Friday, January 25, 2008

Prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian

From my correspondence: a question and answer about the Lenten Prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian:

Q: I was just now wondering (for a small translation that I'm doing) about the differences in the renderings of the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim. In Greek, the terms seem to be: sloth, [excessive] curiosity, lust for power, and idle talk on the one hand, and self-control/abstinence, humility, patience, and love on the other. The English I've been using for years, which presumably comes from a Slavonic version, has "faint-heartedness" (sometimes 'despondency') instead of curiosity, and "chastity" instead of self-control. If St. Ephraim's prayer was originally composed in Syriac, do you know where these various translations come from? Or, alternatively, could you suggest to me sources to consult?

A: It first needs to be said that only a portion of the writings that have come down to us in Greek (and subsequently, through translation from the Greek, into other languages) were in fact written by St Ephraim. Scholars tend to differentiate between the authentic works of St Ephraim (composed, of course, in Syriac) and the "Greek Ephraim," meaning works in Greek that have been ascribed to St Ephraim. The "Prayer of St Ephraim" is usually considered to belong to the latter. To my knowledge an original Syriac text of this prayer does not exist.

1. Periegia/unyniia

The Greek word translated as "idle curiosity" is "periergia," where the (modern) Slavonic has "unyniia," which translates as "despondency," and corresponds to the Greek "akedia," one of the principle sins. "Faint-heartedness" is another possible translation. In today's terms we might think of it as "depression." This Slavonic reading (that is, despondency rather than curiosity) goes back to the earliest Pre-Nikonian texts, so seems to have been there from the beginning. Fr Ephrem Lash asks: "Does this go back to a different original, or is it a reflection of differing national temperaments?" I'm afraid I don't have an answer. (Although it must be granted that Greeks are hopelessly lazy and curious, while Russians are famously gloomy.) The Romanian version, incidentally, follows the Greek

2. sophrosune/tselomudria

The Slavonic word translated as "chastity" is "tselomudria," which could be more literally translated as "whole-mindedness." This is in fact a literally translation of the Greek "sophrosune." Perhaps this could be translated (from either Slavonic or Greek) as "integrity." "Self-control," I suppose, is another possible reading. But, in any case, there is no divergence between the Greek and Slavonic here.

It should also be noted that there are at least three different Slavonic readings: the Pre-Nikonian (still used by today's Old Ritualists), the Kievan version of 1639 (used today mainly by Uniate churches), and the Nikonain version of 1656. All three of these readings use "unyniia."

See also: Ephrem Lash, "The Greek Writings Attributed to Saint Ephrem the Syrian," in Abba: The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West: Festschrift for Bishop Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, ed by John Behr, Andrew Louth, and Dimitri Conomos.

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