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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“The New Testament” of Pylyp Morachevsky

26 June, 2007 - 00:00

Translating the Bible or some parts of it is a difficult and painstaking job that requires a sound educational background and extraordinary erudition. Every such translation is the result of years of self-denial and may be considered a genuine feat on the part of the translator, who must deal with the extreme complexity of the translation itself and bear tremendous responsibility for every single letter, comma, or space in the Holy Writ. The Day has already acquainted its readers with some zealous Ukrainian translators of the Bible. The focus of this article is Pylyp Morachevsky (1806-1879), the Ukrainian educator, poet, polyglot, and translator of the New Testament.

Morachevsky was born in the village of Shestovytsi, Chernihiv gubernia, into a noble family of slender means. After graduating from the History and Philology School of Kharkiv University in 1823, he taught in various high schools in Sumy, Lutsk, and other cities, worked as a lyceum and high-school inspector in Nizhyn, and wrote poems. Yet his lifelong occupation was translating the New Testament into the Ukrainian language, which he did for many years until his death.

In 1853 Morachevsky submitted his Dictionary of the Little Russian Language, based on the Poltava dialect, to the Imperial Academy of Sciences. During his work on the dictionary, he realized that the Ukrainian language, which by then had been nearly squeezed out of schools, had a practically unlimited vocabulary. This gave him the idea to translate the New Testament into Ukrainian because the language was eminently suited to this. He began translating, fully aware that after he completed his task he would face serious problems with publishing.

He therefore decided to enlist the timely support of some influential clergymen and turned to Metropolitan Isydor. “The translation of the Gospel into the Little Russian language would undoubtedly be very useful for our religious nation. To this end, I began translating the Gospel into Little Russian by comparing the Slavonic text with Russian, Latin, German, French, and Polish ones.” Metropolitan Isydor categorically objected: “After consulting the Holy Synod, I am informing you that the translation of the Gospels by you or anyone else cannot be permitted for publication.”

But Morachevsky continued to work, hoping for a miracle. He completed the translation of the New Testament’s four Gospels into Ukrainian in the fall of 1861. (The Acts of the Apostles, Book of Revelation, and Psalter were translated later.) It is commonly known that 1861 was a year of “great changes” and there was universal but short-lived euphoria in the Russian Empire: Tsar Alexander II issued the “Manifesto on the Most Gracious Granting of the Full Rights of Free Rural Inhabitants to Peasant Serfs” and even ordered the “Regulations on Peasants” to be translated into Ukrainian. He also issued an ukase allowing priests from the Poltava Spiritual Consistory to deliver sermons in the Ukrainian language.

Inspired with hope, Morachevsky submitted his translation to the Academy of Sciences. The distinguished academicians came to the following conclusion: “The Gospel translated into the Little Russian language by Mr. Morachevsky is an extremely significant work from the scholarly and philological as well as religious and moral points of view. The quality and nature of the words and the excellence of the Ukrainian word combinations in no way distorts the essence or content of the ideas. Beyond any doubt, Morachevsky’s translation should usher in a new era in the literary application of the Little Russian language. Morachevsky’s translation, accompanied by a positive review of the Academy, should be submitted for approval to the Most Holy Synod. We must request the latter to allow the manuscript to be printed.”

However, the Synod was distrustful of the Academy’s opinion and sent the translation for additional reviewing. The reviews were positive. But in spite of all the glowing reviews, the tsarist government categorically banned the publication of Morachevsky’s translations.

Then a baiting campaign began. Mikhail Katkov was especially zealous. This notorious editor of the no less notorious newspaper Moskovskie vedomosti wrote: “Some new Cyrils and Methodiuses have introduced some mysterious alphabets to the world. A myth has been created about a fictional Little Russian language, and books have begun coming out in this language, although Ukraine has never had a history of its own and has never been an independent state!”

This was enough for the Russian authorities to declare Morachevsky’s translation of the Gospel a “dangerous and corruptive book.” Then the tide rolled back. The Valuev Ukase of 1863 declared in no uncertain terms, “The printing of books in the Little Russian language — those of religious content, educational, and those intended for basic reading by the common people — shall be terminated forthwith.” But Morachevsky continued his work of translating the Acts of the Apostles and the Psalter, and drafting a Course of Sacred History for elementary and secondary schools. None of his books were ever published.

It was not until after the 1905 revolution that Morachevsky was given a posthumous tribute, when the Academy of Sciences dared recommend the printing of the Four Gospels in Ukrainian at Moscow’s synodal print shop. The translation was published in the spring of 1906: the first print run (5,000 copies) sold out in no time, and hundreds of thousands of new copies began to be printed almost immediately. Yet the books did not name the translator. The Four Gospels were republished in 1914 and 1917 and for a short time were even used during services in Ukraine’s Orthodox churches.

The translation was also published abroad: in 1948 (Canada) and 1966 (USA) where the Ukrainian diaspora had a high appreciation of Morachevsky’s work. In 1988 a new (revised?) edition of the text was issued in Ukraine and blessed by Moscow Patriarch Pimen (a vivid indication of imminent changes!).

Morachevsky died in 1879 and was buried near the Church of the Entrance into the Temple of the Most Holy Virgin Mary in the village of Shniakivtsi, Nizhen County. This temple was dismantled by the Bolsheviks in the 1930s, and Morachevsky’s grave was leveled to the ground, as were all the other graves in this cemetery. It was only in our times that a large oak cross was erected at the grave of this eminent Ukrainian scholar, translator, and patriot.

Morachevsky always considered the work of translating the New Testament his special vocation. “The Word of God is being preached in all languages, but Little Russia, whose language is spoken by about 12 million Orthodox Christians, does not even have a Gospel in its own tongue!” he used to say.

By Klara GUDZYK, The Day