Working with pre-critical Latin texts

Which comes first?  The text or the translation?  The question is not as simple as it seems.

There is no finer way to come to grips with a text than by preparing an exact translation of it into another language.  This forces the translator to look at every case ending, every -ae and -um; every verb tense and mood and voice.  It highlights, very rapidly, areas of the text that have some kind of awkwardness about them.

I once knew a Swedish scholar who was tasked with preparing a critical edition of one of the works of Tertullian – I no longer remember which one.  He began by translating an existing edition into English (!), very literally.  This gave him a word-by-word knowledge of the text, which is why he did it.

My own efforts to translate John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas have reminded me of this forcefully.  Some portions of the text are very much harder to translate than others.

In some cases the text itself – the Falconius edition of 1751 – seems suspect.  When this happens, I increasingly find myself consulting the Mombritius edition of 1478, and the Mai edition of 1840.  I have, indeed, come to mistrust the Falconius text.  But along the way, I find that interesting things emerge.

I have found that the Mai edition often simply omits a “difficult” sentence altogether.  The first three chapters of the text are particularly difficult, and I see that Mai simply omits most of it.  Clearly the scribe of whatever manuscript lies behind the Mai edition felt exactly as I did about the text; and didn’t propose to strain his brain with it.  Omitted sentences include all those which simply transcribe a Greek word.  These are a source of difficulty to the Mai scribe.  I do understand, indeed.  At one point John uses the word “heroes” with the meaning “bishops”!  I wonder what a Greek dictionary would show?

For John was translating an awful Greek text, the “Methodius ad Theodorum”, which is beyond my abilities.  I suspect that the two – Methodius and John – need to be edited together.  But my long years of corporate experience make me well aware of “scope creep”, as a risk to any project, and I refuse to be side-tracked.  My translation will be of John, and John only.

It would also be possible to start doing some text critical work on the text.  After all, a small number of manuscripts are already online.  The Bollandist website lists a good many.

I have already OCR’d the texts of Falconius, Mombritius and Mai, and created Word documents of them.  What I might do is to run a text comparison on these, and see what comes out.  It would be purely for fun, of course, but it might be interesting.

If only one could OCR the manuscripts.  But that said, today I found in one sentence of Falconius three OCR errors.  This did delay me rather.

As with everything I do, I believe that whatever I do will be useful to others; and whatever I leave undone, well, the world is no worse off in this than it was before.

But clearly it would be possible for me to continue this, and produce some form of critical text.  It might not be very good, depending on how much time and effort I devoted to it.  But in this case, the translation would be the father of the text.  Yet here again, to produce a proper critical edition of John the Deacon would certainly require knowledge of the Greek.  It would not be a simple task.

I shall not go down this route.  As I usually do, I will include the text that I have translated.  This will be a somewhat modified version of Falconius.  But I won’t go further than that.


A small personal amendment to the Lord’s prayer

A few weeks ago I was asked to attend a memorial service for someone that I never met in my life.  Such are family commitments.  The service was for a child, and was every bit as sentimental and content-free as I had feared.

I have never suffered from any urge whatsoever to be “religious”.  As I endured the empty words, inevitably the temptation emerged to, shall we say, modify them slightly.

This got me into trouble when we reached and recited the Lord’s Prayer:

And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.  The bastards.

I did not realise that I had said this aloud, but the lady sitting next to me tugged at my sleeve and firmly instructed me to be quiet!

But actually, isn’t that exactly what Our Lord is asking us to do?  To forgive the bastards who did us an injury.  To forgive those we think of in such terms?

All the same, I don’t think that I will be asked along to another such endurance test soon.  Thankfully!


A bit of web searching for BHL 6106 = chapter 12 of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas

Alright, I got tempted.  I did a google search on BHL 6106, the chapter of John of the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas that I am currently translating, or rather prevaricating about translating!

