09.10.04, Goldfrank, ed., Nil Sorsky

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Denis Crnković

The Medieval Review 09.10.04

Sorsky, Nil. Translated and edited by David M. Goldfrank. Nil Sorsky: The Authentic Writings. Cistercian Studies Series, 221. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2008. Pp. 369. ISBN: 978-0-87907-321-3.

Reviewed by:
Denis Crnković
Gustavus Adolphus College

Nil Sorsky, mystic, monk and author, has long been included on the list of must reads for those interested in the history and inner workings of monastic life, the hesychastic spiritual movement and the politico-social issues facing church and state in Russia in the 15th and 16th centuries. Most noted for his Ustav, a spiritual exercises and advice book for his monastic brethren, Nil also translated a significant volume of saints' lives from the Greek and left a handful of letters and shorter works. Over the years, Nil's works have received varying degrees of attention from scholars both east and west and translations into modern Russian and the major European languages have appeared since the nineteenth century. It is Nil's original works that David Goldfrank presents to the reader in this series of translations newly wrought from the late-medieval Russian texts.

Goldfrank has prepared what he deems a "faithful English translation," (xi) of Nil's Predanie or "Instruction" (which the translator calls "Tradition"), the Ustav ("Rule," Goldfrank's "On Mental Activity"), three epistles and a short letter, the preface and postscript of the collection of saints' lives (Sobornik) and Nil's Testament. Appended are Goldfrank's translations of the "The Nil Polev/Nil Sorsky Codex Scete Typikon," "The Nil Polev/Nil Sorsky Codex Addenda to Nil Sorsky's Predanie," and "The Zavet of Innokentii Okhliabinin." The fourth appendix is an index of Biblical citations. The volume opens with a short but encompassing introductory study of Nil's place in the contemporary monastic controversies and is rounded off with an extensive, partially annotated bibliography and a comprehensive general index.

The breadth of Goldfrank's research and his obvious familiarity with the intricacies of medieval Russian, Church Slavonic and Byzantine Greek are evident throughout this book. Numerous notes on the original text, conjectural readings based on Nil's Greek sources, thorough consideration of the meanings and connotations of various words in the original, and an evident desire to hunt down the mots justes, mark Goldfrank's obvious enthusiasm for his project.

The translator's introductory study on Nil's position in the "non-possessor" controversies and his role in the scete culture of 15th-16th century Russia offers an amalgam of conclusions on Nil's theology, writing style and literary and political impact. Here Goldfrank would show that far from being simply a dissenting voice of Russian monasticism and ecclesiastical life in the 15th and 16th centuries, Nil was a faithful servant of Orthodoxy, and a skilled author and theologian, especially of the mystical practices of hesychasm ("stillness"). The controversial political and social tensions that might have existed between him and his traditionally styled rivals (especially Iosif Volotsky and Archbishop Gennadii) is, in Goldfrank's estimation, a later anachronistic extrapolation. Here Goldfrank presents anew the conclusions of his earlier articles, cogently arguing that Nil, Iosif and Gennadii, far from being at odds with each other in the monastic property ownership battles, were aligned squarely against progressivist Moscow circles. Since the present short review is not the right place for detailed point/counterpoint arguments, suffice it to say that given the contrasting opinions that surround Nilian studies, Goldfrank's conclusions will certainly be challenged, justly or not.

