Translation Matters: Things That Struck Me in Translating the Ieratikon

42nd OCA Diocese of the South Assembly

Ancient Faith Radio is pleased to present two lectures by Fr. Silviu Bunta, both of which were presented at the 42nd OCA Diocese of the South Assembly in Jupiter, Florida, from July 22-26, 2019. The theme of the assembly was “Thy Light and Truth Guide Us to Thy Holy Altar with Joy.” Fr. Silviu holds a B.A. degree in theology from the University of Sibiu (Romania), an M.A. degree in biblical studies from the University of Oradea (Romania), and a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from Marquette University. He is presently Associate Professor at the University of Dayton, Ohio. He has recently completed a translation into English of the Simonopetra Hieratikon (with copious notes).

August 2019

Translation Matters: Things That Struck Me in Translating the Ieratikon

Fr. Silviu Bunta

August 12, 2019 Length: 39:41





So, indeed, as Fr. Marcus said, I translated the Simonopetra Ieratikon as it is, in three volumes. There’s a volume dedicated to each of the liturgies, our most common three liturgies, and to the accompanying services, so that at any liturgical time of the year, the priest grabs just one book. Not only has the office as we would call it, the daily services, but also in the second half of the book there are other services—common prayers, other services—usually done at that time of the year. So for example the third volume, dedicated to the Presanctified, has the service of confession which is mostly done in the Great Lent. The second volume, the Liturgy of St. Basil, has the Great Sanctification of Water. I love that structure of the Ieratikon because it is so practical. You don’t have to exchange books when you serve at any given time. There’s no one volume in which all the liturgies are together, which makes very little sense since we never say them together, and then you have to go to another volume in order to get to the vespers, and then you have to go another one, because that’s where the Great Sanctification is, but because it goes usually with the Liturgy of St. Basil at the time, it is in the volume with the Liturgy of St. Basil, so it’s very, very, very practical.

I was struck when I was on Simonopetra the first time that the fathers were serving with just one book. They had one book wherever they went. We went out to the trapeza, they had the same book. Back to the church, they had that book.

So I translated the three volumes as they are, so everything that’s in the Greek volumes, it will be in the English volumes. And I added a fourth volume with explanations. Working on the translation made me realize how little I know, so I decided to peek at all the existing translations, including Archbishop Dmitri’s, actually, and see where they go at the text, they have an understanding of the text much better than I do. And I didn’t shy away from following any one of them of the existing translations if I found them to be better, to just relate the meaning of the Greek text very, very well. And the fourth volume explains all my options: why did I translate this phrase this way.

Each volume has about 200 pages. It’s about 200 pages. It’s a larger format than the OCA Liturgy book, because Simonopetra, to my knowledge, it’s the only Ieratikon that’s actually accompanied by a Diakonikon. So Simonopetra put out a book that is really just for the deacon, and it only has the deacon’s parts. Another thing that makes very little sense from the way we do it in the OCA is to have the deacon and the priest use the exact same book, because any single one of them, if they serve together, carries around about 40% of weight. So my next project is actually to translate the Diakonikon, which will be in the smaller format, just for the deacon, and will contain only the deacon’s parts.

The Ieratikon, of course, contains also the deacon’s parts in case the priest serves without the deacon, but the deacon wouldn’t have to use the Ieratikon, which actually would be difficult, because it is, as I said, is a larger format. It’s about a regular book size.

The fourth volume not only explains my options, but it offers a little bit of introduction to Elder Aimilianos. Vladyka, and actually St. Tikhon’s Press, gave me the blessing to publish something that’s already appeared in his book from St. Tikhon’s Press on life at Simonopetra. Fr. Maximos Constas also gave me the blessing to republish a short life of the Elder that he wrote. It has also a mystagogical vision. So what I would like to tell you today, much more informally than yesterday, is a little bit about that mystagogical vision, what jumped out at me from the Simonopetra book, from the Simonopetra liturgy book, which is basically the vision of Elder Aimilianos, but also the scientific work of Ioannis Fountoulis. So Simonopetra, the monastery, worked with the famous Greek liturgist, Fountoulis, on putting out this Ieratikon.

