language


Translation as a Means of Grace

I taught medieval history at Wichita State University, Kansas, and I am a translator. When I get stuck in a stubborn paragraph, I say a short Latin prayer to the Holy Spirit: "Veni, Sancte Spiritus; et emitte coelitus lucis tuae radium. Veni, pater pauperum; veni, dator munerum; veni, lumen cordium." “Come, Holy Spirit, and send a ray of your heavenly light. Come, Father of the poor. Come, Giver of gifts, Come, Light of the hearts.”

In this article, I will first deal briefly with my own life, and then with one key aspect of patristic theology that continues to attract me. After discussing the practice of translation, I will answer questions that may arise.

I was a tenured member of the faculty, but my life lacked a sense of direction. And then, mindful of the words of Socrates (c. 469-399 B.C.E.) in Plato’s Apology that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” I concluded that I had not really used the gift God had given me, that of languages. I had studied ten. Instead of going to church on Sundays, I listened to classical music, or read poetry by the German poets Rilke or Hölderlin. Then, unexpectedly, a former student invited me to Pascha at St. George Orthodox Church. I converted to Orthodoxy in 1981.

I translate books out of a deep respect for Tradition. I know that various definitions may be given for that venerable word Tradition, but the one I like best is offered by the fifth-century French monk Vincent of Lérins in his renowned Commonitorium (c. 434). Using Latin, the language of his day, Vincent writes: “Id teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est.” In translation, “We use the greatest care to hold what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all” (Documents of the Christian Church, ed. by H. Bettenson [1963], 84).