These points of contention constitute the usual stuff of a thoughtful, dissenting voice and the work under review would not suffer for them, if it weren't for Goldfrank's failure to acknowledge the methods of literary production with which Nil worked and the serious infelicities in style and prose that populate Goldfrank's introduction and translations. Unfortunately the author has a propensity for "cuteness" that undermines the seriousness and scholarly tone that this enterprise requires. Chapter headings like "Win Some, Loose Some," and "A Tentative Top Ten"--even aside from their unnecessary reference to American pop culture--offer no hint as to the substance of the chapters below them. Clever references occur seemingly at random: one is not sure, for example, how the tautological quotation from John Lennon explicates the "Preface to the Translations" (105). Colloquial English phrases and wording are met with frequently enough to make the reader uncomfortable and gratuitous overuse of alliteration--reminiscent of the once famous phrase "nattering nabobs of negativity"--serves no discernible purpose. Passages like the almost ranting extended comparison of Nil's monastic situation with 21st century academia, complete with a misplaced reference to "growth oriented" CEO's (54) leave the reader wondering about the author's ability to understand his subject by taking himself and consequently his readers "into the poet's land." While an occasional change of stylistic register or an apt reference to popular culture can be refreshingly effective, Goldfrank's persistent use of middle and low-brow phrasing and forced references to popular culture are ultimately distracting.

Equally serious is Goldfrank's failure to clearly name the exact source of his translations. Except in the case of the Ustav, which, he confirms in a footnote, is rendered from the text published in the Pamiatniki drevnei pis'mennosti (Monuments of ancient literature), volume 19, we are at a loss to figure out exactly which Slavic versions, printed or in manuscript, serve as the ultimate bases for Goldfrank's translations. Even granted that he consulted and compared all of the available texts including the Greek sources of Nil's own works, the information about sources is too diffuse to take advantage of, especially for the scholar who wishes to consult those source texts. It would have been an easy task to simply state at the beginning of each piece which text or texts served as the working sources for his translations.

Goldfrank exhorts the reader to discern Nil's ideas directly from his own writings which, the translator claims, are presented here for the first time in a complete and "direct" translation from the Old Russian/Slavonic originals. Goldfrank relies on Nil's sources, i.e. the Greek texts that Nil "quotes" in his own compositions, for a deeper understanding of Nil's lexical usages and the shades of meaning that Nil's Slavic words might therefore carry. This is a laudable practice and no good translation from the Old Russian would ignore the Greek underpinnings of the open literary tradition of Orthodox Slavdom. However, a serious drawback with Goldfrank's assessment, met in both his introductory study and throughout the translation notes, is his failure to acknowledge the realities of text production within the open tradition that was at the heart of Russian medieval writing. Nils was not playing "footloose and fancy free" with authoritative texts as Goldfrank suggests (82, cf. 85). On the contrary Nils was composing Slavic Orthodox texts in line with the centuries old Orthodox Slavic literary norms of "authoring" texts by carefully and coherently re-presenting the authoritative material of those who came before him.

Goldfrank's stated twofold aim, which he gives in the "Preface to the Translations" is first "to let Nil speak for himself as best he can in modern English," and second, "to elucidate as much as possible what Nil is doing with his sources" (105). To accomplish this, Goldfrank argues, requires being as literal as possible and, although he acknowledges the arguments for "privileging the semantics of the receiving language" for the sake of clarity, he chooses not to clarify his translated text "except via footnotes." Unfortunately his method fails. The very example that he cites for the value of his literal translation vitiates his own argument: The opening phrase here and the retention of the participles with their unclear antecedents in English are awkward at best. Moreover, Goldfrank's claim that by adding clarifying words something of Nil "is lost" is extreme. Indeed, were Goldfrank to take his insistence on literalness to its extreme, he would need to footnote the use of every English a, an and the since the Slavic languages lack articles. The result of this inordinate reliance on the grammar and syntax of the original is an English version that requires either a working knowledge of the language of the primary text or a constant recourse to the footnotes. The first situation would rather ironically exclude the need for a translation at all, while the second makes unrealistic demands on the reader's ease.

