On the Synodal translation of the New Testament into Serbian

The Commission of the Holy Synod of Bishops for revision of the translation of the New Testament  done by Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic (1st edition in 1847, the 2nd edition in 1856, the 3rd edition in 1864) was founded in 1962 and worked slowly until 1968 when it intensified its work. It was composed of former Bishop of Raska-Prizren Pavle (later Patriarch of the Serbian Church, 1990-2009), Bishop Dr. Vasilije of Zicha, Vicar Bishop Dr. Daniel Krstic, and of Professors of the Orthodox Theological Faculty: Dr. Milos Erdeljan (Old Testament, expert in Hebrew), Dr. Emilijan Carnic (New Testament, expert in NT Greek), Dr. Stojan Gosevic (Dogmatic Theology, expert in NT Greek), Prof. Bogoljub Cirkovic (expert in Church-Slavonic), and myself as a secretary. The Commission functioned until 1984, when the Holy Synod of the Serbian Church approved this translation as a Church authorized translation.

Dr. Milos Erdeljan was a reviewer (Rezensent) of the translation, and nevertheless he preferred to participate in the work of the Commission in person, which proved to be of great significance because he himself as a learned professor and an expert in OT problematics and biblistics contributed a lot. On the other hand, Prof. Carnic participated in the Commission actively in the very beginning of its undertaking, but later on, due to the fact that he published his own translation of the NT into Serbian in 1973 as an edition of the Bible Society, he ceased to be its member.

In the mid-70-ies of the last century the Synodal Commission co-opted three younger lecturers of the Theological Faculty, who had absolved their post-graduate studies in Athens in Greece: Dr. Atanasije Jevtic (later Bishop of Banat and later on of Zaholm-Hercegovina), Dr. Amfilohije Radovic (later Bishop of Banat and now Metropolitan of Montenegro), and Dr. Irinej Bulovic (now Bishop of Backa). These experts brought a new dynamics into the Commission activity, and together with its former members concluded the translation.

The Commission used to meet in the Patriarchate, i.e. headquarters of the Serbian Church, once a week, mainly in the afternoon. It was presupposed that the translators would examine one chapter of a NT book beforehand so that the work could be facilitated.

It is known that during their German confinement in monasteries of Ljubostinja and Vojlovica, Bishop Nicholas Velimirovic and the then hieromonk Vasilije Kostic (former Bishop of Zicha) worked on the improvement of Vuk Karadzic’s translation of the NT, having done in this respect much due to the circumstances of their life – confinement. For this reason, it was requested from Archpriest-Stavrophor Aleksa Todorovic, Serbian parish priest in Munich, Germany, to provide us with the typed-out interventions of these two biblical scholars. The Archpriest, already in an older age, accepted the plea whole-heartedly and forwarded at the address of the Commission all the NT books where the two scholars had made any interventions, corrections, suggestions. Now, every book was photocopied in several copies and handed in to the Translation Committee as a basis, sample for further work, i.e. for new interventions. Nevertheless, one should point out, the Commission was not able to have a full insight into the extent of the undertaking of Bishop Nicholas; we could not establish easily what precisely was corrected by him in the monasteries in confinement; it seems that he limited his work to the most important matters. Consequently, his undertaking had to wait for a team of biblical scholars whom the Serbian Church had at that time at its disposal.

As a matter of fact, the Commission was called in the beginning as the Commission of the Holy Synod of Bishops for revision of Vuk’s translation of the New Testament, and in time its name was changed into the Commission of the Holy Synod of Bishops for revision (translation) of the New Testament. Here one must point out a fact that the Commission, although it was original in its final product, nevertheless preserved the literary beauty of Vuk’s translation, and even some verses, or portions were reproduced. And what was given in a new version? These were theological and linguistic wordings (even some obsolete personal names were dropped out and new ones were itroduced: Zaharija instead of Zarija, Simeon instead of Simon, Timotej instead of Timotije, Solomon instead of Solomun, Jelisej instead of Jelisije, etc.).

Vuk translated some words or phrases in a colloquial way. In Matthew 28,9 - the scene when  the Risen Christ met myrrh-bearing women in the Gethsemane garden, he greets them with “Hairete!” and Vuk translated it with “Zdravo!” (Synodal translation: Radujte se!”). In Matthew 26,49, when Judas greets Jesus in order to identify him, he addresses him, according to Vuk, in a typical Serbian way: “Good morning!”, although it was dark (Synodal translation: “Zdravo, Ucitelju!”). Another example: in John 19,3 the Roman soldiers greet him in Vuk’s translation as “Pomoz’ Bog, care judejski!” = God bless, King of Jews” (1847 edition) or in the second edition (1856): “How are you, King of Jews?”

