Monday, May 20, 2013

Lost in translation?

From the blog Seeking the Kingdom, a post entitled Comparing Two Translations of a Kontakion on the interesting changes that take place when things get translated.

Interesting to compare these two translations of a kontakion for Sts. Constantine and Helen (May 21). In strikingly military language, the kontakion connects St. Constantine and his mother to the precious Cross - fitting, since St. Helen discovered the precious Cross, and St. Constantine converted to Christianity (and made Christianity legal) after seeing a vision of the Cross promising victory through the sign of the Cross.

First, for the benefit of those who can read Greek, here's the original text:

Κοντακιον, Ηχος γ᾽. Η Παρθενος σημερον.
Κωνσταντινος σημερον συν τη μητρι τη Ελενη, τον Σταυρον εκφαινουσι, το πανσεβασμιον ξυλον, παντων μεν των Ιουδαιων αισχυνην οντα, οπλον δε πιστων Ανακτων κατ᾽εναντιων. Δι᾽ ημας γαρ ανεδειχθη, σημειον μεγα, και εν πολεμοις φρικτον.

My addition for additional reference:

Кондак, глас 3.
Константи́н днесь с ма́терию Еле́ною/ Крест явля́ют, всечестно́е дре́во,/ всех у́бо иуде́ев посрамле́ние су́ще,/ ору́жие же на проти́вныя ве́рных люде́й:/ нас бо ра́ди яви́ся зна́мение ве́лие/ и во бране́х гро́зное.

Next, here's the translation from the Menaion published by St. John of Kronstadt Press, translated by Rdr. Isaac Lambertson. It's a fairly literal translation of the above.

Today Constantine and his mother Helena reveal the Cross, the most precious Tree, which putteth to shame all the Jews and is the weapon of faithful kings against the adversary. For our sake hath the great standard appeared, terrible in battle.

Now, let's look at the translation presented on the website of the Orthodox Church in America (

Today Constantine and his mother Helen reveal the precious Cross, the weapon of Orthodox Christians against their enemies, for it is manifest for us as a great and fearful sign in struggle!

Some interesting differences here. Since there are no longer any actively reigning Orthodox monarchs, it is understandable to consider a change in wording to refer instead to Orthodox Christians. But this makes a significant change to what's being referred to in the original, viz., the fact that Orthodox kings were fighting under the standard of the Holy Cross, just as St. Constantine did. Remember that that was a turning point in the life of St. Constantine - In hoc signo vinces! In this sign conquer! It seems reasonable for a kontakion in honor of St. Constantine to refer to this event, without having its meaning shifted for the benefit of us who live in the monarchy-deprived 21st century...

Complete article here.


  1. To your observation--which is excellent--let me add that there is a significant difference between the translations regarding the battle that is joined with the Cross. In the first case, the battle is an actual military contest; under the sign of the Cross Constantine is victorious in war. This is lost in the second translation since the battle is internalized and universalized; under the sign of the Cross we are victorious in our ascetical struggle. This second translation--interpretation really--radically shifts the reference at the expense of the historical meaning of the feast.

    There is, to my mind, a disturbing tendency among contemporary Orthodox Christians to embrace uncritically secular pacifism and to downplay, if not actively reject, the vocation of the Christian warrior. Yes, pacifism is a legitimate Christian vocation but it is no more--or less--legitimate than the call to serve Christ in military service. Both vocations have produced saints, both can be blessed as "peacemakers" even as both have produced their share of selfish thugs and cowards.

    Thanks for the post.

    In Christ,


  2. While the OCA translation might be nonspecific enough to support an interpretation of ascetial struggle, I think it can also support a more literal interpretation of the "enemies" against which we struggle. As our culture becomes increasingly hostile to traditional religion, we can sing this kontakion to encourage us in our struggle. Since the government itself is often our opponent, it fits our context to take the weapon out of the hands of kings and put it into the hands of Christians.

    P.S. The link to the complete article is broken.