A challenge for Greek language nerds! What do you make of *this*?!

One of the texts for St Nicholas of Myra is a beast and a monster.  No matter how good your Greek is, it is bafflingly hard.  Part of the problem is that it is written in a poetic style – the editor, Anrich, even marks the cadences with <> marks!  The opening section is highly rhetorical and windy; even the narrative portion, telling the tale of the three virgins for whom Nicholas found dowries, is difficult.

David Miller had a go at it, and has produced the following: but if you reckon yourself a Greek whizz, then why not see if you can work out what’s going on with the text?  David writes:

Anyway, speed of work on this was about twice as slow as on the previous ones, even with leaving seven places where I have had to take a guess from the context at meanings which were out of my reach.  I suggest that, as it’s only for your blog, you could put this bit up, complete with my notes about those seven places, and invite anyone who knows more to contribute their solutions.

Here’s the page images from Anrich’s edition:

And here is David’s final version of the translation, after much discussion in the comments.  Any further comments are very welcome!

David’s first encounter with the text produced the following email, which I reproduce for the benefit of others who may walk this way:

Now, as for Methodius ad Theodorum:

I’ve reached, in rough, halfway through para.2 (“Heimat”) – far enough to try a bit of it out on you, to see if it really is the sort of stuff you want.

Note first that, as the bit of Greek embedded in Anrich’s introduction reveals, it is designed as a poem (ποιημα).  The angle brackets that disfigure the text passim are the cadences, marked by Anrich in accordance with Meyer’s Sentence-end Law (intro. para.2), and therefore, I suggest, nothing whatever to do with us, even if I could reproduce them.

The whole of the first paragraph is the sort of wordy grovelling that you see in the preface of 17th/18th cent. English treatises, designed to flatter the dedicatee;  it expresses the author’s intention to please him by giving up writing encomia, and writing narrative instead.

Here’s the start of para.2:

“O Nicholas, God’s servant, vessel containing the perfume of the [all-holy and lifegiving] Spirit;  flower, shoot and root of the Myrans, and their fragrance, lily-white in pre-eminence, adorned like a violet in public life, red as a rose in truthfulness, greener even than the buds in self-control, and with your head crowned in grey; you have toiled to the uttermost at your work, making light of the body but keeping the spirit tightly strung, bedewed with purity and alive [lit. “foaming”] with zeal ….”  [incidentally we have yet to reach a verb – I stuck in “you have toiled” in place of the participle because I could hold out no longer – and I should probably be putting “thou” for “you”, in an attempt to reach the distant heights of Methodius’ language, which he claimed in par.1 was going to be plain and clear]

It all sounds very, um, Byzantine!


42 thoughts on “A challenge for Greek language nerds! What do you make of *this*?!

  1. Yikes! My hat off to David Miller. You could not pay be enough to tackle THAT.

    But here’s my initial two cents worth.

    In para 9, first sentence, the clause Ταῦτα λογιζομένῳ καὶ ἐξαντλοῦντι λεληθότως αὐτὸν τοῖς ἐνδεέσι καὶ χρῄζουσι doesn’t seem to have been translated.

    As for his first question: παρ᾽ὅσον generally means ‘insofar as’. And so I think David has got this about right. The way I read it (thanks to David’s hard work) is:

    A neighbour of his…had fallen…into utter destitution…insofar as [to the degree that] he was drawn (παρ’ὅσον κατέσυρτο) towards giving up his three daughters to a brothel (καὶ τρεῖς θυγατέρας αὐτῷ…εἰς τὸ πορνεῖον ἐκδοῦναι).

  2. IG I left out those words deliberately (hence “Line 9” in my heading) because they are unintelligible without the previous paragraph.

    But I think you’re right about παρ᾽ὅσον – I should change to “to the extent that”. Thank you!

    James Snapp 1: No. Ιt’s stilted in places because the original is stilted – (poetry, in fact). 2. I thought hard about bag/bundle, but came down on bundle because it includes the idea of “tying” inherent in δεσμ-.

  3. On para 9, second and third sentence:

    I am not sure that this man was planning to offer a daughter to Nicholas who then promptly pays him to marry them all off to others. How rude. But then who knows what customs were like at the time. OK seriously, I am not confident that these two sentences are quite right. I have no firm answers, just these thoughts:

    a) I think the two γάρ (‘for’) in these two sentences help break this down.

    A γάρ indicates that what comes next is an elaboration of something stated immediately before. So we start with:

    ἐβουλεύσατο γὰρ… We are about to hear an elaboration on the man being drawn to giving up his daughters. “[For] he deliberated” or “[For] he planned it himself.” This is followed by a subordinate clause (εἰ καὶ κεκώλυτο …) which is not on the mainline of the narrative but alerts us to the fact that while he really thought about it, was drawn to do it, he didn’t get to go ahead. That’s the elaboration. Here I should say that that βουλεύω doesn’t need to have an infinitive or an object. In the middle, used absolutely, it can just mean he deliberated, mulled it over, planned it himself.

