

  1. This was such a fascinating post to read, not the least because I am currently in the midst of Rivkah Zim’s English Metrical Psalms: Poetry as Praise and Prayer, 1535-1601 in preparation for a series on posts on the Sidney Psalter. I have to confess that Eastern Christian publications in English are a bit difficult to collect, being published by such a plethora of small publishers, most of whom do not seem to want their books to be made available on Amazon. I am delighted that James’s A Psalter for Prayer is an apparent exception to this rule; and I am ordering a copy now. However, I was surprised that in the table of contents visible from Amazon’s preview of James’s Psalter, he seems to follow Coverdale by entitling the psalms by the first words of their presentation in the Vulgate. What is wrong with their Greek titles, I wonder?

    Coverdale’s psalter has of course been set to music; perhaps the most recent well-known setting is the New St. Paul’s Cathedral Psalter by John Scott, which has been also been released on a 12-CD box set by Hyperion. There are also, as you know, numerous musical recordings in Latin and Hebrew of the complete Psalms. There must be a meritorious recording of the Greek Psalter and Slavonic Psalter — perhaps, given the wonderful new musical name of your blog, you’ll mention some when you come across them.

  2. I’m quite relieved to hear that you don’t disapprove of the Holy Myrrhbearers’ Psalter as I had been half expecting you to dismiss anything that isn’t in “hieratic English”! I’ve been using this and appreciating it (and also using their other materials, so it’s nice to have consistency of language), although the binding is awful! I have mixed feelings about the language issue – and do want to order A Psalter for Prayer when I can afford it – but one consideration for us is to also cater for people for whom English is a second (or third) language and who (unlike the esteemed Esteban) may not be all that proficient in it.

    Fascinating about Fr McGuckin and the Grail Psalms. I must confess that I was tempted to continue using them (and did for a while) simply because of their familiarity to me as a former Catholic (even though I hadn’t been using them in the Netherlands). But I didn’t have the necessary ability or time to amend them appropriately.

  3. Theophrastus> I’m delighted that you found this interesting, and thrilled that you’ve commented. Thanks for the heads up on your upcoming series on the Sidney Psalms, which I await with great interest. (As you know, I hail from a Psalm-singing tradition, and metrical Psalms were a significant component of my Christian heritage before I became Orthodox.)

    Regarding the presence of the Latin incipits in A Psalter for Prayer, the preface of an earlier electronic edition has this to say:

    “[T]he traditional Latin incipits . . . of St. Jerome’s Gallican Psalter have been used as part of the heading for each Psalm as a reminder that, for an entire millennium, the Christian West was an integral part of the Orthodox Church; indeed, that the Orthodox Catholic Church is not merely Eastern, but universal, and has a rich western patrimony.”

    This is all well and good, of course, but more to the point is the fact that this is a revision of the Coverdale Psalter, and those Psalms have no superscription but the Latin incipit!

    (Incidentally, Contos and de Vinck altogether omit the Greek superscriptions. “The quaint titles have been omitted,” they say, “because they are generally incomprehensible”!)

    Thanks also for the link to that wonderful new recording of Coverdale Psalter; the extracts are positively tantalizing. You know, it has never really occurred to me to look for recordings of the Psalter in Church Slavonic or Greek, though I now wonder whether they do exist. Part of the problem, of course, is that our liturgical tradition does not prescribe the chanting of psalms in toto in this way. The exceptions are very few — maybe only Psalms 33, 50, 102, 136, 144 (all LXX)? And even then these are assigned to the regular modal melodies rather than to psalm tones. Now you’ve got me wishing for a chanted Church Slavonic Psalter, though!

    Aaron> Like Darth Vader, I find your lack of faith disturbing.

    Macrina> I too have mixed feelings about the language question. I understand and to a very large extent agree with the arguments for the use of “hieratic English”; further, I have only ever attended parishes where such is used, and regularly use it myself in private prayer. However, so many of our English liturgical translations are so poorly done, and their (pseudo-)Jacobean style so stilted, that a good contemporary translation always comes as a breath of fresh air. Personally, as long as the renderings are accurate and poetically felicitous, I wouldn’t be opposed to using contemporary translations exclusively.

