Feast of the Holy Translators – Saints Mesrob, Yeghishe, Movses Khorenatsi (Moses of Khoren), Philosopher Davit Anhaght, Gregory of Narek (Krikor Naregatsi) and Nerses the Gracious (Nerses Shnorhali)
For the Armenian people, the Feast of the Holy Translators is one of the most favourite and beloved national ecclesiastical feasts. Nearly two hundred disciples of St Mesrob Mashtots (Mashtots) and St Sahak are known by the general group name “Holy Translators”.
Celebrating this feast, the Armenian Apostolic Church pays tribute to the bright memory of St Mesrob Mashtots, Yeghishe, Moses of Khoronk, philosopher Davit Anhaght, whose sacred work was later continued on by St Gregory of Narek and St Nerses the Gracious. The word “Translator” means “Interpreter”. Comprehending and precisely understanding the demands of that period, the Holy Translators initiated the sacred work of creating Armenian literature and the alphabet.
After Mesrob Mashdots invented the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD, the first thing translated into Armenian was the Bible, the ultimate textual source for the Christian.
Mashdots’ student Goriun/Koriun, who penned a biography of his teacher, tells us that the first written words translated into Armenian were from the Book of Proverbs: “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding.” With this paean to wisdom, the first translators demonstrated that they fully understood the momentous nature of their task. To render the Bible into Armenian was to make the very Word of God present among the Armenians. With the invention of the alphabet and the translation of the Bible, Mashtots and his students, the first of the Holy Translators, created the possibility of Armenian literature. They also, as the late scholar of Armenian liturgy, Fr. Robert F. Taft wrote, made possible the unique Armenian expression of the faith, the Armenian rite: it is only after the invention of the alphabet and the development of Classical Armenian, krapar, that one is “really able to speak of an ‘Armenian rite.’”
We can see, then, why the Holy Translators are celebrated as saints of the Armenian Church. After the first translation of the Bible, Goriun tells us that “the blessed ones turned their attention to the improvement and refinement of the literature of their people.” They translated patristic sources like Gregory Nazianzus and John Chrysostom. In addition to this explicitly Christian literature, the early translators also translated works of classical learning: the philosophy, rhetoric and grammars of the Greeks.
The disciples of the above mentioned group of Holy Translators are known as the “Junior Translators”, which includes the historian Yeghishe. His most famous work is the History of Vardan and the Armenian War written at the request of David Mamikonian, which he calls a “Hishadagaran” (Recollection). The work is considered one of the masterpieces of classical Armenian literature and is almost entirely free from Greek words and expressions.
Another disciple of Mesrob Mashtots was Movses Khorenatsi. He was a prominent Armenian historian from the period of Late Antiquity and the author of the History of Armenia. Khorenatsi is credited with the earliest known historiographical work on the history of Armenia written in Armenian, but was also a poet, or hymn writer and a grammarian. The History of Armenia was written at the behest of Prince Sahak of the Bagratuni dynasty and has had an enormous impact on Armenian historiography. It was used and quoted extensively by later medieval Armenian authors. Although other Armenians such as Agathangelos had previously written histories on Armenia, Movses’ work holds particular significance because it contains unique material on the old oral traditions in Armenia before its conversion to Christianity and, more importantly, traces Armenian history from Movses’ day back to its origins. Khorenatsi is considered to be the “father of Armenian history” (patmahayr), and is sometimes referred to as the “Armenian Herodotus.” Khorenatsi’s work became the first attempt of a universal history of Armenia.
David (Davit) the Invincible Philosopher, is listed among the Translators. In many ways, we can say that he prefigured some of the insights of Walter Benjamin by over a thousand years, in the Armenian version of his philosophical works, he not only translated individual words but entire concepts and world views (for, according to the traditional biography of him, he both wrote original works in Greek and Armenian and translated his own Greek works into Armenian). For instance, instead of talking about a Pegasus, he mentioned the aralez, an Armenian mythical creature, a winged dog mentioned in Khorenatsi and other sources. The Holy Translators truly understood the momentousness of their task and we are the beneficiaries of their careful work.
Shortly after the original set of translations, a school of translation known as the Hellenizing School rendered Greek originals into an Armenian that carefully translated each word. After the Hellenizing School, there were many important translators and translations into Armenian. Perhaps most notable among them was the brilliant Grigor Magistros, a scholar, military leader and administrator born in 990 AD whose descendants and relatives included several Catholicoi. Magistros’ most famous work was written after a bet with Manazi, an Arab theologian who insisted the Quran was more beautiful than the Bible because it was written in verse. In response, Magistros produced the Magnalia Dei, a “Biblical History in Epic Verse,” itself translated into English by Dr. Abraham Terian. By rendering the Bible into verse, Magistros translated not just words and ideas, but made the Bible intelligible as a beautiful cultural product resonant with the worldview of an Islamic scholar.
