This Saturday, October 8, the Armenian Church commemorates the Feast of the Holy Translators, one of the most beloved feasts. There are, in fact, two such commemorations in our liturgical calendar. One is on the Thursday following the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, which can occur in June or July; the other is on the second Saturday of October.
The October commemoration focuses on the creation of the Armenian alphabet (406) and on the accomplishments of the Holy Translators. Mesrob Mashdots, the founder of the alphabet, and Catholicos Sahag, together with some of their students, translated the Bible. Schools were opened and the works of world-renowned scholars were translated. Their work gave the Armenian Church a distinct national identity.
In modern times the entire month of October has been designated as a “Month of Culture,” thanks to His Holiness Karekin I Hovsepian, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia from 1943 to 1952. Armenians throughout the Diaspora and Armenia mark this with cultural events not only in remembrance of the past, but in celebration of modern-day scholars, theologians, writers, and translators.
Specifically remembered this Saturday along with Mesrob and Sahag are: Yeghishe, a renowned student of Sahag and Mesrob, who served as secretary to Vartan Mamigonian and wrote the great history of the Vartanantz wars; Movses of Khoren, another student of Sahag and Mesrob revered as the father of Armenian history; David the Invincible, a student of Movses, who received most of his education in Athens, where he was given his title because of his brilliance in philosophy; Gregory of Narek, who is considered the greatest poet of the Armenian nation and its first and greatest mystic; and Nerses Shnorhali, a great writer, musician, theologian, and ecumenist.
With the creation of the Armenian alphabet and the translations that followed, this group of scholars transformed the course of Armenian history forever. It is an affirmation of the popular aphorism, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”
The Holy Translators (with the invention of the alphabet) providentially provided divine instructions on earth by translating the sacred scriptures, in order to shepherd the flock of the New Israel. Let us praise God with a sweet-sounding song.
(Canon to the Holy Translators, from the Liturgical Canons of the Armenian Church)
“After translating the book of Proverbs, Mesrop and his students began the translation of the New Testament. Translating the bible into any language is an enormous amount of work. It is especially daunting given the absence of any Armenian literature prior to the Bible. Contrast this with the translation of the Bible into English. The most famous English translation is the King James Version, completed in 1611. The earliest English Bible was produced by John Wycliffe in 1382. But even before Wycliffe, there was a tradition of writing in English from which Wycliffe and subsequent translators could draw familiar expressions and phrases. The Armenian Bible, however, is the first work of Armenian literature. In translating the Bible, Sahak and Mesrop and their disciples did more than just a translation. They in essence created a new written language that would be a source and inspiration for all of the Armenian literature that would follow.”
(Light from Light: An Introduction to the History and Theology of the Armenian Church,” by Michael B. Papazian)