Styles of translation – an example from Isidore of Pelusium

A friend has been typing up the Greek text of letter 212 of Isidore of Pelusium for me.  This is one of the fragments of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Gospel Problems and Solutions, so I have a translation of it.  The friend commented on the style of translation adopted, versus a more literal approach. 

Your translator did a nice job making a loose translation that is quite faithful to the intent and meaning of the letter.   …  I don’t think the translator was too loose.  For an academic translation, which is usually more literal, it does toe the line a little bit, but it does make a far more interesting and pleasant read.   Here are two passages that I translated literally.  Mine are in [normal text], your translator’s are in italics.

Τὸ γὰρ ἀδύνατον καὶ ὄν καὶ δοκοῦν, ὅσον πρὸς τὴν τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἀσθένειαν, φημὶ, κατορθώσας, ούκ ἄν περὶ τὸ δυνατὸν ἐξησθένησεν

He accomplished, I say, something both apparently and actually – as far as human weakness is concerned – impossible; so he would have shown no weakness in a matter that was possible.

For, I say, having accomplished what both is and seems impossible, as much as concerns the weakness of man, he would not be weak concerning what is possible.

Τὸ μὲν γὰρ θᾶττον ἀναστῆναι, ἔγκλημα οὐκ εἶχε

An early resurrection was irreproachable.

For a swift resurrecting does not have reproach. [Infinite changed to a participle]

For to resurrect swiftly does not have reproach. [Adjective changed to an adverb]

He adds:

I added an alternate translation of the last bit.  Basically there is an infinitive acting like a noun that is modified by an adjective.  In English we either have to make the infinitive a participle or the adjective into an adverb to be grammatically correct.  We can’t say “For to swift resurrect does not have reproach” but that is what the Greek says.  I guess what I am saying here is that either of my two translations I gave are equally literal in their own way. 

Now there are those who quibble about how “literal” is a meaningless and a subjective term, but I think that being able to reconstruct the original language from a translation is a fairly objective standard.  Irenaeus’ Against Heresies has a loose Latin translation and a very literal Armenian translation.  The Armenian can potentially be used to reconstruct the Greek.  The Latin can’t really.  It doesn’t mean one is necessarily better than the other, it just means one is more literal.  I would be interested in what more professional people think of my “literal” translation.  Maybe they have better suggestions!

Any such suggestions would be welcome, as would opinions on the version in Italics.


Isidore of Pelusium did not pirate Eusebius

Somewhere I read that book 2, letter 212 of Isidore of Pelusium was an unacknowledged copy of part of Eusebius Ad Marinum.  This would make it valuable as a witness to the text of the latter.  But I sent the text to the translator today. He has just informed me that in fact it takes rather a different approach to the same bible difficulty — how is Jesus dead for 3 days — and is not part of the Eusebius text.  We’ll translate it anyway, but I need to go back and find out who said that it was.


Isidore of Pelusium on Romans 1:28-29


Since you ask me in your letter: For what reason was it that “God gave them over to an intelligence without judgement” [Rom. 1:28-29] ? I will answer: If you read the next bit, you will understand and you will have no more uncertainty. In fact it reads: “Filled with every kind of injustice”; so, after indicating vice in general, he then goes in detail through the species of vices. So if He has given over people who were, not about to be filled with vice, but already filled with it, he’d have been talking nonsense.

If this isn’t clear to you, although actually it is clear, I will try to give a clearer interpretation of this.

(Paul) did not say: “When they were given over…, they were filled…”, nor: “They were given over… in order to be filled…”, but: ‘(already) filled, he gave over them’, i.e.: he abandoned those who deprived themselves of his help, as a general abandons soldiers who, disobeying his orders, are beaten by their own fault, by depriving themselves of his power. Because those who, of themselves, allowed themselves to be filled with every kind of vice, he rightly gave them over and abandoned: he did not make them “an intelligence without judgement”, but he let them run off.

Our bibles render “an intelligence without judgement” as “a depraved mind”.  God does not throw us into depravity; He lets us run into it, if we are determined to do so.  A further snippet makes up the next letter:

1246 (V.26) TO THE SAME

Just as the quality of the site of a city is closely related to the quality of the climate [of the location], in the same way for hearts, a good disposition to virtue helps the divine alliance along.

In other words, if you are naturally virtuous, this will help lead you into a relationship with Christ.  Well, maybe; but I’m not at all sure that the apostles would have agreed.  Won’t the naturally virtuous tend to be proud, like the Pharisee? Pride obstructs the recognition of sin, and so prevents repentance and conversion at all.