First, with the vision, and then I’ll get to a few particulars. I’ll just give you a sense of how I translated some passages. What struck me when I started translating the liturgy—the Ieratikon, the whole Ieratikon, so the liturgy, offices, and all the other services—eventually it dawned on me that our liturgy and our liturgical life has not been put together programmatically, systematically: there’s no method. Rather, what it is—and this is the best definition I could come up with, and if you can think of anything better, which I am sure you could, let me know, please, and give me permission to use it in the second edition [Laughter]; this is a very limited edition; we ran out of money very quickly, actually, but give me permission to use your definition. But it dawned on me that the liturgy is very much like a dance, like a natural dance of the inner music of one’s prayer. The only thing is that it’s very communal, and of course it stretches over a long history, but it is like a natural dance.

Really, the historical evidence—as we’re getting better and better at the history of the liturgy—I think points precisely to this: there are very few moments in history on which historians can zoom in and draw the conclusion that “Yes! At this time, they took precisely this decision, and the decision is a deliberate…” They are some smart people getting together, trying to figure out how to do things, and now they’ve figured it out, and there’s the decision that goes out: “This is how we do the liturgy.” Such moments do not exist, at least till today. Today we have liturgical committees, God knows. Things are changing.

But rather things happen much more naturally, out of mostly monasteries, in the sense that the liturgy, even if it did change, it expressed inner realities. The outer temple we call the church would simply express the inner temple we call the heart. As the monastics were really, actually interiorizing the divine temple, the heavenly temple. First and foremost,  the liturgy is an experience of heaven on the inside, and then it receives outer forms in what we call services. That’s the best definition I could come up with: a dance of this inner music.

For example, why do we say certain prayers in front of the beautiful gate or the holy doors? Just to give an example. I was always tempted, before I started this work, to think that [at] a certain point this practice came about because someone said, “Well, we need to express the reality of being in exile.” I just talked about it last night. I don’t think that is it. There is no historical indication that anyone took the decision to express these historical realities. There is no historical evidence that someone decided to express a piece of revelational information: “There is this passage in the book of Revelation, there is this passage in the book of Genesis— let’s see how we play this out liturgically, how we enact it, how we choreograph it liturgically.” There are no such moments.

Rather, I think the liturgy, looking at it overall, points to a different reality, to the fact that this expresses, first and foremost, what happens in the human heart, precisely actually what I talked about yesterday, this sense of exile. We step in front of the holy doors not simply to recall an event from the past, but rather because that event is me. It’s not simply just a remembrance, and we all know the language of re-actualization; it’s more than re-actualization. It is the experience of that event in me, in my own prayer life, in my own fighting with sin and brokenness and failure.

Now some specifics. If you will look at my translation, you will be shocked by one thing, probably immediately: how much I tried to keep the syntax of the original Greek. It is a very bad syntax. [Laughter] I didn’t try to split their long, long clauses into independent clauses. For example, the prayer of the third antiphon is just one clause; everything is one clause. I didn’t try to turn subordinate clauses into independent. I didn’t try to avoid having the subject separated from the verb by 50 words, as it is in Greek. And I did it for several reasons, actually, and I’ll give you just four if you’ll bear with me, and then I’ll get to particular examples of how I translated the text.

The first reason is the fact that it seems to me that the prayers have a certain cohesiveness. Usually the cohesiveness plays out in two parts. There is a part that basically tells God, “This is how you are. This is what you told us. This is the promise you made,” and the second part is: “Well, better get to it. You promised us to fulfill the prayers—now fulfill them. You are a merciful God—have mercy.” It seems to me that the Greek is convoluted in order to retain that cohesiveness, that oneness of idea. If we split them up into—how shall I say?—declarations: “You are a merciful God. You are this. You are this.” It sounds much better in English, absolutely, but it breaks this flow from Point A, because you are so, to Point B, therefore be so. After all, remember that Fr. Thomas Hopko used to say that in the liturgy all we do is tell God to be what he is. That’s precisely the cohesiveness of all the prayers, so I didn’t break them up for that one reason.

