Monday, July 6, 2009

How to Translate the Psalms

The following is from the forward to Isaac the Athonite’s translation of the Psalms, written by Archimandrite Cassianus of Dayr al-Shafi’a al-Harra (Monastery of Our Lady of Fervent Intercession), Bdebba el-Horsh, North Lebanon. This translation of the Psalms was published in 2000 by the same monastery.

This is how the Elder, Father Isaac the Athonite appeared to me time after time. He would leap about the ground of the Holy Mount Athos, gliding like a hart around the channels of water that he had dug with his own hands on the grounds of his hermitage, seeking the underground water from God’s heart, shining with the stars in the Virgin’s Garden and clinging to the full moon which shined from behind the wall in that small cell. After roaming the night in prayer, he would come to us, looking through the window and pouring into our sleep-wearied eyes what he had gathered from the lights of the night. He would call out to us, “Come to praise! Come to the church! Let us praise the Lord with the ten-stringed Psalms!”

When I banished the weight of sleep from my eyes, I would see him carrying in his hand a small notebook with a blue cover as he walked to the church. He would enter the temple and begin preparation for the Divine Sacrifice after he placed that notebook on his desk among his books and his prayer-ropes and his papers.

Time and again curiosity pressed me to want to know what that ascetic elder was reading at night under the light of the stars. I tried to ask him many times, but I held back, imagining that he recorded in it the names of some afflicted people in order to pray for them at night.

The years went by and the days and nights passed, and the thought remained, asking me, “On which page of the notebook did he record my name?” until the day came when the truth was made clear. Our last encounter on the ground of the Holy Mount Athos was in the cell of the Resurrection on September 27, the feast of Saint Isaac the Syrian.. At noon, after the elder rested from the morning prayers, he sat next to me on a wooden seat. In his hands was the priests’ service-book, recently printed, which we had worked on together. He kissed it, placed it on his forehead, and said to me, “I will give you a book for you to print in the same way and for you to publish with the same binding, so that the Arabic-speaking sons of our Church will benefit from it.

He went into his cell and came back with that blue notebook and handed it to me. I grabbed it like a hungry man grabs a crust of bread. I opened it and I found that it was a book of the Psalms that Father Isaac had written with his own hands and translated from the Greek Septuagint which our Orthodox Church relies upon. I leafed through the book and found its words to flow forth brilliantly, like sweet water.

On the morning of the next day, after we finished the Divine Liturgy, he started to recount to me the story of this book. He said, “When I would read the Psalms in Arabic I would come upon many unclear meanings and I became alarmed when I compared some verses as they appear in the Arabic to the reliable Greek text because I found them to be very far from the intended meaning. There were unclear words or phrases or more in almost every Psalm, to the point that it leads to a lack of clarity in the text and the total discarding of the intended theological meaning as it was put forth by the Holy Fathers like Basil the Great, Dionysios, and Nicodemos of Mount Athos, whose many volumes I would read in order to understand just one sentence. So, I am able to show them in Arabic as close as possible to the intended theological meaning.


I would often stop at certain verses, pondering on them and praying, asking the Prophet David, ‘How should they be composed according to their true meaning?’ In that way I passed the nights and the hours of the day, searching and refining until I arrived, finally, at a faithful Arabic translation.

This does not mean that I deny the blessed efforts of those who worked before me, and for this reason you see that I preserved the words and phrases that my predecessors translated clearly, and which I found to correspond to the original Greek text, because the ears of the faithful have become accustomed to hearing them and have become familiar with them. I only updated what appeared to me to not fit with the original text in a simple, comprehensible way. While clarifying the meanings, it was necessary to rely on the Fathers of the Orthodox Church who explained the verses of the Psalms with the light of their divine inspiration and the profundity of their prayer and giving praise. “

I took the book as a blessed, precious gift and left the Holy Mountain for Lebanon, carrying a letter to His Eminence Metropolitan Elias (metropolitan of Tripoli) from Father Isaac asking his blessing to print the book.

I spent nearly two years refining the words of the book, numbering the verses according to the order followed in the Greek translation and writing out the vowels for important words so that they can be read in the Arabic language without hesitation.

I wrote to Father Isaac asking him to explain certain points and his explanation was the last written words that his hand wrote with ink before he left and was transported to the Land of the Living and the Living Word.

After I finished ordering and arranging everything that was necessary, I gave it to be printed at Pascha, so that it would be a holy, inspiring Pascha to those who accept it with faith and reverence, and a humble offering to our Lord Jesus Christ, the first and most glorious Pascha, so that He may forgive the sins of the Elder, Father Isaac the Athonite and make his memory to be eternal among the righteous and the saints, the Orthodox who have shone forth in piety and asceticism during the two thousand years since Christ walked the earth.


Hilarius said...

Do you know where one could get this book of translated Psalms?

I would be interested in having a copy.

Also - do you have a good source for the Gospels and Epistles in the liturgical Arabic normally read in the Churches - I only have a Van Dyke translation, which I understand is well-constructed Standard Arabic but isn't the Orthodox liturgical Arabic text.

In Xp,

-Eric John

Samn! said...

Hi Eric John,

You can order a copy of this Psalter from Alexia Publications (link on this site under 'Arabic Chant'), catalog number AR_SR9001. As for the Gospels and Epistles, I can't find a lectionary on sale online right now, but if I see one, I'll let you know.....