Institute inaugurates new resource for English-reading students of Armenian

10.10.2014 | The Maxwell Institute

Next week our Eastern Christian Texts series is releasing its third title—a splendid translation of an Armenian Christian work called On This Day, a calendrical compilation of Christian saints and events. This special guest post is from Dr. Adam Carter McCollum of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville, Minnesota. He joins us to celebrate the Maxwell Institute’s latest publication, set to appear on October 15. —BHodges

Inspirational stories of miracles, saints, and martyrs circulated and were written down by early Christians. “Synaxarion” refers to the collection of commemorations of Christian saints for each day of the church calendar. Generations of Christians have looked to esteemed saints and martyrs for inspiration and intercession. Different language-traditions including Greek, Armenian, Georgian, Gǝʿǝz (Ethiopic), and Arabic, order these narratives according to their appropriate days, serving either as brief reminders of individual saints or to relate in more detail a saint’s acts or miracles. A great many of the same stories appear across these languages and on the same days, but each language-tradition also includes some of its own unique saints.

The Armenian synaxarion is called Yaysmawurk‛ (“On this day…”). We have long had an accessible version in the venerable series Patrologia Orientalis (PO). ((A list of PO volumes is available here (cf. the Byzantine synaxarion here).)) The text in that edition is accompanied by a French translation. Readers of English have not been so fortunate—until now. With the appearance of the first volume of Edward G. Mathews, Jr.’s translation, accompanied with an Armenian text essentially based on the PO series, the Maxwell Institute fulfills the wishes of those who want an English version.

This first volume of On This Day contains the synaxarion text for saints of the month of January. ((The Armenian calendar differs from the Gregorian calendar but both dates are provided in the PO text and in On This Day.)) Mathews’ introduction, appropriately brief, adequately traces out the history of the Yaysmawurk‛ from compilation to manuscripts to printed editions. For the thirty-one days of January, this volume has eighty-four sections, each section focusing on a feast or biblical event (e.g. Epiphany and the baptism of Jesus), an individual saint, or a group of saints. Some of these saints will be well known to many readers, such as Basil of Caesarea (whose narrative opens the volume), Antony, and Ephrem the Syrian. Other saints will be far less known.

The synaxarion, as transmitted in any of the language-traditions mentioned above, offers students of a particular language, and students of the saints generally, a hoard of reading-material. In his introduction Mathews briefly notes the opportunities those of the former group might avail themselves of in this new volume, and those opportunities will keep growing as the Maxwell Institute publishes subsequent volumes to fill out the rest of the year. Not all saints have a long vita, martyrdom, or encomium, but for those who do, their shorter synaxarion narrative may be a kind of foretaste or pretrial for the longer text. Synaxarion selections often focus on interesting bits that for this or that reason might easily hold our attention, but they also present enough lexical and syntactic variety to be instructive for language learners, yet without being too overwhelming in length. Selections from the synaxarion may even serve as a kind of chrestomathy with some appropriate helps (grammatical notes, glossaries, and/or translations). I have experimented with just this kind of arrangement more than once using the older PO volumes, ((See here and here, for example.)) and in the book itself, this new English translation may serve as a guide throughout the whole text for Armenian students.

For those learning classical Armenian, and now for readers of English, the synaxarion, in whole or in excerpts, allows inductive reading that can be very memorable for the sometimes bizarre and outlandish events it includes, such as extreme tolerance to tortures or a decapitated martyr’s head that continues to talk. Horace famously included among a poet’s goals the giving of delight (delectare) to hearers and readers and speaking pleasing things (iucunda…dicere) to them ((Ars Poetica 333-334.)). In some sense, hagiographers—including the compilers of a synaxarion—also share in these goals with other goals beside. The words “delight” and “pleasing” may seem incongruous for narratives that are so full of malicious antagonism resulting in blood and gore. But these texts, as they are read and considered, do move the reader’s senses in memorable ways. They produce an effect that can stay with the reader, and that was almost certainly why these stories were penned in the first place and later collected together. That effect manifests differently in different readers. For students of classical Armenian, at least, the effect can include more easily remembering certain phrases and sentences in the language they are studying. Readers with an interest in hagiography who may have less inclination to study classical Armenian are of different kinds, and the “delight” and “pleasing things” that may come from reading these firstfruits of the English version of the Armenian synaxarion also vary, whether they have turned to these texts as a spiritual or academic exercise, or both.

As mentioned above, I have previously included numerous excerpts from the Armenian synaxarion in posts at hmmlorientalia, giving the Armenian, and either Bayan’s French translation or my own English translation. For January, at least, I am glad to have Mathews’ translation available, as other readers will also be. We can look forward to the same for the other months.

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Dr. Adam Carter McCollum works on manuscripts in Arabic, Syriac, and other languages for the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library in Collegeville, Minnesota. His interests include the nexuses of languages and text-traditions in eastern Christianity and beyond. Learn more about his work at his blog, hmmlorientalia