Almost instantly I came up with two manuscripts at the French National Library.  The first is 12th century, Ms. BNF Paris Latin 5573.  The splendid catalogue – which came up with the match – is here.  At the bottom is a link to a full digital manuscript, fully downloadable.    The catalogue tells me which folio to look on.  Magic.

The next was BNF Paris Latin 18303, 11th century, and really rather attractive!  Catalogue is here.  I downloaded it and scrolled to fol. 37, and there is the start of my text:

BNF Paris Latin 18303 fol. 37r.

Magic.  This sort of thing is so easy.  Everyone should do it!

Well done the BNF for getting this stuff up there and out there.


From my diary

I’ve settled back down to translating the Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon.  The new and improved Google Translate for Latin has made it a far easier task.  The word order was exotic, and I had to crawl through each sentence, one by one, decrypting each word.  This was tedious and time-consuming.  Now at least I have a very decent guide to each sentence, and can concentrate on individual points.

As happens sometimes, I have ended up translating the chapters – or readings, for I think these are probably readings for church services – in reverse order.  I have done chapters 15, 14 and 13, and am now wading through chapter 12.

The later chapters are of dubious authenticity.  Chapter 12 is the first – starting from the end – to have transliterations of Greek words in it, for proper names.  This reflects the fact that the Life was translated from the Greek Methodius ad Theodorum, in Naples in the 9th century.

The text is the 1751 edition of Falconius, which is fairly dodgy.  At points I think it must be corrupt.  Curiously this does not bother Google Translate at all, which laughs at spelling mistakes etc.  One word didn’t feature in any dictionary that I have, but it did not stop Google.  I would guess that Falconius has printed some odd medieval spelling.

Once I have a complete draft translation, I think that I shall have to look at manuscripts.  It is really curious that no critical edition exists.  I believe that several manuscripts are online, and it might be useful to look at these.

I also need to follow up whatever bibliographical hints I can get from the Bibliographia Hagiographica Latina.  Simply googling the BHL references will probably lead me to a few sources.

I think there is a full Italian translation of the text by Pasquale Corsi in La traslazione di San Nicola: le fonti, Bari: Biblioteca di San Nicola: Centro Studi Nicolaiani (1987) Series: Studi e testi / Centro Studi Nicolaiani 8.  But much Italian scholarship is ridiculously hard to access here, and little of it is online, or has attracted the attention of the PDF pirates.   However I gather that book might be available from the Centro Studi Nicolaiana, so I have just popped them an email to enquire.

Now back to John the Deacon!


The April Poems in the Chronography of 354

Only a single manuscript of the Chronography contains an image for the month of April.  This is MS Vienna 3146, which never contains the poems.  (I am told that the same image reappears in the Leiden MS Voss.Lat.Q 79, a manuscript of the Aratea!  But this I have not seen)  So we are reliant on other unillustrated manuscripts, or the indirect tradition, for the poems.  Here is the 4-line poem (tetrastich):

Contectam myrto Venerem veneratur Aprilis,
lumen veris habet, quo nitet alma Thetis
cereus et dextra flammas diffundit odoras;
balsama nec desunt, quis redolet Paphie.

April worships a Venus robed with myrtle,
He has the light of spring, in which nurturing Thetis blooms,
And the waxen candle on the right diffuses the scents of flame;
Nor is balsam wanting, of which the Paphian (Venus) is redolent.

The 2-line verse (distich), preserved in the St Gall unillustrated manuscript, is as follows:

Caesareae Veneris mensis, quo floribus arva
prompta virent, avibus quo sonat omne nemus.

This is the month of Caesar’s Venus, in which the fields are green,
resplendent with flowers, in which every wood resounds with birdsong.

Divjak and Wischmeyer add an interesting comment, that the tetrastich verse is about the relationship of Venus to April.  The picture shows an older man dancing with castanets in front of a male cult statue.  The man is perhaps a Gallus named “April”, dancing before a statue of Attis, the “Venus” of the Magna Mater cult.

