Trapped in Translation

basilfresco
Fresco of St. Basil in Ohrid

Βλέπε γὰρ ὅτι ἐν μέσῳ παγίδων διαβαίνεις καὶ ἐπάνω τείχους ὑψηλοῦ περιπατεῖς ὅθεν οὐκ ἀκίνδυνον τῷ καταπεσόντι τὸ πτῶμα.

For see that you are passing through the midst of a trap and are treading on top of a high wall from whence the fall is perilous to the faller.

– Basil, Letter 42, to Chilo

I’ve mentioned that I regularly start and then fail to finish John Anthony McGuckin’s Book of Mystical Chapters. When last I tried reading it, I would hunt down the passages for each day from the original sources and write them in my own journal. The Book of Mystical Chapters is not the first patristic “devoltion” I have attempted however. I have also tried (and failed to keep up with) a couple other devotional style books with patristic themes.

For one thing I’ve tried Mike Aquilina’s A Year with the Church Fathers (2012). In this attractively bound (imitation leather) devotional (stamped with an out of place medal of St. Benedict), Aquilina excerpts writings from the Church Fathers complete with a themed title, summary of the reading, things to consider, and a prayer at the end. I will say that actually, aside from the fact that I’m being forced to read short excerpts from patristic works I have not gotten around to reading, I am actually not very impressed with Aquilina’s book. I get the idea. Daily devotionals have been all the rage since – forever. And it is only all too important that, as long as we’re buying into the devotional industry, that we have representation from the early church. Another book I have had for somewhat longer (and STILL never finished completely) is called Day By Day with the Early Church Fathers (Hendrickson, 1999). I don’t even think this book is in print anymore! But I actually like this book more than Aquilina’s book for a couple reasons. 1) because as a Catholic, Aquilina’s book is sometimes a little pushy and assumes a Roman Catholic readership (whereas in fact lay Catholics in my experience are no better off than Protestants regarding patristic knowledge). 2) Day by Day With the Early Church Fathers, edited by J. Alan Sharrer, Christopher D. Hudson, and Lindsay Vanker, although ostensibly Protestant, manages to quote often quite a bit more patristic material per devotion than Aquinila’s and without Aquinila’s sometimes pedantic reflections.

As a side note, what is interesting about both books is that they are actually both drawn from the exact same sources! Both books are excerpted (and heavily edited) from the Ante- and Post- Nicene Early Christian Father’s Series. The entire collection is in the Public Domain and available for free from Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Most frequently, my citations of patristic writings come from that source.

I have made my (begrudging) peace with the fact that for the most part, we moderns are at the mercy of translators. I can (somewhat judgementally) understand why the Protestant editors of Day by Day would only be able to except a larger translation and try to edit the text for “readability.” This book was published in 1999, and while there has been quality scholarly translation work being done in patristics since the 19th century, I understand that this book was somewhat before the unexpected boom in Orthodox publishing about 10ish years later.

What is more surprising is that Mike Aquilina, a Roman Catholic and (to quote the “About the Author” section in the book) “author of more than 20 books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion, executive vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, having appeared on numerous shows on EWTN,” did exactly the same thing. You’d think that someone who wrote books called The Way of the Fathers, The Mass of the Early Christians, and Praying the Psalms with the Early Christians, would be somewhat more reticent about editing patristic works for lay people. According to Aquilina,

The meditations are taken from classic translations of the Fathers. I’ve modernized the language to make it more readable, referring back to the original languages when necessary. Because rhetorical styles have changed radically over the centuries, sometimes I’ve reduced very long complex sentences to two or more simple sentences. Likewise, some passages have been carefully abridged due to space limitations, but in no instance have words been added or changed. (pg xiv “How to Use this Book)

This is the kind of bullshit I’m talking about. The “classic translations” he’s referring to are from between 1867 and 1873 (Ante-Nicene Fathers) and 1886 and 1900 (Post-Nicene Fathers). Even the Wikipedia page has in it’s entry for the collection “translations are very faithful, but sometimes rather old-fashioned.” What is so old-fashioned about modern English?