A couple more letters by Isidore of Pelusium

Explanations of biblical passages form quite a portion of the letters.

1243 (IV.48) TO AMMONIUS

For fear of presumption,  a terrible ill from which one can escape with difficulty, lest we remain on earth and be deprived of the heavenly rewards, the Lord said:  “Now let us leave this place!” [John 14:31]  Indeed, having engaged His own power in the word which He spoke, He delivered his true disciples from tyrannical passions and made them pass into the celestial assembly.

The French editor, Pierre Evieux, tells is that the following letter is also preserved in the catenas on Romans found in two manuscripts, Vatican. gr. 762 (10th c.) and Vienna. Theol. gr. 166 (14th c.). 

In Romans 1:32, Paul condemns people who, not merely commit a sin, but even approve of those who do the same.  Theologios queries why it is wrong to consider those who encourage sin in others as worse than those who actually commit the sin themselves.  Isidore’s reply is interesting as showing that some were willing to suppose a corruption in the text here.


Since you’ve provided us the occasion to return to the apostolic treasures — in fact you said:  ‘It says “Not only do they do this, but also they approve of those who do this” [Rom. 1:32] and you added:  If the approval is worse than the action itself, why did Paul adopt this order [of words] here?’ — call a little upon your good sense to work out the sense of the apostolic saying which is escaping you, and listen. 

There are some people who did not understand the quotation but which, being embarassed like yourself and supposing that the apostolic expressions are corrupt, have interpreted them this manner: “Not only are there  those who do this, but also those who approve those who do this.”  According to them, the primitive text was presented thus to make it understood that the action was the more serious and approval of it less serious.  For me, without saying that the apostolic books display an error in this passage, without siding either with those who did not understand — because perhaps, even if they are wrong on this passage, on others they are right, and they have caught the direction of passages that, for my part, I did not manage to understand — I will set out what I understood and will allow the judgement of the readers to decide if I am right. 

So, in my opinion, it is because to praise the culprits is much more wong and more serious from the point of view of the punishment that this sentence is relevant:   “Not only do they do this, but also they approve of those who do this.” Because he who condemns his sin after the misdeed will be able in time to repent one day, finding the judgment of the sin a very great help in changing his attitude;  while he who speaks in praise of the evil will deprive himself of the help which repentance procures.  So because this judgement concerns a corrupt conscience and a heart tainted with an incurable disease, he who speaks in praise of the fault of the culprit is rightly judged more culpable.  Because the one will very quickly be diverted from sin, the other not at all, according to whether the judgement relates to he who commits the misdeed or he  who approves it. 


A bit more on the Zosimus affair

Isidore of Pelusium writes to his friend Harpocras about the gang of corrupt clergy in Pelusium:


Undoubtedly it is to better endure insults in silence, like a philosopher, but your attitude is not without elegance either.  Indeed, as a victim of individuals known for their perversity, I mean Zosimus, Maron, Eustathios and Martinianos, you had found malicious to avenge yourself on them by bringing them to justice, but also reducing their supporters to silence:  then, you inflicted on these insolent men a verbal punishment, limiting it to sarcastic remarks which usually wound those at which they aim without being dangerous.  However, in my opinion, the initial reasoning which encouraged you to write is better than the text itself;  therefore I would advise you to add to it what is lacking, i.e. a noble attitude and language free from scandalmongering.  Because even if those people deserve to hear these sarcastic remarks and others even more severe, however it would be wrong for you to pronounce them, you whose language is a sanctuary of purity. 

Harpocras received 28 letters from Isidore, and was teaching in Pelusium.  He composed a monody against these clerics, which is mentioned several times in the correspondence (e.g. 1291, 1292).


Another letter to Zosimus from Isidore of Pelusium

Yesterday I gave translations of two letters from Isidore to the corrupt priest Zosimus.  Here is another, although the context is unclear.  But it seems that once again Isidore is attempting to reason away the excuses offered by a man who just doesn’t give a damn.  It would be nice to know just why Isidore is bothering.  Are these letters public letters, one wonders?


You seemed to have a good pretext for your last offence to forgive yourself as avenging your brother. But for your current offence, you have nothing of the sort to cover yourself, and you have even lost the benefit of the first forgiveness. Because if you were avenging earlier the wrongs done to your brother, how does it happen that you aren’t ashamed to do wrong today to him whose defence you claim to undertake, and to torment him by every means?  This last offence is enough evidence to show that you deliberately commited the first one as well, because he who would not rescue a brother, how could he have rescued a foreigner?


