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.


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.]