I’m somewhat astounded that while high school students (even in Texas) are made to read Shakespeare which is now officially 400 years old, Christians, both Catholic and Protestant apparently, find 100 year old books incomprehensible enough to require severe editing for “readability.” On top of that, in a generation in which the King James Version of the Bible is still a best seller and there are still even some people who advocate a “King James Only” approach to biblical reading, that perhaps these same (or at least similar people) would need their Church Fathers “updated.” Ironically, in the margins of Day By Day with the Early Church Fathers, there are Bible verses from the KJV. Apparently the 400 year-old KJV doesn’t need updating, but the 100 year old translations of the Church Fathers do!

Anyway, I think it’s interesting that fundamentally opposed worldviews, the Catholic who is nominally bound to the words of the Fathers by dogma, and the Protestant who is somewhat pruriently perusing the Church Fathers for fun, have the same fundamental attitude toward the fathers, “Whoa! These old dead guys are really hard to read, isn’t there an ‘NIV’ version of them?” None of this addresses the actual problem. There are plenty of people who are ready to peddle their own ever-so-slightly but never-really-changed-so-as-to-preserve-purity version of the Church Fathers. There are even plenty of people willing to make devotionals of the Church Fathers’ writings. Where there are not so many willing participants is in translation work itself. Rather than recycle the Ante- and Post- Nicene Fathers Series, why not REDO it? Why not rather than update it, RETRANSLATE it? Or better yet, why not teach people Greek and instead of publishing “updated” English versions every couple of years as interest in the Fathers waxes and wanes, why not publish a large assortment of AFFORDABLE NON-ACADEMIC editions of ORIGINAL TEXTS? (Like a Loeb Classical Library of Patristics)?

You can buy an English translation of Athanasius’ De Incarnatione (On the Incarnation) for under $5. But if you want an original text your best option is St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press’ Greek/English text for $20.98. But De Incarnatione wasn’t supposed to stand alone. It is the second half of Contra Gentes, and you can’t even find a (recent) English translation of that. Your best bet (for both the Greek and English text) is Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione (Oxford Early Christian Texts) which is no longer in print and goes for at least $100 on Amazon! WTF?

Why would it be so hard to put together affordable editions of Patristic texts when literally ALL of Migne’s Patrologia Graeca and Latina are on Google Books, in the Public Domain, and easily accessible through Patristica.net often including searchable digitized PDFs? In the era of CreateSpace, why are so few actually trying to publish Creative Commins/GPL patristic texts? For the real problem is that the “classic” translations were often made by anti-Catholic protestants in England and America, but they are the only public domain and affordable translations available. In the case of texts like Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, they are the ONLY full translation. And even though there often are modern translations and critical editions of original texts (since Migne is often a bitch to read and navigate) these editions are prohibitively expensive.

Why? Well because the thankless business of Patristic scholarship is directed by, to, and for an extremely narrow audience, mainly at Louvaine and Oxford and therefore demand is not high, meaning supply is low, meaning prices rise. But shouldn’t this change? Shouldn’t we want this to change? It can totally change! But before I got sidetracked, I read from Day By Day with the Early Church Fathers. The entry was titled “End Well.” One sentence really stood out to me which the edited version in the book has as:

For you are passing through the midst of traps. You are walking on top of a high wall where a fell is much more dangerous. Therefore, don’t try to be extremely disciplined right away. Above everything beware of your own confidence, lest you fall from a height of discipline because of lack of training. (pg 6)

The citation from the back of the book (at least they cited their sources) has that this is from Basil’s Letter 42. I was prepared to go hunting through Migne’s columns, but luckily, Patristica.net has all Basil’s letters in OCR’d PDF already, so I just went there instead. I found the quote above:

Βλέπε γὰρ ὅτι ἐν μέσῳ παγίδων διαβαίνεις καὶ ἐπάνω τείχους ὑψηλοῦ περιπατεῖς ὅθεν οὐκ ἀκίνδυνον τῷ καταπεσόντι τὸ πτῶμα. Μὴ οὖν εὐθέως εἰς ἀκρότητα ἀσκήσεως ἐκτείνῃς σεαυτόν· μάλιστα μηδὲ θαρρήσῃς σεαυτῷ, ἵνα μὴ ἐξ ἀπειρίας ἀφ’ ὕψους τῆς ἀσκήσεως πέσῃς.