A gay clergyman in Pelusium

Some problems are always with us. It is always hard to believe that someone is a deliberate villain, even when all the evidence points that way. Isidore of Pelusium was neither the first nor the last to encounter one; nor the last spiritual counsellor to discover that he was dealing with a rogue.


Many people — perhaps it would be too harsh to say “all people” – scoff at you, and do so extremely violently and bitterly. I wish they were wrong! But when he who is your own brother, groaning and deploring on your account, has submitted to us the same report, indeed a report more overpowering, by begging us to drag you out, if possible, from this abyss of vice where you have grown old in your misfortune, often rejecting those who were exhorting you not to go with those to whom you have entrusted yourself, then I address this letter to you.

I do so that you may become master of yourself and that you may blush at the shame at your immodesty, at the old age towards which you are being drawn, at the sacred priesthood which you have acquired I do not know how, at the misdeeds and actual scandals, and that you cease to wallow in vice, acting the young man “on the threshold of old age”.

Indeed how will you exhort the young people to temperance, if you don’t even exhort yourself at the time of old age? How can you not tremble to behave thus and yet approach the altar? How do you dare to touch the immaculate mysteries?

I warn you — even if this pains you, the truth must be said in all frankness — stop acting like this, or at least keep away from the venerable altar; fear to attract one day the fire of heaven on your own head [1], to provide the weak with good reasons to use the sort of language which they like.

[1] An allusion to the fire which destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. This indicates the sort of scandalous vices that Zosimus was practising. In other letters Isidore is equally frank: n° 671, 795, 1326 (5.77), 1508 (5.220), 1754 (5.389), 1729 (5.373), cf. Is. de P., p. 217, and n. 138.

1229 (V.13) TO THE SAME

I learn that a wise man, detached from riches and a defender of virtue [1], has met you, that he did all that was necessary to correct you, but saw himself dismissed without having achieved anything, without having been able to help you; your disease appeared stronger than his medical art. Whereas you should have, charmed by the beauty of his ideas, full of admiration for his intelligence and respect for the nobility of his feelings, put a limit to your vice, you dismissed him, not only as a failure, but even with an insult.

What must be done then? If nobody can be of any help to you, if even advice is merely treated as mistaken, if the laughter of people doesn’t matter, if the public scandal appears negligible to you, if you are inaccessible to the fear of God, if the threat of judgement makes you laugh, it seems that without knowing it we have been dealing with a heart of stone.

[1] Perhaps the sophist Harpocras or the cornes Herminos.

To the selfish, the church is merely an opportunity for self-advancement or plunder, not something with whose reputation they are in any way concerned.  Parallels with men of similar vices in our own days are not far to seek.


Eusebius “Quaestiones” in Isidore of Pelusium

The Differences in the Gospels and their Solutions by Eusebius of Caesarea is quoted all over the place.  One stray quotation appears in the letters of Isidore of Pelusium.  In the Migne edition this is book 2, letter 212, (PG 78, col. 651).  This letter consists entirely of a quotation from the Quaestiones Ad Marinum; how can we say that Jesus was dead for 3 days?  The text here is of course a corrective for that published by Mai, and I must send it to my translator.


Scum in the church: Isidore comments

The scumbag ecclesiastic is a perennial figure, his hands ever grasping the property of others, ever active in promoting evil, mouth ever open against any who dare to suggest that his life and actions are condemned by Christ.  Bishop Eusebius of Pelusium has ordained one of his sidekicks, a man named Zosimus, conspicuous for his evil life.


In your letter, you express your astonishment: how can the unworthy consecration of Zosimus appear right to the man who has illegally ordained him?  I reply: your indignation, being of the kind that arises from a horror of wickedness, is legitimate, no-one can deny that!  But I advise you to keep your tongue free of all evil-speaking.  Although that man does indeed deserve a thrashing a thousand times over, as you write — because instead of being improved by his responsibility, he has taken on the priesthood as a tool to serve his vices and to do the intolerable — you mustn’t soil your mouth while exposing his shameful deeds and scabrous morals to the public.


Some 1843 translations of ancient letters, including Isidore of Pelusium

In 1843 William Roberts translated a selection of the letters of Isidore of Pelusium into English, as part of his book A History of Letter Writing from the earliest period to the fifth century.  I stumbled across a copy of the PDF which I must have downloaded ages ago, while looking around my hard disk for something to read during a period of no internet access.  Isn’t Google Books wonderful?  The book also contains letters of Phalaris, Cicero, Apollonius of Tyana, Synesius, and so forth.  I will scan these and make them available in due course.