The Philokalia Englished

I present here some examples of the translation of texts in two different English translations of the Philokalia of Saints Makarios of Corinth and Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain. The text marked Faber & Faber is the translation of the Philokalia undertaken by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (of which translators only the latter, now Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, is still amongst us), which has to this point published the first four volumes of the five Greek volumes. The text marked Cavarnos is the translation of Constantine Cavarnos, which appears in two volumes of selected translations from the volumes of the Philokalia, available here from the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies.

The goal of this presentation is to indicate the general tenor of the two translations, giving a kind of taster of their qualities. Others may come to their own conclusions, but I prefer the Cavarnos translation. The main reason is that the Faber & Faber translation, while often elegantly phrased, is insufficiently attentive to an accurately consistent rendition of the theological vocabulary found in the Greek texts. A sensitivity to this vocabulary is paramount in the work of Cavarnos. Indeed, he has devoted an entire book to describing the importance of such a consistency of approach in translation: Orthodox Christian Terminology (IBMGS, 1994). This is particularly the case in the Anglophonic world, which is simply not an Orthodox culture, and its religious and philosophical vocabulary is therefore not transparently applicable in translation. In such a thing as such weighty theological texts, precision and accuracy should be of greater concern than I think is perhaps found in the Faber & Faber translations, initiated more than three decades ago. Perhaps they would be done differently now. In fact, several of Cavarnos’ drafts were solicited and reworked by the Faber & Faber editors, an interesting twist to the story of the publication of the Philokalia in English.

We proceed.

St Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect: Twenty-Seven Texts, 1
Faber & Faber
There is among the passions an anger of the intellect, and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without anger, a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy. When Job felt this anger he reviled his enemies, calling them ‘dishonourable men of no repute, lacking everything good, whom I would not consider fit to live with the dogs that guard my flocks’ (cf. Job 30:1, 4. LXX). He who wishes to acquire the anger that is in accordance with nature must uproot all self-will, until he establishes within himself the state natural to the intellect.

Anger of the mind (τοῦ νοὸς ὀργὴ) against the passions is according to nature (κατὰ φύσιν). Without such anger purity does not result in man — if the mind does not become angry at all that is sowed in it by the enemy. When Job found the enemy, he (Job) reproached them saying to them: “You who are dishonorable and of no repute, in want of every good thing, whom I did not consider worthy to be with my shepherd dogs!” Now he who wants to acquire anger according to nature cuts off all his volitions, until he establishes himself in the state of the mind that is according to nature.

Evagrios the Solitary, Extracts from the Texts on Watchfulness, 1-2
Faber & Faber
A monk should always act as if he was going to die tomorrow; yet he should treat his body as if it was going to live for many years. The first cuts off the inclination to listlessness, and makes the monk more diligent; the second keeps his body sound and his self-control well balanced.

He who has attained spiritual knowledge and has enjoyed the delight that comes from it will no longer succumb to the demon of self-esteem, even when he offers him all the delights of the world; for what could the demon promise him that is greater than spiritual contemplation? But so long as we have not tasted this knowledge, let us devote ourselves eagerly to the practice of the virtues, showing God that our aim in everthing is to attain knowledge of Him.

A monk should always be alive as if he were to die tomorrow. Again, he should treat his body as if it were to live for many years. The former cuts off thoughts of despondency (ἀκηδία) and renders the monk more zealous, while the latter keeps the body sound and maintains self-restraint undiminished.

He who has attained knowledge and has enjoyed the pleasure that comes from it will no longer be persuaded by the demon of vainglory when he offers all the pleasures of the world. For what could he promise that is greater than that spiritual contemplation? However, so long as we have not tasted this knowledge let us devote ourselves eagerly to spiritual practices, thus showing our aim to God, that we are doing everything for the sake of knowledge (γνῶσις) of Him.