Second reason, the syntax is equally bad in Greek. It didn’t dawn on me until I listened to the prayers at Simonopetra that, oh, that’s really bad. [Laughter] Because in written-out prayer, you have the luxury of pausing and thinking of syntactical relations. It’s all fine. You can put it all on a board and draw this very complicated morphological map. It’s great, but when you hear them, you realize: That’s really bad Greek! [Laughter] So one of the principles of my translation is that when the Greek is bad, my translation can be bad, too. My translation, at times, is bad, and that’s in precisely the same sense: that it’s very, very long.

Third reason: I do have to admit that the very complicated syntax and this bad, bad Greek, reflected in my bad English, places a—how should I say it?—burden of attentiveness and concentration on everyone—the priest and the laity. Long prayers: the priest has to pay attention to them; the people in the church have to really focus to understand. Usually, that’s one of the strongest arguments that translators have to break up that complicated syntax. “Okay, you place this extraordinary burden on us.” My translator’s response would be “Boo-hoo.” [Laughter] Precisely! That’s the idea. I think it is bad on purpose because it wants to elicit attention and concentration.

In other words, even the way the liturgy is written is ascetical. If I become limpy during the service and my thought wanders off, I lose the meaning of prayer very quickly. I lose the meaning of a two-minute-long prayer if I don’t pay attention to it for 20 seconds. Why? Because it’s not independent clauses, broken up into these tiny pieces. I miss a piece, it’s okay: I get the rest. Here, if you miss ten seconds, you lose the whole thing. But it is written this way, I am convinced, on purpose, because the proper way to be there is with attentiveness and concentration.

Moreover, I think it places an added burden on the priest, by the way. The way the prayers are written, it seems to me, [they] are supposed to elicit certain ways of reading and to prohibit or prevent other ways of reading. They are supposed to be read pretty fast, because if you don’t read a clause that’s literally half a page long—one clause half a page long—pretty fast, and yet, with the proper emphasis on the proper words, you lose the meaning. They are written in such a way as to be read in such a way, in a precise, in a certain way.

Once I became convinced of that, I just went with the syntax. I thought: So be it. This is how you have it the original; that’s how it’s going to be in English. They can still be served well, but in order to be served well, they have to be served in a particular way. So for example, they can’t be sung. That’s, I know, the bad news. We can’t stand in front of the altar and sing beautifully these prayers because the meaning will be lost. A few seconds into the singing, everybody will forget what the first word is. We can do that at certain times in the liturgy. And by the way, certain prayers and certain hymns, particularly what the choir says, are written specifically to be read in that way, to be sung. The most famous example is the cherubic hymn.

But our prayers generally are not. They are written in such a way to solicit quick recitation, with emphasis. If we don’t do emphasis, we get lost again. That’s what it seemed to me. So it’s on us to make them to really flow better, to be intelligible. I don’t think it is on the translator to put out an easy text. It’s on the priest to make a difficult text intelligible, and it is on the people to take it in.

Okay. Now, talking about particularities of translation—and I’ll finish with this; I’ll just give you some examples. Translating the Ieratikon, eventually it dawned on me, and only after two or three years—I’ve been working on this for five years, and I’m still… I don’t think it’s a perfect work, but I don’t worry about that. It’s done. It’ll be out there. It’s in your hands and God’s hands. But about two or three years into the project, it suddenly dawned on me that I was thinking of some things the wrong way, particularly of two concepts: Scripture and Tradition.

The way we talk of Scripture and Tradition, putting a distance between the two, makes us miss the fact that the Church—or actually faith—has always spoken with one language. It dawned on me a couple of years into the project that what I am looking at is fluency rather than vocabulary. That’s probably the b… Well, in my opinion, back then it was the best way of putting it. There is one fluency with which faith has expressed itself, all the way from Adam to us. That fluency is simply the one language of the one revelation, uninterrupted all the way from Adam to us. It is the language of Tradition. My newer definition of Tradition is precisely the experience of Christ in prayer, in an ascetical and mystical life.

The Scripture, then, becomes just one expression, one monument, of this fluency, alongside others—hymnography—liturgy, whichever way you want to call our services. These are just expressions at different times. Of course, because there is some historical development, there are some minor differences between them, but the fluency is one and the same.