St Gregory of Narek is widely revered as one of the greatest figures of medieval Armenian religious thought and literature. Born in the city of Narek in about 950 A.D., St Gregory came from a line of scholars and churchmen. St Gregory received his education under the guidance of his father, Bishop Khosrov, author of the earliest commentary on the Divine Liturgy and from Anania Vartabed, abbot of Narek Monastery. He and his two brothers entered monastic life at an early age, and St Gregory soon began to excel in music, astronomy, geometry, mathematics, literature and theology.
He became a priest at the age of 25 and dedicated himself to God. He lived most of his life in the monastery of Narek, where he taught at the monastic school. St Gregory began his writings with a commentary on the “Song of Songs,” which was commissioned by an Armenian prince. Despite his reservations that he was too young for the task, the commentary became famous for its clarity of thought and language and its excellence of theological presentation.
He also wrote a number of famous letters, sharagans, treasures, odes, melodies and discourses. Many of his prayers are included in the Divine Liturgy celebrated each Sunday in Armenian Churches around the world.
St Gregory’s masterpiece is considered to be his Book of Lamentations. Also known as Narek, it is comprised of 95 prayers, each of which is titled “Conversation with God from the depth of the heart.” A central theme is man’s separation from God, and his quest to reunite with Him. St Gregory described the work this way: “Its letters like my body, its message like my soul.” He called his book an “encyclopedia of prayer for all nations.” It was his hope that it would serve as a guide to prayer for people all over the world. After the advent of movable type, the book was published in Marseille in 1673, and has been translated into at least 30 languages.
Nerses IV the Gracious is also known as Nerses Shnorhali, Nerses of Kla or Saint Nerses the Graceful. Every time we sing “Aravod Looso” (Morning of Light) during the morning service at church or “Norahrash bsagavor” (Newly and Marvelously Crowned) at the festivity of Vartanants, we are singing two of the most inspired sharagans written and musicalised by Nerses Shnorhali. We are also repeating his words when we recite “Havadov Khosdovanim” (In Faith I Confess) during Lent. One of the most beloved saints of the Armenian Church, he was born on June 4, 1102 (some sources say 1098 or 1101). He was a member of the Pahlavuni princely family and the grandson of the noted writer, Grigor Magistros Pahlavuni. Shnorhali (literally “filled with grace”) had been the title of several known members of the Church, but it became synonymous with Nerses after his time.
The fall of the Armenian kingdom of the Bagratunis in 1045 and the destruction of the capital Ani by the Seljukid Turks in 1064 had forced the Holy See of the Armenian Church to move from the capital in 1081. After several changes of place, Grigor III had settled the Holy See in the fortress of Hromkla (Hrom-kla, “Roman Fortress”), on the banks of the Euphrates River, very close to the border of the Armenian state of Cilicia, in 1149 (it remained there until 1292). His brother Nerses, whom he had ordained at the age of 18 and who was consecrated a bishop at the age of thirty, was also known as Nerses Klayetsi. He was the right hand of Grigor III during his long reign (1113-1166) and succeeded him as Catholicos Nerses IV until his death in 1173.
A prolific writer and theologian, some of Shnorhali’s best known works are his Tught Unthanragan (General Epistle), a message of guidance in the Christian faith for the Armenian people, and his poem Hisus Vorti (Jesus the Son). Both have been translated into English. Many of his songs and hymns were incorporated into the regular service of the Armenian Church. His pioneering spirit of ecumenism and his leadership have been historically recognised.
By the nineteenth century, the krapar, the “Classical Armenian” of the early translators, had fallen out of daily use. Several centuries prior, a “Middle Armenian” had already emerged. Yet krapar continued to be used alongside the more vernacular Armenians. In the nineteenth century, a debate raged about the use of ashkharapar, the “modern” language in one of dialectical variants. Many felt that the true literary language was krapar. With the founding of schools separate from the monasteries, intellectuals argued about curriculum. In newspapers and through the publication of books like Khatchatur Abovian’s The Wounds of Armenia, considered the first novel in Armenian and the first written in “modern” (in this case “Eastern”) Armenian, slowly the modern ashkharapar took shape. Works in French, English and other European literary languages were translated into the modern dialects. For instance, the Mkitarist congregation in Vienna published Hovhannes Masehyan’s translations of Shakespeare into Armenian.
Part ref: vemkar.us