St Mark the Ascetic, Concerning Those Who Think That Men Are Justified By Works, 90
Faber & Faber
The intellect changes from one to another of three different noetic states: that according to nature, above nature, and contrary to nature. When it enters the state according to nature, it finds that it is itself the cause of evil thoughts, and confesses its sins to God, clearly understanding the causes of the passions. When it is in the state contrary to nature, it forgets God’s justice and fights with men, believing itself unjustly treated. But when it is raised to the state above nature, it finds the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace and the other fruits of which the Apostle speaks (cf. Gal. 5:22); and it knows that if it gives priority to bodily cares it cannot remain in this state. An intellect that departs from this state falls into sin and all the terrible consequences of sin — if not immediately, then in due time, as God’s justice shall decide.

There are three mental places (νοητοὶ τόποι) where the mind enters through change: that which is according to nature, that which is above nature, and that which is contrary to nature. When it enters that which is according to nature, it finds itself the cause of evil thoughts, and confesses to God its sins, knowing the causes of the passions. When it enters the place that is “contrary to nature” it forgets the justice of God, and quarrels with men, that supposedly are unjust to him. When he comes to the place that is “above nature” it finds the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which the Apostle calls love, joy, peace, and so forth. And he knows that if he prefers bodily cares, he cannot abide there. And he who departs from that place, that is, from the place “above nature,” falls into sin and the accompanying dread events, and if not soon, at the time when known to God’s justice.

I find (and I believe others will agree) that the Cavarnos translations to be theologically clearer than the superficially more well-translated Faber & Faber translations, interestingly enough. While the latter certainly read more easily, in smoother, more idiomatic English, the theological point tends to be obscured through the rather loose control of the theological vocabulary. The Cavarnos translation, on the other hand, while hewing more closely to Greek modes of expression, is theologically clearer while not as idiomatically smooth English. The import of the Philokalia lies primarily in its theological and not artistic or literary value. Seeing that, I find the Cavarnos translation, while incomplete, to be preferable to the Faber & Faber, particularly for readers new to the Philokalia. A more experienced reader will be able to follow the occasionally somewhat convoluted paraphrastic reworkings of the Faber & Faber translation, and will be able to understand their theological intent clearly. But this cannot be expected of a reader new to the Philokalia. I will therefore be recommending the Cavarnos translations first to new readers of the Philokalia, for precisely the value of their clarity in concise and uncomplicated expression of the theological terminology.


  1. Thank you for the helpful review and comparison! I look forward to reading the Cavarnos translation now. Such a vital text is worthy of this “accurate and consistent rendition of the theological vocabulary.”

  2. You’re welcome, Todd!

    It really is a difficult task to translate these things so that the important theological vocabulary isn’t obscured. In Cavarnos’ case, in order to keep things clear he’ll often just insert a phrase in Greek in parentheses, as in the above examples. One of the reasons I chose those was for their being good examples of that practice. They’re neither overwhelming nor superficial, but each is noted for a particular reason: the theological weight of the terms. This is the most efficient way to achieve that. But a consistent translation strategy in English is also in play in Cavarnos, guided by his concerns that he voiced more fully in his Orthodox Christian Terminology book.

    In precisely that line, I recommend reading “A Study of English Orthodox Theological Terms Compared to the Original Greek” by the Holy Monastery of Saint Gregoriou, Mount Athos (2004), available on the web from the Orthodox Info site, here. This study presents a tabulation of the renderings of several imporant Orthodox theological terms in various translations, drawing attention to the careless rendering of various terms by the same word, or the same term by various words. The authors advocate transliteration, which is clearly superior, and which has in fact become much more common in the past decade in works on Orthodox theology, both academic and popular. So, things are turning around.

    Anyhow, I think it also helps just to bring attention to the fact that there’s a problem. It’ll get people to slow down and focus a bit more, and also not go off half-cocked about the particular English terminology used in some translations that are not particularly hewing too closely to the Greek. We could all be more attentive readers!

  3. The book from the Holy Monastery of Saint Gregoriou sounds very good. Of course to even begin to understand these holy writings we must understand the vocabulary they use. And full understanding can come only to those who live like they did. I imagine it must be very difficult to translate such deep spiritual words (because one has to live them to truly understand them), especially in a language that is probably mostly inadequate.

