Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Translator Saints

I am a lover of languages, and so reading about saints famous for translating (particularly translating Scripture) is incredibly interesting for me.  For those few who are like me, I decided to collect, in quick, summary forms, stories of some famous saints renowned for their translation efforts.  These are only some of the many, but they are important even in their incompleteness.  If you know of any other saints famous for translating Scripture, please let me know, either via e-mail or in the comments.


The Seventy Scholars of Alexandria (2nd century BC): I have never actually heard of these considered to be saints, but their importance is incomparable.  These are the seventy Jewish scholars gathered into Alexandria by Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt to translate the Scriptures into Greek, leading to the Septuagint (often referred to as the LXX, the Roman numerals for seventy).  This Greek translation of the Old Testament was the version of Scripture used by the authors of the New Testament books (a famous example is St. Matthew's quotation of "A virgin shall be with child..." from Isaiah: the Hebrew word is ambiguous, but one copy of the Septuagint states παρθενος, "virgin," as the Evangelist does).  Not only that, but it was the common version used in that culture when Greek was the common language; for centuries, Church Fathers primarily used the Septuagint, and it (rather than the Masoretic, or Hebrew, text) is still the basis of most Orthodox translations of Scripture.  St. Augustine considered the Septuagint so important that he believed the translation to bestow additional revelation, such as in the case of the aforementioned παρθενος example.

Origen of Alexandria (c. 184 - c. 253): Though this very early, speculative theologian was not himself a translator, his Hexapla gathered together various Greek translations of Scripture along with Hebrew texts.  This work may have assisted the work of St. Jerome.  Many of his theological opinions were condemned as wildly at odds with Christian doctrine as understanding of it was later deepened (thus meaning Origen is not considered a saint), but his influence was wide, and his thought is still important.  His most influential true teaching is his teaching on the multiple senses of Scripture and his focus on the spiritual sense (his theological school was known for being focused on allegory).

St. Jerome (347-420): This irate Church Father is the most well-known translator in the Western Church, as his Vulgate, a Latin translation of all of Scripture, is still the "official" text of the Roman Catholic Church, though modern translations usually go back to the original languages.  This monastic scholar, infamous for his venomous tongue that he unleashed in his (usually theologically wonderful) screeds against heretics (or even those who merely held some differing opinions), resided in a cave near Bethlehem, where he undertook the work of translating the Scriptures, using both the Septuagint and the Masoretic text.  His most famous saying is "Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ."

Sts. Sahag (Sahak) (354-436) and Mesrob (Mesrop) (362-440): These two saints, one Catholicos of the Armenians and one a royal secretary, together translated the Scriptures into Armenian: however, they first had to have a language to translate it into.  St. Mesrob Mashtots is known as the originator of the Armenian alphabet, with the first sentence in this new tongue being "To know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding" (Prv 1:2).  Both saints were great scholars, and they worked together, with assistance from King Vramshapuh and the translating aid of Moses of Chorene (Movses Khorenatsi) and Yeghishe Vardapet, to create a written form of the Armenian language and to translate the Scriptures into that tongue.  Their translation, the fifth ever (after Greek, Egyptian, Syrian, and Latin) is considered so beautiful and accurate that it is "Queen of the Translations."  These saints also translated many other Greek and Syriac works, while writing their own Armenian texts as well.

The Nine Saints (5th century): Abba Aftse, Abba Alef, Abba Aragawi, Abba Garima, Abba Guba, Abba Liqanos, Abba Pantelewon, Abba Sehma, and Abba Yem'ata were missionaries considered to be the founders of Christianity in Ethiopia (after the Ethiopian eunuch baptized by St. Philip).  They founded many monastic houses after the Rule of St. Pachomius, and they are credited with translating the Scriptures into Ge'ez.  Of particular interest are the Garima Gospels, the world's earliest Christian illuminated manuscript, which Abba Garima is said to have written.

Sts. Cyril (Constantine) (c. 827 - 869) and Methodius (c. 815 - 882): The two famous brothers went forth from Greece to evangelize the Slavs, particularly in Moravia.  Fervent believers in inculturation, they translated the Scriptures and the Liturgy (among other works) into Slavonic, after having first created an alphabet to write with.  Though their effectiveness in Moravia was short-lived, their work paved the way for the evangelization of all Slavs, with their direct disciples evangelizing Bulgaria.  The Slavonic language is still held in respect by Slavic Christians, and many still use it liturgically to this day.  St. Methodius loved the monastic life, which he lived on top of Mysian Olympus, now Mount Uludağ in Turkey, and thus his brother told him on his deathbed, "I know that you greatly love your Mountain; but do not for the sake of the Mountain give up your work of teaching."

St. Philaret Drozdov of Moscow (1782-1867): A monastic bishop, St. Philaret was known for being a inspired orator unafraid of imperial disfavor.  Through his efforts, a popular Russian translation of Scripture was prepared; up until that time, only a Church Slavonic version was available.  "Christ saves sinners," he once declared, "by giving them the means to become saints."  Among these means is humility, which he describes in these words: "Humility is the salt of virtue. As salt gives flavor to food, so humility gives perfection to virtue. Without salt, food goes bad easily, and without humility, virtue is easily spoiled by pride, vainglory, impatience - and it perishes."  He also wrote a popular morning prayer.

Sts. Innocent Veniaminov of Alaska (1797-1879) and Jacob Netsvetov (1802-1864): One a missionary from Russia, the other a converted Aleut, these two were early Orthodox saints in Alaska, and part of their missionary efforts consisted of translating the Scriptures into the languages of the area.  St. Innocent is particularly known for his work on the Yakut (Sakha) translation, and St. Jacob for the Aleut (particularly Unangan dialect) translation.  St. Innocent is known as "Enlightener of the Aleuts, Apostle to America," and he is often considered "Equal to the Apostles"; St. Jacob is known as the "Enlightener of Alaska."  For an example of St. Innocent's thought, I'll quote from his Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven: "Blessed, a hundred times blessed is the person to whom the Lord grants to bear [interior] crosses, because they are the true healing of the soul, the sure and safe way of becoming like Jesus Christ."

Nota Bene: The quote from St. Cyril is found on The Integrated Catholic Life.  The quotes from St. Philaret are found in "Three-Hundred Sayings of the Ascetics of the Orthodox Church." The quote from St. Innocent was itself quoted in Fr. John Chryssavgis' "The Spiritual Legacy of Innocent Veniaminov: Reflections on the Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven," pp. 592-593 (in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol 44, Nos. 1-4, from 1999).  In general, various Wikipedia articles were utilized for research, although Archbishop Shnork Kaloustian's 1969 booklet Saints and Sacraments of the Armenian Church provided additional information about Sts. Sahag and Mesrob, which sparked this post.

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