Another AI Translation Experiment: Old Slavonic

This post at Three Pillars Blog came to my attention yesterday.  Scott Cooper is experimenting with Google Translate and ChatGPT AI to see whether we can get anything useful out of Old Church Slavonic.

As you can see, Google’s language detection isn’t entirely useless with OCS. Apparently early Cyrillic and it’s modern Bulgarian equivalent, as well as some of the vocabulary, are similar enough that Google “detects” Bulgarian and renders both individual words and some complete sentences. In a pinch, it seems there are OCS dictionaries one could slog through, cobbling together what Google can’t. That sounds rather miserable. ChatGPT, as we’ll see, was able to use my description of the text as Old Church Slavonic, and produce a full translation. What follows is information on the source text, an of outline the results, and a comparison to an actual human translation.

He’s picked an Old Slavonic text which is online, and indeed already has an English translation online, and run ChatGPT against it.

Obviously we have to ask – is that translation already in the ChatGPT database?  If so, the AI translation will not in fact be doing anything much.  What we need is some u untranslated Old Slavonic.

But very interesting!


Ephrem Graecus – Published English translations coming soon

Ephrem the Syrian is the most famous of the Syriac writers; but there is a mass of material in Greek attributed to him.  Some of it is translations of the Syriac, but most is clearly not.  It looks as if there was a fashion for writing in his style at one point.

Unfortunately this large splodge of unexplored material has never been critically edited.  Instead it was collected by Assemani in the 18th century from manuscripts, and more or less printed as he found it.  Some of the texts are clearly excerpts from others of the texts.  Assemani gave a Latin translation.

Since then we’ve had Phrantzolas reprint the text in 1988-98 in 7 volumes, with a modern Greek translation.  That was a step forward.

But now I read that a complete English translation is in progress!  An English translation is indeed the obvious next step.  Making it easier to dip into the texts will cause more young scholars to start doing so, and in turn to start creating scholarship about it.  Little by little Ephrem Graecus is being opened up!

Via the St Ephrem: The Greek Corpus site:

Published Translations of Ephrem Graecus Coming Soon

That’s it. That’s the news. A translation of the Greek writings attributed to St Ephrem the Syrian is currently underway with St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. They are currently working on vol. 1 (of seven). Look for it probably in 2024.

The site owner told me:

A friend of mine here in the US is working on it. I had planned to do a volume of the most (historically) “important” texts, but he was inspired to do the whole collection, so I yielded to him. It will be very good to finally put out there

This is massively good news.  Wonderful!


Latin translations of the Greek fathers in Dark Ages monastic manuscript inventories

How widely known were the Greek fathers in the Latin world during the Dark Ages?  How accessible were they?

One possible source of information is the surviving inventories of medieval libraries.  A collection of these was printed by G. Becker in 1885 as Catalogi Bibliothecarum Antiqui, and it makes interesting reading indeed.  In fact if you want to get an idea of what a medieval library looked like, this is the best thing you can read.  Catalogue after catalogue, monastery after monastery.

If we do a search on “Origen”, we start finding results almost at once.  The seventh catalogue, from Fontanelle, ca. 823-33 AD, has four volumes of his homilies as entries 78-81.  The next catalogue (8), from Reichenau, at much the same time, is better still:

Homilies of Chrysostom on Matthew; Origen on Genesis, on Romans; and books from the Clementine Recognitions.  All of these are, of course, Latin translations.  It raises the question of just what the Latin world of that period had access to.

Back in 2021 an interesting article appeared in the Downside Review by Scott G. Bruce: “Veterum vestigia patrum: The Greek Patriarchs in the Manuscript Culture of Early Medieval Europe”.[1]  The abstract is worth quoting:

This article draws attention to the availability of Latin translations of Greek patristic literature in western reading communities before the year 800 through a survey of the contents of hundreds of surviving manuscripts from the Merovingian and Carolingian periods. An examination of the presence of the translated works of eastern church fathers in the 8th-century florilegium known as The Book of Sparks (Liber scintillarum) and monastic library catalogs from the early 9th century corroborates the impression left by the manuscript evidence. Taken together, these sources allow us to gauge the popularity of particular eastern authors among Latin readers in early medieval Europe and to weigh the influence and importance of Greek patristics in the western monastic tradition.

But the abstract is too modest: the author has surveyed nearly 1,800 Latin manuscripts created before 800 AD – a massive task.  His conclusion:

In conclusion, the legacy of the ancient fathers, in particular those of Greek origin, was an important aspect of the intellectual history of early medieval monasticism that has received little attention in modern scholarship. This article has laid the foundation for the study of the reception of the Greek fathers in the medieval Latin tradition. Its survey of the nearly 1800 Latin manuscripts created before or around the year 800 has shown that doctrinal, devotional, and historical works attributed to eastern Christian authors survived in relative abundance in western monastic libraries. Latin reading communities favored especially the biblical commentaries of Origen, the salvation history of Eusebius, and the homilies and sermons of John Chrysostom, but other Christian Greek authors like Basil of Caesarea, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ephrem the Syrian, and Gregory of Nazianzos informed their thinking as well. An examination of the early 8th-century Book of Sparks and Carolingian book inventories from the first decades of the 9th century corroborated the evidence of the manuscripts, and also uncovered the presence of lesser known works of Eastern origin that attracted a western audience, including a spiritual guide by Evagrius of Pontus. … The Christological controversies of the late 8th century raised the currency of the Greek fathers even higher among Latin readers like Alcuin, who looked back to the 5th-century east for a language of authority with which to defend traditional Christian doctrine against the misguided interpretation of Christ’s nature put forward by the Adoptionists.

The article is very readable, and is recommended.

Note the presence of Ephraim the Syrian?  This is CPG 4080 = CPL 1143, De die judicii, on the Day of Judgement, found in the catalogue of St Riquier (Becker 11, p.27).  There’s an English translation online here.

Looking in Becker, I find mention of a Discourses to Monks in Whitby ca. 1180 (Becker 109, p.226), but all is not as it seems.  for Becker gives his source:

Edwards. Memoirs of libraries. (London 1859.) p. 109-111 excerpsit ex Young History of Whitby and Streoneshald Abbey {1817} p.918-920.

and the latter is accessible online.  On p.919 here we find that the entry is merely “Effrem” – the rest is speculation by the 19th century editor.  The work supposed here is CPG 3942 Exhortation to the Monks of Egypt (Sermones paraenetici ad monachos Aegypti), the first ten of which are online in English here.  (The translation site has gone, and is now preserved only at

Later in Becker there is yet another “liber, qui vocatur Ephrem” – a book which is called ‘Ephrem’ – as entry 37 of Stederburg (Becker 124, p.253, 12th c.).

It’s very useful to know just what was available in Dark Ages Europe.

  1. [1]Vol. 139, p.6-23.  DOI: 10.1177/0012580621994704