Technical Notes on the Psellos Translation

Thoughts on the challenges of translating Psellos’ text on Pentecost, notes on stylizations, important words, and some etymologies.

The translation of Michael Psellos on the tongues of pentecost is a work in progress. The English translation posted is in beta and has been updated a number of times since. It may remain in beta for a long time for a number of reasons.

The first reason is Psellos’ love of Platonic literature. The whole framework of his writing is based on this logic. Patristics and ecclesiastical theology is a distinct second. It is quite surprising to find an eleventh century writer devoted to such a genre. The first attempt of translating this work was based on the assumption of a Patristic framework with some theology, and a sprinkling of philosophy. This left me scratching my head. It didn’t make sense. It became apparent that Psellos would liken himself to being Plato reborn. Once the words were traced back to Platonic theory, it all made clear sense.

The second reason is that Psellos assumed his readers understood and appreciated Platonic logic. This is not the case for the modern reader. Most readers will find this translation intellectual gobbley-gook because of this. The dependance of specific Greek words of logic such as ὕλη and εἶδος which arguably are translated as matter and form, doesn’t do justice in the English on their central importance. These are the key cornerstones in Psellos’ logic. In an effort to make this clear, they are highlighted in italics to alert the English reader to its importance, but this still seems very weak. Psellos used these words as a vehicle to describe the nature and purpose of the tongues phenomena. The matter was the indwelling presence of God, but in what form was it expressed? Was it an internal or external type of phenomena? In the English translation, the importance of these words are lost.

Another problem is his mystery style of writing. Psellos was known for purposely being unclear. The book “The Argument of Psellos’ Chronographia” clearly makes this case:

“We are now entitled to ask whether Psellos himself practiced the serpentine art of secret writing, and whether his own works, like those of Plato and Aristotle, contain, “hidden” or esoteric teachings. . . .We know that Psellos was a superb practitioner of the art of rhetoric. As I hope to demonstrate, this philosopher, who disguised himself as an orator who merely fancied himself a philosopher, was acutely aware of the potential of rhetoric for allusion, subtely, deception, misdirection, and veiled pronouncement.”

This can be seen in a number of ways. One of them being his metaphors. On two occasions his use of metaphors were either a misdirection, a veiled pronouncement, or simply on a tangent. An example of a tangent was when he correlated the miracle of tongues with that of giving birth.

…inasmuch the sound was sent into the Apostles not corresponding to language, but it was only necessary to tap the lip and open the mouth, even as I have certainly been often amazed at the midwives about which procures the newborns from the fetus in the wombs, or about her which is in the process of giving birth. For these women, whenever a child has been born or also when they remove the child which is sliding out of the mother with faintings. Thus at that moment they simply put the hands around the foreheads, next they are presaged to breathe a little air, then [the infant] bellows out with mighty [sounds].

The second one is a veiled pronouncement. Psellos inserts the following metaphor after he promoted the option that the miracle can occur in different ways depending on how one perceives it:

And as an example, while the sun has stood in the midday, locusts and the things that see in the night take in something faint of the light, but men and elephants more or less gaze corresponding to the physical tendency which belongs to each one.

The example does not flow properly in his text and once again leaves the reader wondering where his is going with all of this.

Another reason is that of language. Michael Psellos has incorporated Classical, Doric, Ionic and Attic Greek in his writing. The classical is mostly related to his love of Platonic works. There are a number of Doric words that have slipped in with his Attic, and a few Ionic. His political life put him in the epicenter of the Byzantine Greek world where linguistic, theological, and philosophical fields intersected. This makes it very difficult to translate because the presently available toolkits for this era hardly exist. Add to the fact that Psellos is incorporating various sub-dialects into his work makes the level of accuracy even more difficult to attain.

His writing style is very extensive. He used synonyms frequently, so his vocabulary range is very broad. This work cannot be translated simply using the Lidell Scott Jones dictionary found at Perseus, rather, this can be misleading at times. The expansive Stephanus dictionary, the dictionary of ancient Greek dictionaries, helps but is not aimed for this time period. A large number of other dictionaries were consulted but it was found that Lampe’s Patristic Lexicon and James Donnegan’s A New Greek and English Lexicon; Principally on the plan of the Greek and German Lexicon of Schneider were the two best sources. The internet was helpful at times too. A problem Greek word would by typed in Google Search with the name, Aristotle or Plato inputted beside it, and some good clues could be found. There were a few words that I could not be certain what they meant, so they were left untranslated.

This translation is done with great fear and trepidation because most of the dictionaries are based on words used about six hundred years earlier, and some words after his period. The words may have slight shifts in Psellos’ time, but I have few resources to draw upon that reflect that.

A good example is the word νυκτάλωπες which Perseus, and Lampe has nothing, and Donnegan, “a disease, consisting of loss of vision by night” (Pg. 879). A quick Google search of the Greek word will bring up Nyctalopia: “Night blindness, impaired vision in dim light and in the dark, due to impaired function of certain specialized vision cells (the rods) in the retina.” ( However this definition does not fit in with the Psellos text. A look into Stephanus Greek Dictionary implies that it can be a certain type sight problem in low light conditions, but it can be the opposite as well (Stephanus Vol. 5 col. 1589). The French language has adopted this word and called it nyctalope which refers to an animal with night vision. The Psellos text appears to flow with the Stephanus night vision and the French animal night vision. It shows that one should not be so quick to accept the regular dictionary definitions when working with this text.

There are slight nuances in grammar that are different too, but there are no popular grammars that adequately cover this period.

Psellos liked to clearly structure his content using the particles μέν and δὲ. He went a step further and created a more complex particle construct including the masculine definite article, ὁ μέν “the former” and ὁ δὲ “the latter”.