Now, once these boundaries with which I was raised, really, and which I was taught—they were deeply ingrained in me over many years of education, to think of these things as separate texts: here is the Ieratikon, and here is, for example, the Old Testament—once these boundaries came down, things appear in an entirely different light. I’ll give you an example. In other words, the liturgy speaks with the language of the Old Testament, speaks with the language of the New Testament, speaks with the language of the Fathers, and speaks even with the language, if we look at it properly, with the language of me, inasmuch as I am, myself, inscribed in this thing we call Tradition. That’s the way I speak: naturally. It’s not supposed to be coercive; it’s not supposed to be tense. There’s supposed to be a certain naturalness to our belonging to Tradition.

Things that jumped out at me, once these boundaries, these distinctions came down: For example, we always—and this is probably because of the Slavonic… Listen to the OCA prayer, the OCA translations: we almost never have the word “sinner” which comes up so many times in other liturgies. The priest, we call ourselves sinners all over the place, many times during, for example, the Liturgy of St. John. It’s almost never preceded by the definite article “the.” While in the Greek, it is alwaysthe” sinner. The most well-known example is: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Right? “God, cleanse me, a sinner, and have mercy on me.” Sorry, that’s what the Publican is saying. That’s the language of Scripture.

The original Greek—Slavonic cannot do that, because it doesn’t have the definite article, and if you translate it directly from the Slavonic as a translator, you are faced with the option: “Okay, do I put the definite article, or an indefinite article? What do I do with this?” And it seems to be a choice. In the Greek there’s no choice; it’s always “the.” Why? Because our prayer, “God cleanse me, the sinner, and have mercy on me,” is built on the prayer of the Publican. It’s Gospel language. Once these partition walls between liturgy, Gospel, come down, and we sense this oneness of language, it becomes obvious.

Moreover, that definite article is so important, because that’s precisely what sets the Publican apart, as we all know. It’s a difficult situation. You hear of, okay… Preaching to the choir is bad. [Laughter] I’m talking to priests who are with much more experience than me, much higher category than me. This is really bad! I can assure you. From my side, this sucks. [Laughter] I suspect it sucks from yours, too, but we are all in this together. [Laughter] But as we all know from the gospel pericope, what sets the Publican apart from the Pharisee, is precisely the fact that the Publican only looks at himself. He sees his own sinfulness. He’s not worried with the Pharisee’s sinfulness or righteousness. He only looks at himself, and that’s precisely the way we need to be, and that’s precisely why we have to say, “the sinner.”

In my translation, “sinner” is always preceded by the definite article… even when I had to do a little bit of English acrobatics and say, “the sinner, the sinner, and your unworthy servant,” but I kept the “the” in there, because that’s very important because of the Gospel. Once we see the link with the Gospel, it’s clear.

Another example: “Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth.” It is always “the Truth.” The expression actually comes from the Gospel of John. After we talked, Father, I meant to look it up in the Gospel of John to see how many times it shows up. I think it shows up like three times. All times show the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of the Truth after Christ says, “I am the Truth”! He claims the title “theTruth .” It’s not a coincidence that the Holy Spirit, later on, is called the Spirit of the Truth, because in a sense it is Christ’s Spirit. Yet the Heavenly King prayer… By the way, I consulted ten translations when working on mine. I haven’t found the definite article in any of the ten, but there should be a definite article there, and T should be capitalized, because it is the language of the Gospel, and Truth is not an abstract statement; Truth is a Person. And that’s very clear in the Gospel of John, and this is Gospel of John language. It’s improper to put it that way, to be clear I’ll put it that way. It’s the same language with which the Gospel of John and the Liturgy of St. John speak. It’s one and the same fluency. That’s an example.

I tried to recognize then, once this thing dawned on me, all the other titles of Christ. For example, at the prayer of the little entrance, the small entrance, “Goodness”—right? “co-liturgizing with us and glorifying your Goodness”—Goodness is a very, very common patristic title of Christ. Goodness itself is not a virtue, like an abstract virtue category. It is again a Person, and we don’t glorify goodness as God’s kind of candor towards us. We glorify God’s Goodness precisely in the Person of the Son, the Son incarnated. Many Fathers… In my fourth volume, I give you many patristic references that say, by the way, the Goodness of God is Christ.