If the reader keeps in mind that Vuk Karadzic preserved some 40 Turkisms (!) (and no translation of the Holy Scriptures tolerates foreign words, except for some Hebrew or Greek terms that are not to be translated, such as  Amen, Halleluiah, Zebbaoth, Psalm, Evangelion, evangelic, Episkopos, apostle, angel, devil, Messiah, Christ, Liturgy, apokalypsis, etc. or Aramaic words: ili, ili savahtani, akeldama, Tabita kumi, Maran ata – Our Lord, come; efaga, abba) and the fact Vuk Karadzic did not have a feeling for subtle theological and philosophical idioms and terms, nor for the compound words built according to Greek morphological principles (he avoided, did not use /!/ active and especially passive participles !), neither for denoting some simple  concepts, and hence he used some clumsy words instead of single ones, such as: glavni svestenik  instead of  prvosvestenik (in English - chief priest and highpriest – both terms are good); oni koji mir grade instead of  mirotvorci; and not to mention such  abstract and philosophical terms as:  celomudrije, smirenomudrije (Greek: tapinosofrini) etc. - only then it is clear how huge a job the Commission had to perform! In addition to it, we have to bear in mind that the NT Greek reflects so many Semitisms, which we do not use today, which made the task of the Commission became even more complicated and complex.

I quote herewith some of the Turkisms: kmet – delitelj - divider (Luke 12:14), harach – porez - tax   (Matthew 17:25; Mk 12:14; Lk 20:22), chalma – ubrus – handkerchief (Acts 19:12), hazna – hramovna blagajna – treasury (Mk 12:43). I quote here some other Turkisms: azdaha (dragon), amajlije (phylacteria), adzuvan (pedophil), badava (in vain, gratis), basamak, dolama, zanat, kavgadzija, kavga, kesa, kula, lenger, mana, neimar, oka, pazar,  sahat, soba, sundjer, torba, hajduk, carsija…

Vuk’s translation contains some 49 Slavonic words that are not used in our modern language, and nevertheless could be understood, but being used in the NT even today our readers could understand them, and so the the Synodal Commission did not use other terms. Here are some of them: gonitelj, revnitelj (zealot), spasitelj (Saviour), tjesitelj,  utjesitelj (Comforter), djevstvenik, zakonik (lawyer), zastupnik (soliciter),  prestupnik, propovjednik (preacher), srebrnik (silver coin), cetvorovlasnik (tetrarch), hulnik (man of blasphemy), prorocica (prophetess), licemjer (hypocrite), preljuba (adultery), zrtva (sacrifice, offering), dobrodjetelj (virtue),  iskustvo (experience), prvorodstvo (first-born),  bliznji (fellow-man), hulja (blasphemy), grjehovni (sinful), duhovni (spiritual), jedinomisleni (one-minded), jedinorodni (only-begotten),  malovjerni (little believing), rukotvoreni (hand-made), nerukotvoreni (non-hand-made), zivotni (living), smrtonosni (deadly, death-bearing), velicati (glorify), izobilovati (be abundant), zrtvovati (to sacrifice), oblagodatiti (make one full of grace), etc.

The Translation Committee observed that some Serbian words and terms did not reflect best the original meaning in Greek, and so they decided to use Greek words instead. The best examples are the following terms: John 1:1: “In beginning was the Logos (the Word), and the Logos (the Word) was with God, and the Logos (the Word) was God.” The same procedure was employed in 1 John 1:1 and in Revelation 19:13. We reintroduced the term synagogue (Lk 4:20; Acts 13:15; 22:19; Mk 13:9; 2 Cor 11:24) instead of zbornica in Vuk, for the reason that zbornica in today’s Serbian means primarily teachers’ meeting room. In addition to it, instead of starjesine  (elders) we resumed the Greek term  prezviteri (Acts 14:23; 15:; 21:18, but not in Revelation  4:4.10 because here they denote the chiefs, elders of 12 Jewish tribes, and have no ecclesial meaning). The same concerns the Hebrew term Sanhedrin, Greek synedrion, which we reintroduced into modern Serbian translation; Vuk translated it as vijecnica. Where it was possible, the Translation Committee used the term episkop (bishop) – it is rare – because we were aware of the fact that in the early Church these degrees (deacons, presbyters, bishops) in the hierarchy were not developed as in later centuries. Instead of Vuk’s  potrkaliste  the Commission employed the Greek term  stadion  - 185 m  (Mt 14:24; Lk 24:13: Jn 6:19; 11:18; Rev 14:20; 21:16). And last but not least, instead of denarion Vuk occasionally used Turkish word grosh   (Mt 18:28: instead of “a hundred denarii” we have “sto grosha” or asarij (Mtt 10:29: a penny? in RSV) or used other terms such as novac  (Mtt 22:19).