  4. Well its about time somebody figured it out. For all the years I have been criticized for my “Hybrid” English I have always tried to do justice to the underlying Greek. To do that you have to do some pretty nutty things. I understand transliteration, but I think, and this is just my opinion, the average layman won’t get it. So you have to translate or “Approximate” the English the best you can and leave the rest up to you local priests to bring out the full flavor of the underlying Greek. If only all priests had this talent. Oh well, this is just me.


  5. Right, Peter, there’s nothing wrong with doing that as long as there’s some planning and thought behind it, which is an investment I know you’ve made in your work. Others, though, like the Faber & Faber Philokalia editors, collected draft translations from various translators (including Cavarnos, as is mentioned in the Introduction to the second volume of his translated excerpts from the Philokalia) and yet didn’t do the work to consistently differentiate between various terms (psyche, pneuma, nous, dianoia, etc) in their multiply-sourced English translations. Instead, they smoothed the English translations out into a particular style, which is admittedly elegant and reads very well, but which is concomittantly lacking in precision of expression. That’s just a common problem in translation into a language of a non-Orthodox culture that doesn’t have its own established equivalents for the technical terms involved. It’s a tough situation, though. There are places, like academic articles and introductions to Patristic works, where transliteration can be used without blinking. But within the Patristic texts themselves? Or, as you’ve been doing, in the Scriptures themselves? I would prefer to see the original terms quoted in notes and a consistent English equivalent utilized for each various term, if not the transliteration. But even there I waver. I’d rather be accurate than elegant, in the end, that’s for sure.

  6. Kevin- Have you seen the second Cavarnos volume? I was curious to know what the contents were.

    Peter- I notice that your translation often has grammatical quirks, such as “thou has…” Could you explain why this better expresses the underlying Greek?

  7. Ok here is the problem. The Greek that is used in the LXX, as the Greek used in the NT, is of varying degrees. Hellenistic Greek is NOT classical Greek and it is not fully Konie (common) Greek, at least not yet.

    So its struck between a lofty Greek and a common everyday Greek so how do you represent that in English? How do you represent the transition of a language from a highly structured Attic Greek to a more Common everyday Greek? Hence my attempt at my “Hybrid English” style?

    Quick example: a common phrase of “Lipon, Pater” Attic Greek.
    Rough Translation – “In any event, Father…” or “Lipon, patera” Hellenistic Greek. Rough translation – “Very well dad.”

    “Lipon” is still a formal address to someone, but Pater is property translated “Father” where Patera is prtoperly translated “Dad.” One is formal one is not.

    This is what you pretty much have going on all over the LXX and NT. So how do you properly express that? Also, you have the change in meanings of certail words. “Kalo” in Konie Greek means “Good” in Hellenistic Greek, depending on the context, can mean “beautiful,” “Good,” “excellent,” Etc., which would change the dynamics of a sentance. There is formalness in one instance and an informalness in the other.

    So like it or not how does one address this vacilation between formalness and informaness, loftiness and everyday speech? How do you bring out the flavor and sense of the underlying Greek going through a trasition and transformation where all the old rules are broken and new one are being formed pursuant to the needs of middle eastern people that come from a completely liguistic background? How do you capture that synthesis?

    Hence my “Thou has…” My personal attempt. Right or wrong its what I am attempting to do. Will I eventually fail? Quite possibly, but I am giving it a try and letting the people decide.

    I also know the NASB has tried this “Hybrid” English style to a varying degree, but I think their reasons for doing so where different than mine.

    That’s all I can say. Like it or not this is my approach.


  8. That should read: “middle eastern people that come from a completely different liguistic background?”

  9. Well, I think you’re doing a fine job, Peter. The explanation is I’m sure more than people expected to hear. There’s a sharp method behind your seeming madness!

    What you’re doing is only possible for someone with more than passing familiarity with the different ages of the Greek language. Most people don’t care about anything outside their corpus of focus. But we need a broader perspective in order to translate well. Thanks for doing that!