The 16th century Vienna manuscript 3416 (online here) gives us the image:

Vienna 3146, f. 5v – April

The figure is treating on what look like a set of pipes, perhaps belonging to an organ.

(For more information on this series of posts, please see the Introduction to the Poems of the Chronography of 354).


An Indian delegate at the First Council of Nicaea

I heard an interesting story yesterday.

Also recently discovered that the Indian Christian tradition was so well established by AD 325 that the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea had at least 1 delegate from the Indian Church.   … “India” was a more nebulous entity than the modern nation, so it may not have been within the confines of modern India, but “John the Persian, of all Persia and great India” is recorded at Nicea. Other interactions with “India” are described, like Pantaenus in 180.

The Pantaenus is from Eusebius.  But who is “John the Persian, of all Persia and great India”?

I quickly found an article by A. Mingana, “The Early Spread of Christianity in India”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 10 (1926), 435-514 (online here), which on p.495 reads:

The second bishop of which history makes mention is John, who in the Council of Nicaea of 325 signs himself “ bishop of the Great India and Persia.”[2] If historical this John must have presumably been the bishop of a town in North India, close to the frontiers of Persia proper.

In the signatures to the decrees of the Council of Nicaea, as reproduced by Cyzicenus,[3] the same entry is found : “Joannes Persa, Ecclesiis in tota Persia et Magna India.” In 1908 [4] I treated as a fable the presence in the Council of Nicaea of this John the Persian, and for Persia I substituted Perrhe, on the Upper Euphrates. Against this view may be urged the fact that Eusebius of Caesarea was present at the Council, and that in his De Vita Constantini,[5] he actually makes mention of a bishop of Persia as present in the Council: “Quidam etiam ex Perside episcopus Synodo interfuit.” The presence, therefore, in the Council of Nicaea of a bishop John, from one of the numerous sees of Persia of the beginning of the fourth century, preferably Riwardashir, is not altogether impossible. Michael the Syrian expressly states in his history [6] that this John the Persian attended the Council of Nicaea. We must admit, however, that in a passage of Michael the Syrian quoted above, the expression “Great India” is used of Ethiopia and Arabia Felix combined. Speaking of the Council of Nicaea, Barsalibi, another well-known West Syrian writer says : “Among the Fathers of the Council Jacob of Nisibin and Ephrem his pupil, Ithalaha of Edessa, Mara of Macedonopolis, and John of Persia, were Syrians.”[1]

2. Labbé’s Sacrosancta Concilia, ii. 235. …
3. Pat. Gr. lxxxv, 1342 sq.  The author, however, is not very reliable.

This is no doubt the origin of our story.

“Cyzicenus” is Gelasius of Cyzicus, History of the Council of Nicaea ( = CPG 6034).  A quick search on the web found volume 2 of Labbé, but this (in column 227) turned out merely to reproduce the text of Gelasius of Cyzicus, book 2, chapter 28 (link here).

Gelasius was given a critical edition for the first time by G. C. Hansen, Anonyme Kirchengeschichte (Gelasius Cyzicenus, CPG 6034), de Gruyter, Berlin-New York, 2002; GCS N. F. 9.  This, being a German publication, printed without translation, of an obscure text which the editor chose to suggest is anonymous, is naturally accessible to almost nobody.  (I saw a copy offered for sale online for nearly $200!)   Luckily a kind correspondent supplied me with the page (p.85).  The chapter is 28, rather than the 27 of Labbé.  The entry for John duly appears on line 22.

Dr Hansen suggests (p.xi) that the work was composed around 480 AD.  This date is no doubt based upon the contents which include discussion of ecclesiastical controversies of a period rather later than Nicaea.  He also suggests that the work is a compilation of earlier writers, including the lost Gelasius of Caesarea, Theodoret, Philip of Side, and so forth.