    The translations from Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery are among the best of the lot, but as you note, the coil binding is dreadful. (The choice of binding, however, allows the Monastery to be entirely independent in the production of the books, and keeps the price very low.) I particularly appreciate that these texts have been prayed daily at their monastic services for many years.

    I can’t even fathom the amount of work that it would take to produce an successful Orthodox revision (recasting?) of the Grail Psalms on the basis of the ecclesiastical Greek Psalter. At the very least least I would like to see a standard Psalter with a similar system of accents to mark stressed syllables, which I think would greatly help lectors and others to improve their Psalm reading (which, as you probably know, can be painfully bad). But who among us has the expertise to do such work?

  4. Esteban,

    I have a copy of the OCA-Canada Psalter if you would like to borrow it.

    Good to have you “back.”

    Fr John in Livonia

  5. On chanting the Psalms in the Orthodox Church–on one of the Ormylia recordings, they chant Psalm 1 and, I believe, the entire first kathisma. I thought perhaps Simonopetra & dependencies might have started chanting kathismata during Vespers and/or Matins. They also published a book of Psalms set to Byzantine music–not sure if it was regular modal melodies or not.

  6. Fr John> Oh, excellent! I’d like to photocopy it, if that’s okay. We have yet to meet for coffee; I could get it from you then. Many thanks!

    Aaron> When I spoke of our liturgical tradition not ordinarily prescribing the singing of full Psalms, I should have specified that by this I meant the received practice. Of course, such things as “Blessed is the Man” at Vespers, the Polyeleos, and even the Prokeimenon, the Alleluiarion, and the Koinonikon at Liturgy are all but abbreviations of longer instances of sung Psalms. (Incidentally, the only thought of “liturgical restoration” that I have ever had in my life is that we should start to sing these Psalms in full once again!) And of course, the old asmatic services would have featured the singing of several complete Psalms.

    Thanks for the note about the current practice at Simonos Petras and Ormylia. I have a vague recollection of hearing a recording from Ormylia in which the First Kathisma was sung in full, but sadly those musical archives perished with an old computer many years ago. Very interesting also that they’ve published a full “neumatic Psalter”! It would be worthwhile to find out what they say about the use of such a volume in the introduction.

  7. But it is broke, at least for our purposes! Any Psalter meant for Orthodox liturgical use must conform to the text of the ecclesiastical Greek Psalter; hence the revision.

  8. Esteban, what do you think of Father Ephrem Lash’s translations?

    Regarding the Holy Myrrhbearers’ binding, while I appreciate their reasons for doing the spiral binding, I am thinking of contacting them at some point to ask if they’ll sell me a pdf file instead of a book, so that I can actually print and bind them myself.

  9. Macrina> Fr Ephrem is a hero of mine, and I try to use his translations whenever possible. His knowledge of patristic and liturgical Greek is second to none, and his translations are painstakingly accurate. Their chief deficiency is that they’re a bit too flat in style. (As it has often been said, if a translation is beautiful, it’s probably not faithful; and if it’s faithful, it’s probably not beautiful!) However, a good editor with an ear for poetic euphony could resolve that problem very easily.

    About asking the Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery to send you a PDF, I recall that you’ve said this before. You should do it!

  10. Esteban, Help! Do you read (and remember) everything I ever say on FB?!? Woe is me. I do intend to contact HMM once a) my finances have recovered from too much book buying coupled with some unforeseen events, and, b) I have a reasonable idea that I’ll have the time to do something with it!