The translation in Post-Nicene Fathers is:

For, behold, you are passing through the midst of snares; you are treading on the top of a high wall whence a fall is perilous to the faller; wherefore do not straightway attempt extreme discipline; above all things beware of confidence in yourself, lest you fall from a height of discipline through want of training.

I really like the imagery here: You are walking into a trap. You are walking on a precipice. Let’s “update” the language here, using my barbarian grasp of Greek, for as you probably can see even the “classic” translation is in some deep sense flawed. This letter was written to Chilo, the disciple of Basil, who was asking Basil for advice on entering the monastic life. Therefore, Basil is talking not about “discipline” in general (although that is the literal translation) but about monastic asceticism. My translation:

For see, you are passing in the middle of snares and are walking atop a high wall from whence the fall is not without danger to him falling. Therefore, do not immediately stretch yourself forth to extreme acts of asceticism, above all, neither confide in yourself, lest you fall from the heights of asceticism from inexperience.

If I were to only rely on the “updated” version in my devotional, and even the “classic” translation on which it is based, I would misunderstand the entire context of St. Basil’s admonition. If you really want to “update” the real meaning of this text, he is telling a young would-be monk

Dude, you’re walking into a trap! Watch your step ’cause it’s really high up and if you fall you’ll get smashed. Don’t stretch yourself too far by being a dumb-ass show-off, or you’ll fail completely because you’ve never tried anything like this before.

Far more real. Basil is telling Chilo: “You’re a beginner: don’t try to read the whole Psalter every day. Don’t try going 40 days without food or water. Don’t try to live on top of a pillar or all by yourself in a cave or mountaintop.” He isn’t telling him (as the other translation might lead you to believe) not to try to be disciplined since discipline is just too hard. He’s telling him to be disciplined in a manner proportional to his entry into monastic life.

The reason he adds, “μάλιστα μηδὲ θαρρήσῃς σεαυτῷ” which is actually somewhat awkward to translate since the root of the verb he’s using is θαρσος which means “courage” or “boldness” and θαρσησις which means “confidence in a thing.” In English we don’t say “have courage in yourself” or “be courageous in yourself.” When we speak of confidence we say “confide” in oneself. But Confide also means trust. Basil is not (I don’t think) telling Chilo in general not to trust himself as if he were untrustworthy, and he’s not telling him not to have self-confidence in the sense we use that term today (in other word’s he’s not telling Chilo he’s unattractive and should go cut himself). Basil is using technical monastic language for not trusting in oneself as one’s own guide in the spiritual life. Becoming a monk presupposes that  you will be under the authority of an Abbot, and therefore, Basil is advising Chilo not to forget that he is to trust, confide in the judgement of his spiritual superiors rather than lean on his own strength. Which is incidentally why he is telling Chilo not to try huge feats of asceticism as these would be inappropriate for a novice.

If you’ve read anything else by Basil, you know that he has an over the top regard for asceticism. He is the founder of monasticism in the East just as Benedict was the founder of monasticism in the West. Modern Orthodox monks were once (incorrectly but understandably) called “Basilieans” to identify them with their spiritual master. So Basil is not just saying “don’t have discipline.” His advice has a very monastic context.

But his advice is still valid for everyone who wants to study the Church Fathers by reading only translations without even knowing the Greek alphabet. Unfortunately, unless religious education radically changes in the church, Patristic knowledge and scholarship will remain the expensive preserve of a handful of (mainly European and European-trained) scholars and will be too technical and expensive for teenagers and college students to benefit from. You can, because you have to, walk a fine line by using what you can get, but the answer depressing answer seems to strike me in the face as I continue to study: It’s a trap.

 

 

 

This post republishes work originally posted at my other blog at http://the-urban-wilderness.blogspot.com/2016/01/btw-its-trap.html?view=sidebar

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