I’ve never looked at the ancient lists of delegates.  An article that might address this is E. Honigmann, “The Original Lists of the Members of the Council of Nicaea , the Robber Synod and the Council of Chalcedon”, Byzantion 16 (1942-1943), pp. 20-80, but this also is inaccessible to me, since my JSTOR access via my old university does not include it.


Google Translate Latin – how it was, and how it is

In 2019 I prepared to work on translating John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas.  I created a separate file for each chapter.  In each file I had the full text of the chapter.  Beneath that, on alternate lines, interleaved, was a sentence of the Latin and then the Google Translate output.  It is interesting to rerun that Latin and compare the raw output.

Here’s the start of chapter 13:

Imperator autem audiens famam pacis et victoriae, repletus gaudio, obviam eis exiit, cum magna multitudine populorum, et Magistro militum, et omni coetu utriusque sexus, et gloriose quasi victores suscipiens;

Google Translate Latin 2019:

The Emperor, having heard of the fame of the victory of peace, and, filled with joy, that he went out to meet them, with the great host of peoples, and the captain of the guard, and to all the congregation of men and women, and of the glorious, as it were the victors, he took it;

Google Translate Latin 2022:

The emperor, on hearing the news of peace and victory, was filled with joy, and went out to meet them, with a large number of people, and with the captain of the soldiers, and with every assembly of both sexes, and receiving them with distinction as conquerors;


magnifici in Palatio eius fuerunt.

Google Translate Latin 2019:

There were magnificent in Palatine.

Google Translate Latin 2022:

There were magnificent men in his palace.


Coacti autem quidam, et invidia diaboli ducti, caeperunt nova consilia exquirere, quatenus illos morti traderent:

Google Translate Latin 2019:

And some were forced and led envy of the devil, began to seek out new plans, highlighting them to death;

Google Translate Latin 2022:

But some, being compelled, and led by the envy of the devil, began to seek out new counsels, that they might deliver them to death:

And so on.  I should add that this is the raw, unamended output in both cases.

We are very, very fortunate.



From my diary

I have returned to work on making a translation of John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas.  In July 2019 I prepared a Latin text.  The edition of Falconius, in 1751 seems to be all that there is!   During November and December 2020 I translated a couple of chapters with immense pain and huge labour – the structure of the sentences is hard to work with – and then I set it aside and went off to do other things.  At one point last night I was seriously contemplating simply abandoning the job.

How things have changed.  Last night I jumped to the end and passed chapter 15 through the new and greatly improved Google Translate for Latin.  It did a  magnificent job, far better than I could have done, and did it in seconds.  Of course it needed manual adjustment, but it was sobering how much better it was.  In half an hour the chapter was complete.

At one point Falconius printed in the text, “Ab atis dirigas”, in the middle of a prayer asking the Lord to guide the monks, etc.  This was beyond me, until I put the sentence into the standard Google search and found a parallel text with the same sentence, where it read “Abbatis dirigas” – “may you guide the abbots”!  Wonderful!

Falconius’ text is less than ideal.  This morning I was looking at chapter 14 – I’ve already done about half of it using the same tools – and I suffered a bit from him printing “penniculum” rather than “peniculum”, a sponge.  There is no critical edition.  Falconius seems to be the only edition of any sort, except for an incunable by Mombritius which does not contain these final chapters.  But there are manuscripts online – more than Falconius had -, and I have Google search.  The job can be done.

It is 10:20 here, and I must go out.  This afternoon I shall return to John the Deacon.  I’m looking forward to it.


The Acts of the Council of Carthage in 397 and the Council of Hippo in 393 – online in English

It is done.  I have finally finished the task of creating a translation of the Acts of the Council of Carthage in 397, incorporating the remains of the Acts of the Council of Hippo in 393.  The purpose of this exercise is to show how canon 36 of Hippo, which lists the canon of scripture, actually fits into the other material from the council.  This is not a bunch of men voting on the Word of God, as is often crudely supposed. Instead it is a set of administrative regulations, which could be – and were – revised, summarised, and otherwise improved.