In some instances Goldfrank's insistence on a literal correspondence of Slavic word to English word leads to near incomprehensibility: This sentence, taken from the introduction to the Sobornik (Collection of Saints' Lives) encapsulates the shortcomings of Goldfrank's method. The Slavonic word zhe for example, rendered here as the English conjunction "as," misrepresents the original, a particle whose fluid usage has no direct equivalent in English. In Nil's Slavonic text the zhe clearly does not herald the opening of a dependent adverbial clause, but introduces a statement resulting from the previous sentence: "...so that those who have understanding greater than us may correct what is uncorrected and fill in the lacunae." Moreover, the particle zhe emphasizes the personal pronoun "I" (az), indicating that Nil emphatically takes any responsibility for errors upon himself. Given this, the better translation of zhe is "for": Our translation also underscores the misplaced insistence that one word in the original should nearly always be translated with the same word in the target language; one can cite especially the Slavonic conjunction and particle i, whose basic meaning is "and" but whose extended meaning includes equivalents of "thus," "therefore," "that is," "then," and the like. In the original of the sentence above, the word i occurs twice, best translated in the first instance as "and" (...and if anything within them) and in the second as "then" (...then I beg forgiveness).

Not only does Goldfrank work his translation into convoluted and often incomprehensible lexical and syntactic muddles, he flattens out the meanings of many of Nil's words. Goldfrank claims that this is to retain as much of Nil's style as possible, but his eager intention to give us a sense of the original obscures the sense of numerous passages. A look at two examples will suffice. Rather than use the word "instruction" for the Russian predanie Goldfrank opts for "tradition," a tertiary meaning that usually implies an oral transmission. Given the instructional content of Nil's Predanie, the translator's choice appears random. A second example shows a more pernicious problem, Goldfrank's insistent translation of the word razum as "knowledge" with little reference to its connotations of "understanding." We have hinted at this unhappy insistence in our discussion of the meanings of zhe and i above. In his introductory explanation of technical terms, Goldfrank claims that he is "forced to be arbitrary" in his choice here because of the number of Greek terms that razum can translate, and that he has therefore chosen to consistently use the English "knowledge" wherever possible (91). Unhappily, this forced "consistency" leaves little room for the connotations of the word. In the Ustav for example, Goldfrank renders nerazumii as "unknowledgeable" (226). Likewise, in the Letter to Vassian Patrikeev where Nil refers to himself as nerazumnago, the translator again offers "unknowledgeable" (231). Ignoring the awkwardness of the English word, one is struck by Goldfrank's singular use of this term to translate a common Russian and Slavonic word, whose well-known meaning includes not just a lack of knowing, but a lack of understanding. By emphasizing the lack of knowledge over the lack of understanding, Goldfrank's English version loses the higher connotation of the spiritual gift of "gnosis" that the word razum carries. Instances of inaccurate or misleading translation like these occur in numerous places and often for no more apparent reason than Goldfrank's desire to be more "authentic" with his English text. Unfortunately, the project to be genuine fails in the face of linguistic overcompensation.

These serious drawbacks unfortunately are not remedied by Goldfrank's extensive translator's apparatus. While the numerous footnotes and explanations of Greek and Slavonic terms may give the interested reader sufficient insight into the deeper meanings of the original Old Russian texts, the reader not equipped with Greek or the Slavic languages and certainly the casual reader will be seriously challenged. Similar difficulties cloud what could have been a helpful bibliography. Although thorough and complete, the bibliography is arranged into so many subheadings (including the dubious "Works Claiming to Contain Publications and Translations of Nil Sorsky's Works") that it is difficult to use. Nor do these subheadings reflect any self-evident classifications, making it unnecessarily complicated for the reader to easily find sources for further investigations. Again, the author exhibits an overly enthusiastic penchant for classification and realignment with the unfortunate consequence that the reader takes the loss.

Goldfrank's work, in spite of the obvious erudition and scholarly care taken in the research and preliminary production, fails in its execution. One would be hard pressed to find an audience to whom one could recommend this book. Indeed, one begins reading this volume with the great hope that Goldfrank will bring to life the monastic, theological, social and historical world of the 15th century Russian ascetic monk and proponent of "stillness" for the modern reader. Unfortunately one puts this book aside with that hope undone.

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Author Biography

Denis Crnković

Gustavus Adolphus College