Evagrius of Antioch’s non-ascetic Life of Antony translation prevailed

Late in the fourth century, two translations of the Life of Antony provided a market test of translation close to the original (“word-for-word translation”) and translation close to the language and terms of the intended readers (“sense-for-sense translation”). The Life of Antony translated more closely to its intended readers was much more popular. Yet ease or pleasure in reading wasn’t the only fact in determining ancient translation methods. The value of connecting the reader to the source text and the relative cultural prestige of the destination languages also influenced ancient translation techniques.

An anonymous translator and Evagrius of Antioch translated the Life of Anthony from Greek into Latin in the fourth century. Antony was a Christian anchorite in Egypt. He died in 356. Shortly after Antony’s death, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, wrote in Greek the hagiographic Life of Antony. An anonymous translator literally translated Athanasius’s Life of Anthony into Latin soon after Anthanasius wrote it in Greek. By 374, Evagrius of Antioch had produced another Latin translation. Evagrius translated the Life of Antony into elegant Latin that used terms and concepts more accessible to western European readers.

In translating the Life of Antony from Greek into Latin, both the anonymous translator and Evagrius made informative changes. The anonymous translator kept close to word-for-word translation of the Greek original. Yet the anonymous translator deleted repetitive words and unnecessary phrases, added relevant factual specifications, heightened some adjectives into superlatives, made scriptural references fuller and more explicit, amplified horrors of demons, and associated demons with the threatening Arian heresy. These effects were through local changes of merely a word or phrase. The anonymous translator seems to have been a well-educated monk who was a follower of Antony in the desert of Egypt. He apparently sought to produce a translation that was precise, specific, and true to Antony’s anchorite life in the Egyptian desert.[1]

Evagrius, in contrast, translated the Life of Antony into rhetoric and terms more attractive and accessible to Latin readers in western Europe. Evagrius was a rhetorically educated religious and political leader in Antioch, which was a leading city for early Christianity. Evagrius translated Athanasius’s Greek original with added rhetorical embellishments (alliteration, graphic description, dramatic dialogue, rhetorical questions), new ecclesiastical terminology, and more weight on relatively abstract theological ideas such as God the creator, the actions of angels, and heaven. Evagrius’s translation shifted focus up the hierarchy of evil from demons to Satan, mitigated ascetic rigor, and brought forward community practices of monasticism.[2] In a prologue he added to the Life of Antony, Evagrius explained his translation technique:

Direct word for word translation from one language to another darkens the sense and strangles it, even as spreading couchgrass a field of corn. For in slavishly following cases and constructions, the language scarcely explains by lengthy periphrasis what it might state by concise expression. For my part, to avoid this, I have so transposed this life of the Blessed Antony which you desired that whatever lack may be in the words, there is none in the meaning. Let the rest go bat-fowling for letters and syllables: do you seek for the sense. [3]

That description itself is highly rhetorical and tendentious. Evagrius’s translation indicates that he had at hand the earlier anonymous translation.[4] In describing translation techniques, Evagrius implicitly contrasted his translation with the earlier anonymous translation.

Evagrius’s translation of the Life of Antony was much more popular than the anonymous translation. The leading scholar of Latin translations of Life on Antony declared:

Evagrius’s translation was immensely popular, as demonstrated by its preservation in more than 300 codices dating from the ninth through the sixteenth century. His translation has been mentioned in the writings of numerous medieval authors and has frequently been cited in medieval library catalogs. [5]

The anonymous translation, in contrast, was unknown in post-Renaissance scholarship until a century ago. Only one manuscript of the complete anonymous translation has survived.[6] Across more than 1400 years, Evagrius’s Latin translation has been an overwhelming winner against the earlier anonymous Latin translation.[7]

Most ancient translations from Greek into Latin and Syriac did not follow Evagrius’s winning translation technique. From the sixth century until the Renaissance, the norm for virtually all translations from Greek to Latin was literal translation.[8] Translations from Greek into Syriac also shifted toward literal translation. Fifth-century translations from Greek to Syriac were free and expansive, while seventh century translations closely followed the Greek text. In addition, from the fourth to the seventh century, Greek words became much more frequently incorporated into Syriac translations.[9] The prestige of Greek culture and the leading examples of Jewish and Christian biblical scholarship and biblical translation seems to have driven ancient translations closer to the original Greek texts. Contrary to likely advantage among the broad market of potential readers, ancient translators sought to catch individual Greek words.

Translations from Greek into Arabic, whether through Syriac or direct, were typically much closer in diction and style to the destination language. Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a leading translator of Greek scholarship into Arabic in ninth-century Baghdad, rejected word-for-word translation. Hunayn sought to translate the meaning of Greek texts into Arabic.[10] To that same end, Arabic scholars generated a vast array of Arabic works that freely adapted, abridged, and expanded Greek texts. Arabic, as the language of the Qur’an, was a more prestigious language than Greek in the ancient Islamic world. Arabic scholars drew upon the authority of ancient Greek texts without privileging literal translations of those Greek texts.

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[1] The characterization of the anonymous translation is from Gandt (2008).

[2] The characterization of Evagrius of Antioch’s translation is also from id.

[3] Trans. Waddell (1936), p. 4, with an omitted sentence added from the translation of the Life of Antony in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (see note 983). Compare the above translation with a translation into a contemporary plain style:

A literal translation from one language to another conceals the meaning. If it closely follows verbal forms, a translation becomes much more lengthy than is necessary. I have avoided this in translating, as you requested, the life of the blessed Antony. I have translated in such a way that nothing should be lacking from the sense although something may be missing from the words. Some people try to capture the syllables and letters, but you must seek the meaning.

Adapted from Ward (2003) p. xxxii.

[4] Gandt (2008) pp. 186-7.

[5] Id. p. 2.

[6] It was found in 1914 in a Roman Church archive. It is a tenth or eleventh century manuscript copied in beautiful Farfa script. A small fragment of the anonymous translation, probably written in the thirteenth century in Central Italy, has also survived. Id. pp. 3-4.

[7] Life of Antony was a highly popular work in the ancient world and influential in the development of Christian monasticism. In addition to 300 manuscripts of Evagrius’s Latin version, at least 175 manuscripts of the Life of Antony in Greek have also survived. Manuscript translations into Coptic and Syriac have also survived. Id. p. 35.

[8] Brock (1979) pp. 70, 80.

[9] Brock (1982) p. 18.

[10] Brock (1979) pp. 74-75.


Brock, Sebastian. 1979. “Aspects of Translation Technique in Antiquity.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 20, 1: 69-87.

Brock, Sebastian. 1982. “From Antagonism to Assimilation: Syriac Attitudes to Greek Learning.” Pp. 17-34 in Nina G. Garsoïan, Thomas F. Mathews, and Robert W. Thomson, eds., East of Byzantium: Syria and Armenia in the Formative Period. Dumbarton Oaks Symposium 1980. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1982. Reprinted in Brock (1984), Syriac Perspectives on Late Antiquity, Ch. V.

Gandt, Lois. 2008. A philological and theological analysis of the ancient Latin translations of the Vita Antonii. Thesis (Ph. D.) Fordham University, 2008.

Ward, Benedicta. 2003. The Desert Fathers. London: Penguin Books. Penguin Classics.

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