    ἐπεὶ γάρ…We are now about to hear another elaboration on the man on being drawn to giving up his daughters. Here, I am tempted to read ἐπεί as ‘since’, which means here we start with a subordinate clause

    b). On the subordinate clause in the second sentence

    If κεκώλυτο (= ἐκεκώλυτο?) is a pluperfect passive then Nicholas in the dative could be a dative of agent. The man had been prevented by Nicholas.

    Whether Nicholas is a dative of agent or not, αὐτῷ could be dative of means (which is common enough with aorist passives) and refer to god. This means Nicholas is born out of God and offered/bestowed by God.

    Putting this together, the macro structure of sentences 1-3 would be something like:

    1. A man had fallen into poverty to the degree of being drawn towards giving up his daughters
    2. Elaboration: He planned it (but had been prevented by the good angel god-born god-given Nicholas)
    3. Elaboration: He had wanted to surrender them to lust (since he couldn’t and didn’t want to marry them off, even if just to survive)

    Hope that helps in some way.

  4. You’re welcome David. I must say I admire you for tackling this piece. My eyes water just looking at it.

  5. 3. Elaboration: He had wanted to surrender them to lust (since he couldn’t and didn’t want to marry them off), even if just to survive

  6. Note 4 in the text ….doesn’t match note 4 in the footnotes, and I need to think about that a bit.

    It is note 5 in the text which matches note 4 in the footnotes and there I agree with dative of agent. God guiding through the prophets is a common idea in earlier patristic literature as well.

    By the way, David, if you are reading this: I don’t know what version of Word you use or if you are aware of this, but pressing CTL-ALT-F (in that order, hold each key down once you press them) will insert a footnote for you in recent versions of Word. Saves having to manually superscript , number, etc.

  7. FWIW I agree with the translation of καταλήψομαι (note 7). καταλαμβάνω can hold that meaning in classical and koine Greek as well (on latter see Acts 4:13), also in the middle. The idea being ‘seize with the mind’. One of my Greek teachers would go on about that verb!

  8. On note 6 ὑποβάλλω…I can’t offer anything concrete. βάλλω did come to mean ‘put’ but then it would make it ‘put under’. On the other hand ὑποβάλλω does carry the idea of submission (and ‘put under’ would also fit that). Raising hands, of the soul or otherwise, to God would imply submission to God. It fits the context. When I get the chance I’ll check TLG if you haven’t already done so for similar phrases.

  9. No ‘Greek language nerd’, alas! – but note 7 reminded me of the various translations one encounters of John 1:6. (Could the end of the section even be playing consciously with the exegetical range and richness of this use of this verb?)

    The samples are delightful and fascinating – I look gratefully and eagerly forward to the full translation!

  10. IG: Thanks very much indeed for taking such trouble. I am sure you are right sbout para.9 2nd-3rd sentences; what put me off here was the use of persons as dative of agent with anything but past participles – non-classical usage. Then of course ἐβουλεύσατο γὰρ refers back to the previous ἐκδοῦναι and his as yet unfulfilled intention – that makes SO much better sense.

    Sorry about the carelessness over numbering, and thanks very much for the tip about footnotes.

    A second thought about παρ’ὅσον κατέσυρτο: my idea in “on the verge” was that παρ’ὅσον might be a late adaptation of
    classical ὅσον οὐ “all but..”. Is that likely? But κατέσυρτο is definitely pluperfect, like κεκώλυτο.

  11. As one nearly illiterate in Greek, I wondered whether anything interesting would appear from just Googling the words at issue.

    On παρ’ὅσον. It turns up in Viger’s Greek Idiom. But this all looks classical.

    ἀνθυφηχεῖ doesn’t return any hits *at all*.

    On ὑποβάλλω, I find a note in an old German “Handwörterbuch der griechischen Sprache”, p.1254: “under den Fuss geben, angeben, an die Hand geben, eingeben”, which at least involves hands.

  12. Hi David,

    You’re welcome. I just offered some options as I know sometimes when you stare at something for a while, it’s difficult to look at it a different way. I can’t claim I am right, though!

    I haven’t looked at your revised translation yet but in response to your comment:

    Aorist passives can take dative of means. I am sure grammarians would argue that these are not quite datives of agency but I am not competent to comment on that!. But I think what you had in that second sentence is also possible: God born and a God send to him (the man). I just didn’t think the man was offering any daughter to Nicholas. It didn’t fit the context. And so I offered my own quick analysis the syntax as another way of looking at it.