Another one: In Luke 2:29-33, the hymn of Symeon, the prayer of Symeon. By the way, it is not, “Lord, let your servant depart,” but it is, “Lord, set free, release, apolyeio.” It’s slavery language. Symeon has been enslaved by this life, and that imagery seemed so powerful to me once I realized what Symeon is asking God is, “Take these shackles off.” What shackles are these? The shackles of this life. Why? Because he wanted to die. Because he speaks precisely from the position from which Elder Aimilianos spoke, which when I quoted him at the end last night, that at a certain point in one’s life, in one’s spiritual life, there comes the time when the person, all that person wants, is to die and nothing else. That’s precisely what Symeon says. So first of all he says, “Set free,” not “Let depart”: “Set free. De-slave me from this life.”

But then he says, “Your Salvation, Light for revelation to the Gentiles, Glory of your people Israel.” All those are titles of Christ—because he says this, looking at the salvation. The salvation is no longer a what; it is a Who. And we do say this. And by the way, when I translated the Ieratikon, I paid attention to the other services, to the hymns we say around what we the priests say. The Ieratikon will only have the priest’s parts, true, but what does the choir say and how does what I say fit with the choir? If I don’t have a sense that actually Salvation, Light, and Glory are titles Christ, while the choir is singing hymns such as this… I’ll read you just two. This will be in my fourth volume. These are from the vespers of the Feast of the Meeting.

O Symeon, receive as a babe in your embrace the Lord of glory and the salvation of the world.

Symeon—and this is, by the way, a paraphrase, the vespers—this is at the aposticha—paraphrasing what Symeon says. In Symeon’s voice, the choir will sing: “Now let me depart”—this is the translation I took, actually, from Metropolitan Kallistos’s.

Now let me depart (whatever [Laughter]), O Master, as you have before promised to me. For I have seen you, the pre-eternal Light, the Lord and salvation of the people who bear the name of Christ.

How clear is it that those are actually titles of Christ!

Another example: In Luke 2:14, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men,” and that is translated in so many other different ways, “good will,” at least, if not in all the Fathers, in the vast majority of the Fathers, and in the vast majority of our own hymnography, is again a title of Christ. The good will that is among people, it’s not about the fact that people are getting along. Probably the modern Christmas atmosphere helps think that “good will” means we’re all happy today, it’s a special day while we’re all getting along. Good Will among people means Christ in our midst, like we say. That’s what Good Will among people means. The Good Will is a Person that is now among us.

These are some of our hymns we sing on Christmas.

Suddenly at the word of the Angel, the armies of heaven cried: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, among men Good Will, (comma) Christ, has shone out.

That’s the Good Will that is among people. Another one:

Virgin Mother of God, who have given birth to the Savior: you have overthrown the former curse of Eve, for you have become the Mother of the Father’s Good Will.

Who is the Good Will, again? It is Christ. So in my translation, “Good Will” are capitalized—capital G and capital W—because this is Christ.

Another expression, by the way, that has to do with Christ is the common expression that occurs so often: “the name of the Lord,” but it is not “the name of the Lord,” it is the name “Lord,” the name of “Lord,” if you want, but not “the name of the Lord.” In other words, it is not a name that belongs to someone who is the Lord, but it is the name “Lord” itself which we give to this Person who is blessed. This is a Christological hymn, and it is very clear, by the way it is used in the New Testament and by the way it is used in all of the Fathers and all of the hymns, therefore it just dawned on me that it’s quite a great mistake to use this, by the way, just before the apostle [to bless the reader]: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of ‘Lord,’” if you drop the definite article which, by the way, is not there in the Greek. So here, where there is a definite article, we drop it out; when there isn’t one, we put it in.

But I’ve seen it done where priests actually use that to bless the reader of the apostle. When it dawned on me that this is not about the one who proclaims the apostle, but it is about Christ, when I saw on Simonopetra the fathers at that moment going toward the preparation table and bowing before it, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of ‘Lord.’” In other words, “Blessed are you, O Christ, who are my Lord.” It’s not the reader; it is the sacrifice that we bless. It is a Christological hymn.