  10. Peter- Thanks for your explanation. I can see why you did what you did, but I still feel that it’s problematic.

    As far as I know, there was never a time in English where “thou has” or “thou have” (you use them both) were grammatical. There was no intermediate modern English in which these forms were acceptable.

    I don’t know whether or not it’s possible to represent this shift you speak of in the Greek, but toying with English grammar isn’t the way to do it- it will only confuse readers.

    The broader point is, why is it important to represent these shifts for the English reader? Why would it be of interest to anyone but linguists, who would want to study the original for the purpose anyway? Do you think the translators of the Septuagint sought to represent similar shifts in the Hebrew? It does not, it seems to me, communicate any difference in meaning or offer any insights into the truths of the scriptures.

    You might be interested in commenting here:

    Fr. Dcn. Matthew Steenberg posted some lengthy comments about your work that you might want to think about or respond to on the forum.

  11. I have read Fr. Dn Matthew Steenberg’s post, and I have wanted, many, many a times to directly comment to it but for some unknown reason will not let me on to comment.

    Ryan, all I can tell you is if my translation confuses you don’t use my brother. Simple as that. You know who I am? Just a Greek boy from Chicago that received a call from God to do this. I truly believe that. I had to teach myself LXX Greek from scratch with my dad, a few Greek monks and a few LXX scholars that took the time to e-mail or call me over the years.

    I did not choose to do it this way, it is what I felt i had to do. Once it is done my calling will be complete and if you don’t like it or cannot understand it, if you get caught up in the rules and don’t/can’t see past them that’s ok, just let the translation die and go the way of the do-do.

    But if you like it and can understand it then give God the glory not me. As for Dn Matthew and the OSB there are more problems there than my translation will ever have.

    I bid you peace and a very good lent


  12. Peter- Thanks for your words. I don’t want to come across as overly harsh towards what is clearly a labour of love which I could never attempt. I agree with you that the OSB has problems aplenty, though I don’t think Fr. Dcn. Matthew had much to do with them.

  13. No problem Ryan, although you may want to ask yourself why Fr. Dcn Matthew won’t let me on his site to respond to his post, and why he dosen’t apply the same criticisim the the OSB, which has alot of the so-called same failings as my translation.

    Compare the two versions at every place the good Dcn lists and then ask yourself where was his criticism of the OSB IF he is not that involved with the OSB.

    Happy Lent and I bid you peace.


  14. Peter- Are you sure Fr. Dcn. Matthew is deliberately blocking you from the site? Maybe it’s just a technical problem. Have you tried emailing him?

    As for the extent of Fr. Dcn. Matthew’s involvement, well, just look at the title page which lists the editors and the overview committee- his name isn’t there. His name only appears toward the end of a bunch of names in the acknowledgments page.

    Many others have critiqued the OSB and I haven’t seen Fr. Dcn. Matthew promoting or defending it.

  15. Ryan, I’ve tried numerous times as I was originally on the site and then I couldn’t get on. I e-mailed, and e-mailed with no response, but if you don’t believe me just ask him. You e-mail him and tell me what he says.

    Also, Dcn Matthew never, and I mean never crtitcized the OSB like he did my translation on point of crticisim the same, not similar, but the SAME as mine. So why just mine and not the OSB?

    In any event, I leave it to God. If I am wrong God will correct me and I will accept correction. However, something tells me I correct.

    Unfortunately, I have seen and experienced many things in the Orthodox Church from people you would never expect to be so calculating…to say the least.

    Take care my friend, and truly have a good Lent and please forgive me for my own personal failings. I bid you peace.


  16. Will Cavarnos be continuing his translations from the Philokalia? The fact that the first text from the first volume is the first one from the Greek and the second volume ends with the final text from the Greek suggests that he has finished what he has started. Does anybody know?

  17. We should not expect further translations from Dr Cavarnos. He is very old and frail. He apparently had not planned on a full translation, in any case. The second volume is in fact pieced together from drafts in various states of completion, as described in the Introduction. Perhaps there are some other drafts, but I doubt that the whole Philokalia lies amongst them.

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