    ‘On the verge’ wasn’t too far off the mark either, in my opinion.

    I do admire you for tackling this. It’d do my head in!

  13. Ha! Roger, I emailed this for you to send David an hour ago:

    Nigel Wilson (who has edited a lot of Byzantine texts) renders παρὰ τοσοῦτον as ‘insofar as’ on p109 here:


    Which may help with παρ’ὅσον. But of course, context always decides.

    Seems we thought to do the same. I will check TLG now.

    And I just realised I probably misread David’s last comment. Just ignore me David!

  14. The way I would think of παρ’ὅσον is this.
    If you accept that prepositions originally carried a spatial sense (which is what I hold to), and when then extended by the spatialisaion of time, or extended metaphorically then if one goes back to the basic meaning of παρά it is: ‘beside, next to’.
    ὅσον is ‘as much (as)/as far (as)… etc.’ or ‘so much/so far…etc.’
    So παρ’ὅσον = ‘beside as much’.
    How much? Beside as much X. As much as X. To the extent as X. So far as X.

  15. Many instances of παρ’ὅσον in TLG but often for texts which would be have readily available tranlsations.
    Eusebius Demonstratio 4.19
    καὶ Ἰησοῦς ὠνομάζετο, παρ’ ὅσον τῆς τῶν ἀνθρωπίνων
    ψυχῶν ἰάσεώς τε καὶ θεραπείας χάριν τὴν πάροδον εἰς ἡμᾶς ἐποιεῖτο.

    Ferrar’s translation on your site just reads “and was named Jesus, because He made His approach to us to cure and to heal the souls of men.”

    Now that’s not helpful. Heh.

  16. Deipnosophistae 15.6 has a funny instance,

    τοῦτο δὲ λέγοντες παρ᾽ ὅσον τῶν ἐρωμένων ἐμέμνηντο, ἀφιέντες ἐπ᾽ αὐτοῖς τοὺς λεγομένους κοσσάβους.

    Yonge also translates it ‘because’.

    And the poet uses λέγοντες here, because they used to utter the names of their sweethearts as they threw the cottabi on the saucers.

    *bites tongue*

  17. I just read the Greek and David’s translation for para 12 again. I wonder if we have the wrong subjects/objects for the verbs. And whehter it is possible the hands don’t belong to ὑποβάλλω…

  18. IG What other possible subject and/or object for ὑποβάλλω are you thinking of?

  19. Hi David, I just sent you an email. I think the hands of the soul may be an epithet for Nicholas.

  20. Is it really necessary to not be literal with “foaming”? I mean, that makes complete sense in even modern English, and I doubt there would be anyone who would not understand what it is getting across. In fact, it sounds way better even in English to use “foaming”. I really dislike it when lots of translations avoid literal stuff to much. (In the worse cases, they can always add some italics to make the ‘idoim’ more clear if it is not.)

    One example which I have seen in other texts being translated (not necessarily on your site), is that there’s no reason not to literally translate “he gave them his right hand” to “he welcomed them” or “he greeted them”. If someone really cannot understand what is going on there (which it seems beyond obvious to me even without it), they could say “he gave them his right hand [in greeting]” with “in greeting” in italics, which would not surpress any of the author’s original thought and would make it clear to the reader of the translation that something was added.)

  21. Andrew H.
    I avoided “foaming” – after thought, and giving the literal meaning – because it is too much associated with “foaming at the mouth”, and is never used in the sense required here.

    But I’m probably not literal enough for your taste, overall. I prefer to finish up with something that sounds like something that English people would actually write, wherever possible.

  22. Hi Andrew,

    I think David made the right choice here for the reasons he stated. Foaming with zeal has a negative connotation. Like a fanatic. There is no hint of that in this text. Added to that too is the difficulty that not all English speakers share the same idioms. Languages are as localised as they are international. David has to make his translation accessible to an international English speaking audience, who language is tempered by local cultural factors etc.

    A side note: in translation theory (yes, there is such a beast), ‘literal translation’ means translating the source language into the idomatic or grammatic equivalent of the target language, which is technically what David has done. What you are suggesting seems to be something more akin to calque, which translators sometimes do (even ancient translators) but that also risks rendering the translation virtually unreadable to a native speaker of the target language.

    I think David has captured the floweriness – the hyperbole that is so typical of hagiography, and the charm of this piece well – as well as its meaning. What David is doing is pretty awesome and something very few people in the world can do. My hat off to him.

  23. How about “bubbling”? Bubbling with zeal puts it across in a more flattering way, and “foaming” and “bubbling” and “boiling” often seem to come up together in cooking contexts in many languages. (Though I don’t know if Greek is one!)

    Anyway, sea foam is made of little (temporary) bubbles, right?