    I was interested in your opinion of Fr Ephrem as I’ve recently acquired some of his translations, on the recommendation of Fr Andrew Louth, but my priest, who spends his days translating texts into Afrikaans complains that his texts are not easily readable English. I haven’t really noticed that, but I haven’t been using them regularly in prayer, having more or less settled on the HMM texts for private prayer and hardly ever attending the Liturgy in English. We are going to be having to decide on a standard English translation for a new prayer book, but that is also a project that’s going to have to wait a while…

  11. Esteban said, “Now you’ve got me wishing for a chanted Church Slavonic Psalter, though!”

    Such a recording exists, and it’s pretty good, though pricey. Perhaps you can get it through inter-library loan. Here is a link to the blurb at amazon.com:

    The Psalms of David – Complete Psalter with troparions and prayers (5 CD Set)

    It is a recording of the entire Church Slavonic psalter, chanted by Hierodeacon Gennady (Riabtsev) according to the traditional ‘cell rule’ rubrics, i.e., with the introductory and closing prayers, and the troparia and prayers after each kathisma.

    Incidentally, these same prayers were printed in Greek psalters as late as the end of the 18th century. I wonder why they have fallen into such complete disuse among the Greeks in modern times? I have the Greek text, if anyone is interested – perhaps they could make a Greek recording – and thanks for the kind words for “A Psalter for Prayer”!

  12. Esteban- you might be interested to know that Dormition Monastery (OCA) has released a contemporary English psalter, edited by Fr. Roman Braga, which seems to base itself on the NKJV translation and update it according to the LXX in some places. I say “in some places” because the update is inconsistent and several places seem to retain Masoretic readings. That said, the volume is very nicely bound as a smyth-sewn hardcover. Also, like the David James Psalter, it includes the kathisma prayers at the end of each Kathisma and some brief introductory matter which I believe is found in Romanian psalters. It has the 9 odes but for some reason omits Psalm 151. For reasons I cannot fathom, Dormition Monastery has not made any public online announcement about this publication and I only found out about it when someone mentioned it on an online forum. It can be purchased by sending them a check for $35.

  13. Macrina> To answer your question(s): Yes, of course! But seriously, when you get around to completing this printing and binding project, I would be very interested in seeing the end result.

    David> Many, many thanks for your comment! I regret that it was not published until now. For some reason (perhaps because of the link?), your comment was sitting in my spam folder, and not until I received a notification for Ryan’s comment did I notice that it was there (along with others). My apologies!

    I am delighted to learn of this chanted Church Slavonic Psalter, and a quick internet search has turned up the entire recording on YouTube. This is very exciting, of course, but I hope to purchase the discs at some point.

    I, for one, have never seen a printed Greek Psalter with these prayers, but I do own an old Romanian Psalter that contains them. The point about just how late they were present in Greek Psalters is fascinating, and I too wonder why they fell into disuse. Perhaps this is related to an abandonment of the Psalter as a book for private prayer, which would make the kathisma prayers superfluous to its use as a liturgical book? In any case, I would be very interested in obtaining the Greek text of these prayers, if you’re willing to provide it!

    No thanks are necessary for the kind words about your work: they are all abundantly well-deserved. In the intervening months I have used the Psalter for Prayer numerous times, and never tire of it. Indeed, we are all greatly in your debt.

    Ryan> Oh, thank you very much for this! I live about an hour and fifteen minutes away from the Monastery and have been planning to visit their new Katholikon, whose consecration I had to miss due to a scheduling conflict. This certainly compels me to visit sooner than later: I have a project on my to-do list which this new Psalter might, at long last, make possible.

  14. Oh my, thank you for sharing this wonderful document! I have saved it, of course, and will also print it.

    There is enough material in just these last few comments to merit a follow-up post. Even though there isn’t much activity around here these days, I hope to find the time to put a little report together before too long.

  15. Христос Воскресе, Стефане! Don’t know if your ears were burning, I was talking with my neighbor, Fr. David “of Hermitage”, this morning about you. Haven’t heard from you in a long, long time. Just wanted to say hi. Hope you’re doing well.
    fMilovan

  16. Драги оче Миловане, Воистину Воскресе — и срећна Слава св. Георгијe! Yes, I talked to my dear friend Fr David for a little while yesterday and he told me. I’m very glad to hear again from you! Next time I’ll visit Hermitage for more than a couple of hours and we can have Služba on a Saturday: I will chant in the pojanje while you and Fr David serve. :-) I will email you. Your prayers!

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