Bad Habits Die Hard (Or, Why We Should Attempt to Translate Liturgical Texts Correctly from the Get Go)

One of the more recognizable Scriptural quotations in the Byzantine liturgical tradition comes from Psalm 118:27 (117:27, LXX). This is sung with great ceremony towards the beginning of Matins on Sundays and Feasts, and immediately before the Communion at the Eucharistic Liturgy. Its visibility in our liturgical tradition makes it one of the more frequently quoted Scriptural statements in our circles; but at least in the English-speaking world, it is usually quoted according to a widespread liturgical rendering influenced by the King James Version, and later printed in the widely used Psalter According to the Seventy:

“God is the Lord, and hath appeared unto us…”

The text of Rahlf’s Septuaginta, which is identical to that found in our liturgical books, reads:

Θεὸς Κύριος καὶ ἐπέφανεν ἡμῖν…
(Slavonic: Бог Господь и явися нам…)

As far as I can tell, this is a rather straightforward translation of the Hebrew text, which reads:

אֵל יְהוָה וַיָּאֶר לָנוּ

Now, Θεὸς Κύριος (Theos Kyrios) can be translated either “God [is] the Lord” or “The Lord is God,” but which of the two is the correct subject of the omitted verb ἐστι(ν) [esti(n), is]? This is one of many points in which reference to the Hebrew Vorlage of the LXX (and therefore of a great many of our liturgical texts) is fundamental. By comparison with the Masoretic Text, which in this case appears to be identical to the Hebrew text underlying the Septuagint, we learn that (as in many other places in the LXX) the anarthrous Κύριος (Kyrios) stands here for the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton. Thus the text should read “The Lord (=YHWH) is God,” and not the other way around.

Now, my friend Isaac asks:

What about Fr. Seraphim Dedes’ [translation]: “He is God, He is Lord and has revealed Himself to us…” Where does that come from?

With due respect to Father Seraphim, such a peculiar translation can only come from a lack of acquaintance with the style of the LXX in general, and with its underlying Hebrew Vorlage in particular. It should be noted, however, that this unfortunate rendering seems to have been abandoned; recent materials from the same source (such as those seen in this page) contain the customary (but also incorrect) “God is the Lord.”

As for the second part of the text, various translations are in use. In addition to “and hath appeared unto us” (shown above), one may also hear “who hath shown us light” (cf. “and he showed us light,” NETS) as well as “and hath revealed himself to us.” Each of these seeks to capture a different sense of the verb ἐπιφαίνω (epiphainō); I myself would prefer to emphasize God’s showing himself, revealing himself, appearing to us.

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7 responses to “Bad Habits Die Hard (Or, Why We Should Attempt to Translate Liturgical Texts Correctly from the Get Go)

  1. Dear Stefan,

    Thank you for this! Very informative, although I guess I would like you to weigh in on the importance or liturgical significance of the mistranslation. Perhaps there are dangers not readily apparent (other than not being 100% correct) or maybe it’s a harmless squib?

    Also, does the Slavonic help in our understanding of the text?

    thanks,
    isaac

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  2. Zac, I hate it that you’re such an attentive reader! I left out a whole paragraph on this precise subject, and had hoped that no one would notice. ;-)

    Note, in the first place, that the point is not to assert the Lordship of the God of Israel, but rather to confess two things: 1) that The LORD (=YHWH) is God and 2) that he reveals himself. This becomes very important in the hands of patristic exegesis, which interprets this in decidedly Christological terms. See, for example, St Augustine’s commentary on this point:

    “That Lord, who came in the Lord’s Name, whom the builders refused, and who became the head Stone of the corner, that ‘Mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ,’ is God, He is equal with the Father, He hath showed us light, that we might understand what we believed, and declare it to you who understand it not as yet, but already believe it.”

    The patristic and liturgical use of this text, then, points specifically to God’s revelation in Christ (why else would it be matched with “Blessed is he that comes…”?), and not to God revealing truth to individual persons, etc. (At least not primarily!) The mistranslation naturally encourages the misreading and misuse of this biblical/liturgical text.

    And why should we use a wrong translation anyway, when we know it’s wrong? ;-)

    I hope this helps!

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  3. Stefan,

    Yes, very helpful! You’re right– we should be accurate for the sake of accuracy (usually). Augustinus locutus est, causa est fina!

    thanks,
    zac

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  4. I’ve never seen this as a case of mistranslation, but one of poetic fronting, as would be “Mighty is the Lord….” That is, the message is still, “The Lord is God…” but poetically switched around, due to the ancient translators trying to maintain literal equivalence with the Hebrew.

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  5. Kevin> Yes, and that may be what lies behind the KJV rendering (but I haven’t researched how the KJV translators treat similar constructions elsewhere). However, “God is the Lord” doesn’t communicate its correct meaning quite as clearly as “mighty is our God”; the transposition of a noun doesn’t work as well as that of an adjective in that regard. In the end, most people end up hearing “God is the Lord” as a statement of the Lordship of the One God, and thus miss the confessional thrust of this passage, which lies behind its liturgical use.

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  6. Oh yes, I’ve no beef with that. It’s easily misconstrued. It’s certainly a Jacobean construction though, which you’ll see when you poke around at it.

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  7. This all very interesting and something that I had thought about in the past, though sadly my Hebrew was/is not up to the task of discerning that on my own. So thanks.

    >And why should we use a wrong translation anyway, when we know it's wrong? ;-)

    If you could find the answer to this one… Well, I don't know what would happen. You'd be unlikely to be a millionaire, but at least maybe we could try to fix whatever the reason is, and stop using wrong translations.

    I tell you, it makes me want to cry sometimes.

    Also, though you don't like CS Lewis, perhaps you will appreciate his contention that if one has gone down the incorrect path, generally the way to fix this is to turn around, go back, and do it right, rather than press blindly on in the same vein, thinking that continuing will make things better. And if you know what specifically I happen to be thinking of when I say that, you are totally awesome!

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