  24. The other usual connotation for “foaming” (although again I don’t know if it applies to this word in Greek) is a horse’s sweaty coat, which “foams” because horses’ hides have natural saponin compounds that make their sweat more visible. So I suppose it’s possible that he’s “sweaty with zeal,” whether or not that is flattering! But since humans really don’t sweat that way, it doesn’t seem like a probably sort of poetic image, unless the whole passage was using imagery about horses. 🙂

  25. Might the ‘foaming’ have something of the sense of ‘ebullient’? Is it a typical description or set phrase, or, instead, an unusual, vivid image (bubbling like a spring or stream, an image of ‘living water’)?

    I am delighted by the vividness of “Glowing with philanthropy like a light from God, through a window, a source of light, he extended to his neighbour a ray of help and a rescuing hand.” It reminds me of St. Nicholas hanging his cloak on a sunbeam in the other recent story. Is this ‘extending a ray’ imagery typically generally hagiographical or typically specifically Nicholasian (or whatever the proper adjective)?

  26. It may be some sort of motif, David LD. I was asking myself a similar question in regards to ‘hands of the soul’ which I suggested to David M may be an epithet for Nicholas (it’s a dual form that can be either a nominative or accusative…; if a nominative…it’d be apposite to Nicholas)

    And the final suggestion I gave David M. is what if it is not ἀνθυπέχω but ἀνθυπ-ηχέω ‘sound in return, echo back’? That’s also fit the ‘commandment within the commandment’ idea.

    Again, no claims that I am right. My two Aussie cents (except they did away with cents here a while ago).

  27. ἀνθυπ-έχω ‘have in turn’ or ἀνθυπ-χέω ‘pour in turn’ would be the only two that have an imperfect of εχει even though I like ἀνθυπ-ηχέω ‘sound in turn’.

    So if it is ἀνθυπ-χέω it would read something like:

    …carried out a commandment within a commandment, by pouring back into the old one which said “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’, the Lord’s new and more perfect: “And when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”

  28. Nevertheless, Ι am going with ἀνθυφηχεῖ = ἀνθυπηχει < ἀνθυπ-ηχέω ‘sound in turn’.

  29. Thanks again, IG! I am still unhappy about the φ in ἀνθυφηχεῖ, but it is far nearer to ἀνθυπ-ηχέω than to
    ἀνθυπέχω. and there is authority for ὑπηχέω in the sense of “respond”. I have changed the text.

    Comments on the rest will follow when I have time.

  30. It’s a tough one isn’t it, David? But π and φ are both labials so that’s something, I suppose. (That’s about the extent of my knowledge of phonology). ὑπηχέω is a good find.

  31. The one point I can’t agree with in IG’s splendidly probing and extremely helpful set of suggestions is the idea that “the two hands of the soul” could mean Nicholas himself. If it had been “the two hands of the spirit (πνεῦμα)” it might possibly have meant that, taking Nicholas as the Holy Spirit’s human agent; but a ψυχή must belong to someone human, mustn’t it? And there is another objection: it leaves ὑποβάλλω without an object, though that compound always seems to be used transitively; and again, what on earth would it mean?

    So, still tentatively, I stick to my original translation, taking Nicholas to be throwing up his hands in delight within himself, with the prefix ὑπο- implying “secretly” (LSJ III). Ii bothers me that I can find no authority for that, but it’s not the only word, or meaning, in all this that isn’t in any dictionary I know. So it’s still on the latest edition, in hope that someone else can help.

  32. Hi David, agree that is the problem. And I haven’t found a referent or parallel for ‘hands of the soul’ anyway. So I defer to your wiser judgement! Glad to have helped. I’ve learnt a lot in the process, too.

  33. This is about two years late and probably useless by now, but anyway: there’s a paper by M. Hinterberger “Wortschöpfung und literarischer Stil bei Methodios I.” (in E. Trapp and S. Schönauer, “Lexicologica Byzantina”, V&R 2008) that discusses Methodius’ vocabulary; it includes examples from the Enkomion and could be useful here. On p. 134 fn. 60 Hinterberger notes that the φ in ἀνθυφηχεῖ (which he translates ‘erklingen’, p. 142, thus agreeing that it’s from ἠχέω), though anomalous, seems to be confirmed by ὑφήχησις in Methodius’ Life of Euthymios:

    Diese seltsamen (weil sich das φ eigentlich nicht erklären läßt, man würde analog zu ἀντηχ- oder ἀπηχ- auch ὑπηχ- erwarten) Wörter bestätigen sich so gegenseitig. Laut TLG findet sich noch das Verb ὑφηχέω bei Photios (Bibliotheke 237 [Bekker 310b20]).

    [But Bekker’s edition of Photius actually reads ὑφηγῆσαι, sc. a different verb altogether; the TLG is in error here.]

Leave a Reply