The Synodal Commission composed in 1962 had already revised Vuk’s translation of the canonical Gospels, and observing the guidelines of the Holy Synod, the Commission in its new composition had to prepare for publication the Four-Gospel-Book, in ijekavica dialect, but avoiding in the 2nd case of Plural the ending –ijeh of pronouns and adjectives and using instead a more simple form: - ih,  i.e. Djela svetih apostola, and not svetijeh, or lepih devojaka, instead of lijepijeh, etc. We did not use the negative  nijesam, nijesi,  but nisam,  nisi;  not njenzin,  but njen.

The Gospel text has been divided into the so-called zachala, readings, portions, perikope, lectia, and in that way it was   ready to be used in liturgical services. Even today, whenever a church has no proper Gospel-Book for liturgical usage published by the Church in 2000, the celebrant can use this Four-Gospel-Book, even the Divine Liturgy is celebrated on working days, and read from it. The division into readings, lectia has been preserved in later editions of the complete New Testament (in the Orthodox Church the whole of the NT is read from in liturgical services except for the Revelation of John!).

And now, the Commission composed of new members started in 1967 with the revision of Vuk’s  translation of the Catholic (Universal) epistles, seven of them, and later on to proceed with the revision of epistles of St. Paul, and in the end with  the Acts of the Apostles, the very four Gospels (again!) and the Revelation of John. One has to indicate here that the Commission again and again worked repeatedly on the revision of the already performed work, even after the first Synodal translation of the NT in 1984, which was an important year – the first publication of the revised NT. Why again? Because in the meantime, after the publication of the NT, the Commission received many justified observation and remarks of the readers themselves (we did not have a Revision Committee as it is the case with other translations in the West, nor a Broader Committee composed of men of letters, linguists, philologists, etc.).

There were, naturally, written suggestions of readers that were not justified or that reflected ignorance of the problematic or, even ignorance of the NT text as such and its wording. Here one could indicate as an example the place of doxology in the Epistle to the Romans, which in Synodal translation is at the end of the ch. 14, verses 24-26, whereas in Emilijan Carnic’s translation it is to be found at the end of the epistle itself, 16:25-27. The same relates to some other texts, known in the NT science as interpolations, such as in 1 John 5:7, so-called comma Johannem, or the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the Kingdom and power and glory for ages. Amen” (Matthew 6:13), the edition we have preserved in our Serbian translation (as well as by Vuk Karazic), but in a form of a new line. One could search further for such verses, such as in Mark 16:9-20, say, that have not been testified to in all the NT manuscripts, but are part of Orthodox Church biblical-liturgical tradition (in the sense that they are read in liturgical services, and hence are to be found in our lectionaries, that are in a way a reliable source of information on the original biblical text).

Sample translations in Serbian and in foreign languages the Translation Committee used

In this context we could observe that members of the Synodal Commission had at their disposal the Greek text of the NT, so-called textus receptus of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, prepared by biblical experts of this Patriarchate and published in 1908. This Greek NT enjoyed a great scientific reputation in the Orthodox Church due to the fact that it has been verified by its liturgical usage. Nearly the same reputation has the Church-Slavonic text of the NT enjoyed throughout the centuries, verified by spiritual life based upon it, as a sacred translation of the living Orthodox Church of Christ. This version – Church-Slavonic – was in hands of the Translation Committee. We also consulted the Vulgate translation as one of the most reliable old translations.

It goes without saying that the Commission had at its disposal various other translations, both in Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Russian and Bulgarian. From the Serbian translations we indicate here Dimitrije Stefanovic’s translation, published by the Bible Society in Belgrade in 1933, and Emilijan Carnic’s translation, also published by the Bible Society in Belgrade in 1973, as well as the translation of the whole Bible done by lexicographer Lujo Bakotic in Belgrade in 1933.

From the translation in Western languages, we should mention Luther’s Bible = its revised translation from 1956, then the so-called Zürcher Bibel, and some other German translations, while on the other hand we used some of NT translations into English, such as Authorized Version of King James from 1611, and especially the Revised Standard Version from 1946. Those Committee members who were good at other foreign languages had in front of them NT translations into French, Italian – for the sake of acquiring a better insight into the meaning of the text. (I myself as a secretary of the Synodal Commission from 1967 to 1984 consulted the so-called Einheitsübersetzung; Good News for Modern Men, Gute Nachricht…) .

While working on the new translation we used to a large extent a study in Vuk’s translation of NT written by academician Vladimir Mosin Vukov Novi zavjet, published by Prosveta as a supplementary to the very text of NT done by Vuk (Belgrade, 1974, pp. 489-712). This expert exposes at first the history of translations before Vuk Karadzic, then the history of his translation itself, the critical approaches to his translation by the then experts – be it in Serbian or in theology, and considers the evolution of Vuk’s translation from its first edition in 1847 until 1863, and exposes a detailed critical apparatus and a study concerning some historical realities and dogmatic teaching of the Church. Mind you, it is a Russian expert who writes scientifically about the first Serbian translation into the literary language, which is the language of today. He is a man who knows perfectly well Church-Slavonic wording of the NT text, and his mother tongue, Russian, and consequently has not distracted himself as much from the original Slavonic language.