Another thing… I don’t know how many more minutes I have. I don’t want to go on for too long. Maybe I’ll stop with this. Another thing is the four participles of the Sanctus. “Holy, holy, holy,” right? And before the “Holy” we say, “Singing the triumphal hymn, crying…” Sorry, I haven’t done this in some time, because I’ve been using my translation. “Singing the triumphal hymn, shouting, proclaiming, and saying…” That’s not what the words say. The words literally mean: “Roaring, lowing, crying” (because it’s the sound of the eagle), “and saying.” These are the four sounds, natural sounds, of the four faces of the cherubim. I found this… As soon as this dawned on me, Vladyka challenged me. “Ha! Make an article out of it.” He’s generous that way. [Laughter] He loves me so much to make me work constantly.

I presented on this, actually, back in October in Romania. The two of us went to give a couple of talks in Romania, and I presented on this, and I turned it into a 30-page article, looking for patristic evidence, hymnographic and iconographic evidence that maybe, there is a chance, a tiny chance, that I am right. I found iconography going all the way up to the 11th century. The scene is what specialists would call gloria Dei, a Latin name, the scene of Ezekiel 1. By the sixth century, Ezekiel 1 became the scene at the far end of the apse, and in many of our churches it still is, at the back of the sanctuary. Now, around the throne and around Christ are the four creatures. Of course, after the fifth, sixth century, accompanied by the four apostles. The connection between the four faces and the four apostles, it’s already made. It’s solid by that time. But what’s telling [is that] next to each one of them is one of the participles. Next to the lion is the first one, adonta. Next to the ox, the second one, vo’onta, because the ox bellows.

So there are the four participles, and this also pops up in the Fathers everywhere. And it is common knowledge still in the 19th century. I found—I didn’t know he was so famous! Vladyka told me. Oh my goodness, he’s famous—at least in England. Rev. John Mason Neale. I hadn’t read him by that time. You know, Father. So he has this book which I want to read: History of the Holy Eastern Church. And in the History of the Holy Eastern Church, he says this. He travels to Constantinople, by the way, so to a certain extent Vladyka told me he read it, and he remembers everything, by the way. He has an extraordinary memory. He said part of it reads like a journal, like a travel journal, a journal of travel. So he goes to Constantinople, and he says he’s finally seen the light, because the people in Constantinople, I mean the Orthodox, explain to him the four participles. And he says:

The Constantinopolitan ritualist explained to me that St. John Chrysostom, with the four participles, mean to cry like an eagle, to bellow like an ox, to roar like a lion, and to speak like a man. And this (these are his own words) seems a more natural explanation than any other.

This explanation, namely, which represents the four quarters of the globe—and he goes on a long list of other explanations he’s heard—He said what these people in Constantinople know makes perfect sense. So it was still common knowledge in the 19th century, and we lost it within a century, because no English translation has it, this awareness that these are the sounds of the four faces. As I said, it’s all over the Fathers, but the evidence—I don’t want to present you the whole evidence.

Also, I’ll now finish with this, actually. Last thing: Vladyka yesterday, when he lifted up the Gifts after Communion, he said, instead of, “Be exalted,” or I forgot how the OCA translation goes, I translated it with “Be lifted up.” He said, “Ascend.” “Ascend O God to the heavens,” I think that’s how he said it. “And your glory be over all the earth.” He said, “Ascend.” That’s better than “Be exalted,” because this has nothing to do with magnification. It’s actual lifting. Literally the Greek means “to take up, be taken up, be lifted up,” and this is how I translated it: “Be lifted up, O God, above the heavens,” because until that point we have literally brought him down, but so far down, all the way into our stomachs and into our veins and even into the shameful parts of our body, as St. Symeon the New Theologian puts it so descriptively.

We brought him all the way down, and now we’ve eaten him up, and in a sense it is time for him to go up again, and that taking up of the Gifts after Communion, off the altar, and to take them back to the preparation table, is a lifting. It is actually a lifting. It’s a going back up again. We literally say it. Vladyka says it, very powerful: “Ascend, O God, above the heavens.” I translated it with “Be lifted up.” Why? Because this language comes from the Old Testament, Exodus 28:28, the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 5:21.

I can give you more references to this imagery of this lifting up of God, but I’m not going to go there, so I’ll just stop. These are just a few examples of texts that, all of a sudden, gain different meaning to me, as soon as I brought down those boundaries and the dividing walls. Thank you for your attention. [Applause]

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