Biblia Triglotta Serbianna?

Earlier this summer I was asked by a kind and selfless traveler on his way to Serbia whether there was anything that I needed him to bring back for me. Given that the Srbljak appears to be permanently out of print (but see here!), and since I couldn’t think of anything else at the time, I expressed my gratitude for his thoughtfulness and simply let the opportunity pass. Only later did it occur to me that I might have asked him to keep his eyes open for any Greek-Serbian diglot New Testaments he might find. Now, I don’t know whether such a book has actually been printed, but given that there is at least one Hebrew-Serbian diglot Psalter in print, it requires no great leap of faith to imagine that at least one Greek-Serbian New Testament might be available as well.

My interest in such a book was prompted by the fact that, when I first set out to learn Church Slavonic, one of the exercises I found most useful was to set the Greek text of the Bible (or a liturgical text) side by side with its Church Slavonic translation. I decided to start doing this after I had spent some quality time with Arcbishop Alypy’s Grammar of the Church Slavonic Language (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2001), translated by Archpriest John R. Shaw [now Bishop Jerome of Manhattan] and then only very recently published. This book features an appended “chrestomathy” that consists of the first three chapters of the Book of Acts. Being rather familiar with this biblical book in Greek, I decided to reach for my Greek New Testament to check my progress (or lack thereof) against it, and what I saw was nothing short of a revelation: it often seemed as though the syntax of the Church Slavonic text was borrowed wholesale from the Greek! (This is a phenomenon that becomes even more evident in liturgical texts.) Eventually I purchased a copy of the Bible Society’s edition of the Church Slavonic Bible, which enabled me to study in this same fashion biblical passages that were more familiar to me in translation, thereby significantly increasing the pedagogical value of my little exercise.

Since in recent years I have made many strides, not all of them altogether successful, towards learning Serbian, it occurred to me that I might use a Greek-Serbian New Testament for similar purposes. Of course, no modern Slavic language is able to approximate the Greek text they way Church Slavonic does, but I figured that nearly 20 years of acquaintance with the New Testament in Greek ought to allow a person to use its text, at the very least, as a vocabulary crutch! I had been pondering these things for a few weeks when, quite unexpectedly, I stumbled upon some PDF files on the excellent site Svetosavlje that feature the text of the Johannine and a few of the Pauline Epistles, not in a Greek-Serbian diglot, but in a Greek-Slavonic-Serbian triglot format. I must admit that the possibility of combining all three texts had not even crossed my mind, but it is clearly a brilliant idea. Here are the links for the comparative texts currently available:

I was unable to find any information on the origin of these files, but one can only hope that it is an ongoing project that will eventually give us an online Biblia Triglotta Serbiannathough if this is indeed an active and ongoing project, it is far more likely that those responsible are only aiming at completing a Novum Testamentum Triglottum. I would be ecstatic beyond words either way.

Be that as it may, since we have once again reached that time of the year when St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians is read liturgically (the weekday readings from the Epistle ended on Wednesday, and the Sunday readings will start in a couple of weeks), I have decided to commit the bulk of my time during my annual return to Galatians to the study of the triglot text linked above. I’m eagerly looking forward to it.

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.]