With the mentioned tenth volume of Vuk’s complete works from 1974, together with the text of NT, Dr. Dimitrije Bogdanovic published critical apparatus, from verse to verse, which is the first such expert undertaking with us. Bogdanovic entitled his enormous work modestly: Napomene i objasnjenja (Notes and Clarifications), although it comprises 400 pages, pp. 713-1102. In addition, on two pages (1193-94) he indicated all the misprints in the Vuk’s first edition from 1847. His wife Sonja Bogdanovic produced an index of words and register of personal and geographic names. Bogdanovic gave all the different readings, lesia variabila, according to various manuscripts as well as suggestions for a possible translation of the disputable places. As an expert in NT text and in biblical science, this scholar contributed a great deal to the Serbian biblical science, in the field that had not been dealt with in details. The modern editions of NT intended for scientific aims, primarily under the editorship of such biblical experts as Eberhard Nestle, Kurt Aland and Matthew Metzger, contain such a critical apparatus – naturally, much more detailed). As a matter of fact, they publish such an apparatum criticum, with abundant variable readings and suggestions, based on manuscripts, accompanying nearly every NT book, explicitly for the usage of translators and other experts, professors of New Testament and Greek language. In the last edition of the New Testament, the so-called  Novum Testamentum Graece,  26. neu bearbeitete Auflage gemeinsam herausgegeben von Kurt Alan, Matthew Black, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger, Allen Wikgren (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart 1993), a name of a Greek biblical scholar, Professor at the Thessalonica University, Karavidopoulos was indicated.


Qualities of the Synodal translation

The expert public knows very well that the Synodal translation of the NT is an expert translation, and not a popular one as Vuk’s translation is. As a matter of fact, Vuk did not translate for the liturgical usage, but, one may say, for missionary aims, in order to give the word of God into hands of an ordinary reader. So, he did not perform the translation for the reason that from this sacred book one could read in chuch services, but explicitly for ordinary people, and therefore Vuk might be called  a small missionary.

However, by a decision of the Holy Assembly of Bishops from 1984 Commission’s translation (1st edition) was promulgated as an authentic translation, which means that one could read from it at all the Church services and at various liturgical rites. As mentioned, it contains decision into zacala, readings, lectia, just as they are indicated in official Church-Slavonic Church books, Gospel-Book and Apostle-Book, and for that reason at every beginning of that lectio one can find its number in brackets printed in bold (the Bible Society of Serbia does not publish these liturgical divisions, as it publishes the NT also for non-Orthodox readers). An attentive reader will notice that concerning the Apostle-Book, these readings, lectia, go from the Acts of the Apostles and go on through the Catholic Epistles starting with the Epistle of James, so that from the end of the Epistle of Jude they will continue with the Epistle to the Romans. Just this fact indicates that the order of NT books was not the same in the West and East; in the Greek and Church-Slavonic Bibles epistles (letters) of St. Apostle Paul come after the Catholic Epistles.

Publications of the NT

The Holy Synod of Bishops published in 1984 the first edition of the NT in ijekavski dialect (we have not produced NT in ekavski dialect so far!). The book was printed in Ljubljana. Professor of the Orthodox Theological Faculty in Belgrade, Dr. Atanasije Jevtic, later Bishop, supplied every chapter with its contents. These contents were improved or enriched in later editions. (We would like very much that all the Bible editions contain contents of each chapter at its beginning, not through the text of the corresponding chapter).

The second edition was printed, with cooperation of the then Yugoslav Bible Society as well, in Sarajevo in 1990, while the third edition experienced some amendments, improvements and the fourth edition (printed in Belgrade) was a basis for editing the solemn liturgical edition of the Four-Gospel-Book, containing the synaxaria with indication of all the readings throughout the liturgical year, following the sample of the Church-Slavonic Gospel-Book.

In the meantime, in cooperation with the Bible Society of Serbia, for the first time in history, it was in 1998 that the complete Holy Scriptures was published containing OT translated by Dj. Danicic and NT in the Synodal translation, meaning that earlier combination of Djura Danicic’s OT and Vuk Karadzic’s NT always published together got “divorced” after so many years). The Bible Society still published Danicic-Vuk as it has done for some 150 years, because some people and church communities nevertheless prefer Vuk’s NT because of the beauty of his language.

Due to the fact that the Synodal translation is theologically correct, much better than all the previous translations, the Serbian Church insists with her professors and students of theological schools to quote NT according to the new translation. This is to recommend and not to force scholars, because they may quote from various translations in order to find the best meaning of a text.

Archdeacon Radomir Rakic

Belgrade, 13th April 2016