ὥσπερ γὰρ μιᾶς ἀπηχηθείσης ἐν ὑπαίθρῳ φωνῆς ὁ μέν τις ἡμῶν ἤκουσεν, ὁ δὲ ἀδρανέστερον ἀντελάβετο κατὰ τὴν ἀναλογίαν τῆς διαστάσεως καὶ τῆς εἰλικρινοῦς ἀκοῆς, τῶν δὲ μὴ ἀκουσάντων ὁ μὲν διὰ τὸ πολὺ διεστάναι οὐκ ἀντελάβετο, ὁ δὲ διὰ τὸ ἐμπεφράχθαι αὐτῷ τὸν τῆς ἀκοῆς πόρον, ἐμψυγέντος κατ᾽ἐκεῖνο τὸ μέρος τοῦ φλέγματος. . .

For it is like one voice that had been re-echoed in public, the former somehow heard by us, while the latter was not heard, and the former is something more distinct with those who heard and in latter was apprehended [at that moment] more fainter according to the proportion of the distance of the pure sound heard. In respect to those who did not hear, the former was not grasped because of what appears to have been too far apart, the latter was because the sound’s path had been actively blocked from him [regarding] the person possessed in reference to this matter of fire. . .

On the topic of particles, it became tiring and redundant to use on the one hand… and on the other hand throughout. This could become too repetitive for any English reader following the text so creativity with the translation was required. Synonyms to this phrase can be the first option… the second option, on the one hand… alternatively, in the first manner… in the second manner or one way… another way were options for consideration and sometimes utilized.

He tended to use the optative frequently. The subjunctive mood is almost or entirely absent. The use of the articular infinitive is also used sparingly. This goes against the evolutionary stream of the Greek language. The optative was considered dead by this period. Many books and authors, like the Companion to the Ancient Greek Language have emphatically stated this. I think that Psellos wrote in retro-Greek — that is to emulate the great Greek thinkers of the past. His love of the ancient Greek philosophers was embraced and reflected in his style of writing.

His alternating usage of γλῶσσα and γλῶττα throughout the text was initially perplexing. They both are the same word, just different branches of the Greek language. The first being what is found in the Bible and Ionic Greek in Origin. The second being Attic and the language which Psellos communicated in. Psellos used the Biblical spelling when relating to the historic mystical event along with its theology, while he used the Attic spelling when writing in a non-theological context.

Psellos used the keywords, φωνή, διαλέκτος and γλῶσσα within his text. Psellos does not depart from the traditional definitions. Φωνή is the speech/sound or emittance with little reference to the type or nature. Διαλέκτος is becoming more specific. Sophocles dictionary describes it as “language; dialect, a variety of a particular language” (Page 365). It relates to a language family and sometimes to a particular dialect. It is the characteristic that distinguishes men from animals. Γλῶσσα is very close to διαλέκτος in meaning and in most occasions could be used as a synonym. In other cases it is more specific, relating to a specific language or dialect.

Here are a few of the new words used by Psellos in describing the pentecostal tongues phenomena. The definitions given are from a number of dictionaries and is shown in shortened form here:

  • αἴσθησις ➞ perception of the senses
  • ἀνεπαίσθητος ➞ unperceived, imperceptible
  • ἀνεπιστήμων ➞ ignorant, unskilful
  • ἀσώματος ➞ incorporeal
  • ἀπηχέω ➞ re-echo, utter
  • αὐτόπτης ➞ detected by a fact, eyewitness
  • αὐτοπτικός ➞ concerned with a direct vision of divinity
  • διάνοια ➞ thought, intention, the faculty of reasoning
  • διαλέγομαι ➞ to speak
  • διίστημι ➞ to separate, be divided
  • ἐνθεαστάς ➞ divine enthusiasm
  • ἐνθεαστικός ➞ divinely or prophetically inspired
  • ἐνηχέω ➞ to be resonant, ringing in the ears
  • ἐπιπνοια ➞ inspiration
  • ἐπόπτης ➞ visible, watcher, highest level of esoteric knowledge
  • εὐγλωσσία ➞ glibness of tongue, fluency of speech
  • θεοληψία ➞ inspiration
  • μαίνομαι ➞ burn with enthusiasm or devotion
  • μεταβάλλω ➞ distribute, change, alter
  • ὁμιλία ➞ instruction, lecture
  • προσομιλέω ➞ discourse, lecture
  • προσφθέγγομαι ➞ to call, address
  • φαντάζω ➞ to form an idea or image in the mind
  • φανταστικός ➞ to see with the mind’s eye
  • φῶς ➞ light — a divine light, something Psellos was concerned about how it worked inside the person
  • ὠνόμαζω ➞ to name, speak or call by name

Φαντάζω and φανταστικός are words that are scantly described in any of my Greek dictionaries, but the same type of formula is found in the writings of the Latin scholar, Thomas Aquinas, who appeared about two centuries later. I had previously translated Aquinas on a similar theme and his insights are an influence in translating the Platonic themes presented by Psellos.

In the last paragraphs, Psellos delves into the role of plants, mysticism, healing and ancient Greek practices on these subjects. They are a sharp departure from the previous paragraphs in content, style, and word usage. It almost appears part of a different theme and later stitched in with the earlier text. If it is a piece of the original text, then one would could surmise that the ancient Greek prophetesses entrance into ecstasy, and subsequent speaking in foreign languages, was part of the ancient Greek ritual of healing.

Many thanks to Alex Poulos for discovering and doing some initial translation work on this writer. His translation and introduction can be found here, Michael Psellos 11th century Greek text and commentary regarding Gregory’s On Pentecost



Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.

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