Here are the files.  They are also available on here.

As usual, this material is public domain.  Use it in any way you choose, personal, education, or commercial.

These two files do not seem like very much, as the output from the labour of most of a year, but they are what they are.  I need to thank those who commented on the original blog posts, especially Bill North and Diego, for rescuing me from many a misunderstanding.


The Pseudo-Chrysostomica database is now online

Back in 2017 a project began (see a copy of the announcement here) to create a database of all the texts which in the manuscripts are wrongly attributed to John Chrysostom.  This is a very large number of texts – more than a thousand -, mainly Greek but also in Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Georgian and many other languages.  In the medieval period ancient works that had no known author quite often ended up attributed to the main Greek Father, John Chrysostom.

So this deposit of material contains many things, often of great interest, and there are many texts by many authors.  Nearly all the works of Chrysostom’s enemy, Severian of Gabala, ended up as pseudo-Chrystostomica, for instance.

The  project is led by Sever J. Voicu, the expert on all things pseudo-Chrysostomian, who is based in the Vatican.

Today I received an email from him:

Dear colleagues and friends:

The Pseudo-Chrysostomica database is now online at:

The site is under construction. Suggestions welcome. Please write to: [email address]


I won’t put the email here, in these days of spam-spam-spam, but there is a contact link on the website.

This is very welcome news indeed.  At the moment the data contained in it is limited, but it is still good.  The more information that can be loaded into this, the better.  I don’t know what the plans for enhancement are.

Anyway, I thought that I would try it out!  This is not any kind of comprehensive test – just me doing a quick push of a few buttons!

I set Author=Severian, and searched.  The website gave:

The following authors matched your search query:

Severian of Gabala

And below that, some more material which I will talk about in a moment.

The “Severian of Gabala” link itself was of the form   It would be better if the author key was a unique meaningful string like author=SeverianOfGabala rather than a “magic number” like “7” – possibly an automated row ID in the database, and therefore subject to change if the database is unloaded and reloaded?

Clicking on it gives a very satisfactory list of works and links:

The authorities are linked to, and you can get a very good idea of what is available.  I deeply approve.

But I nearly didn’t find any of this.  If you don’t click on that link – perhaps because, like me, you don’t realise that it is a link – and just scroll down, then you get an interesting but unusual search using pie charts:

A table of works by Severian appears.  I initially assumed that this was the result of my query, not the link above.  But it seems to be a very abbreviated list, if you look at it in Chrome on a PC, as I did.  It did not contain De Pace, for instance.  This I found very misleading before I discovered that I could click on “Severian of Gabala”.  I have only discovered, as I type, that in fact this is a scrollable box!  I think the scroll bar needs to be wider.

Moving on, I clicked on the first link in the table, which led to a page with the various language versions of “Quomodo animam…”.  Clicking on the Greek gave me some brief but useful information.  The publication of the Greek was given as “Savile”, but this name is not hyperlinked to anything.  I suppose most people getting this far will know about the Savile edition of Chrysostom’s works. The bibliography is at the moment in a PDF, which is fine for now.

The Slavic version of the same work had:

  • Publication: \\Makarij, Nov.

which looks like a formatting error of some sort, and no doubt will be fixed quickly.  (I bet the developers hate me already!  But any fresh pair of eyes will find something – that’s just how life is)

I looked at the material for De pace (here).  This gives Greek and Georgian language versions, and referenced to the sources for the text; although I seem to remember that the Patrologia Graeca also contains an abbreviated Latin translation?  I was actually rather excited to learn about the Georgian version!  Someone with Georgian skills needs to add stuff to that page – it cries out for additions!

And that, in truth, is part of the merit of such a database.  We can see what we cannot see.  In fact it makes your fingertips itch, to add stuff.  Which is what it is all about.

Recommended.  I must add it to my links!