Saint Jerome, freelance translator

This post has been written to mark International Translation Day (30 September each year), also known as Saint Jerome’s Day.  It is endorsed by the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs/International Federation of Translators to which all national translator, interpreter and terminologist associations and institutions are affiliated.  Fittingly, for the purposes of what follows below, this year’s theme is Translation as Intercultural Communication.

Many of you will be put off this article because of its title. What is a Saint, anyway? Do we have time for saints in the 21st century? In the secular world, such titles do not make sense, and have little relevance to many. Others will shy away when I talk about the vast scholarship available on the online Catholic Encyclopedia. If everything (or almost everything) about Saint Jerome can be read on The Catholic Encyclopedia, what can I possibly add, given that my status as a scholar is at best indeterminate?

I am hoping to draw together selected pieces of information, gain insights along the way,and provide a humble translator’s perspective. Forget John Malkovitch; let us try to imagine, as translators, what it was like being Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (Jerome).

Let us ease ourselves in gently, with a picture, itself a product of the imagination of a very good artist:

Domenico Ghirlandaio : Saint Jerome in his Study (1480 — Church of Ognissanti, Florence)
St. Jerome is the Patron Saint of Translators, best known for his translation of the Vulgate from the Hebrew and Greek into Latin.
S. Jéronimo, as he is affectionately known in Portuguese, (Latin: Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus; Greek: Εὐσέβιος Σωφρόνιος Ἱερώνυμος) lived from c. 347 to AD 30 September 420, whilst Domenico Ghirlandaio, the artist of this picture, wandered about Florence between 1449 and 1494. So, who knows what St Jerome actually looked like? Michelangelo was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio early on in his life, and the latter, apparently, painted one of the al frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Until this year, I did not realise that I had access to so much information on Saint Jerome. As a student in the 1980s, all I knew was that he had translated the Septuagint, and “parts of the New Testament” – and that as the Patron Saint of Translators, he was remembered on 30 September each year. How neat, and how very incomplete that knowledge was!

The fact that one lecture a week held in the sleepiest time-slot on a Friday afternoon was devoted to “Bible Translation” with comparative analysis of selected verses of the Bible in Latin and various other languages, and a host of versions in English was too much for even the most dedicated of wannabee translators in our group. I rather suspect that it was because we had insufficient knowledge for the task, and way too little imagination at the time.

What I discover now is that not only was Jerome a translator, he was a prolific translator.

I have taken the liberty of slightly rearranging the information which appears in the online version of The Catholic Encyclopaedia in bullet-point form, and in chronological order, much like an excerpt from a curriculum vitae. I mean no disrespect, for the wording of the chronological summary of his work here, and meticulous referencing is excellent. The list below it is simply an effort to grasp the magnitude of what appears to been an inordinate amount of work – even if one does live to the age of 73.

The author of the section on Saint Jerome (Saltet, Louis. “St. Jerome.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 28 Sept. 2012.) has divided Saint Jerome’s life into periods.

The first period, until he goes to stay in Rome in 382, is described as a “period of preparation”:

  • (374-379) the translation of the Chronicle of Eusebius; then wrote an historical account, the “Vita S. Pauli, prima eremitae”, dedicated to Paulus of Concordia.
  • (379-81) the translation of the homilies of Origen on Jeremias, Ezechiel, and Isaias

Second period: 382-390

  • 382-383 Writes “Altercatio Luciferiani et Orthodoxi” and “De perpetua Virginitate B. Mariae; adversus Helvidium”. Clicking on links to these on The Catholic Encyclopedia page quoted above will yield a wealth of background information.
  • 384: the correction of the Latin version of the Four Gospels;
  • 384: a first revision of the Latin Psalms according to the accepted text of the Septuagint (Roman Psalter)
  • 384: the revision of the Latin version of the Book of Job, after the accepted version of the Septuagint;
  • 385: the correction of the Latin version of the Epistles of St. Paul;
  • Between 386 and 391: a second revision of the Latin Psalter, this time according to the text of the “Hexapla” of Origen (Gallican Psalter, embodied in the Vulgate). The author adds, “It is doubtful whether he revised the entire version of the Old Testament according to the Greek of the Septuagint.”
  • 387-388: commentaries on the Epistles to Philemon, to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to Titus;
  • 389-390, commentary on Ecclesiastes.

Third period: 390-405
“St. Jerome gave all his attention to the translation of the Old Testament according to the Hebrew, but this work alternated with many others.” (ibid.)

  • 389-90: drew up “Quaestiones hebraicae in Genesim” and “De interpretatione nominum hebraicorum.”
  • 390: translated the treatise “De Spiritu Sancto” of Didymus of Alexandria;
  • 390-394: translated the Books of Samuel and of Kings, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Canticle of Canticles, Esdras, and Paralipomena
  • 391-92: wrote the “Vita S. Hilarionis”, the “Vita Malchi, monachi captivi”, and commentaries on Nahum, Micheas, Sophonias, Aggeus, Habacuc.
  • 392-93: wrote “De viris illustribus”, and “Adversus Jovinianum”;
  • 395: wrote commentaries on Jonas and Abdias;
  • 398: revision of the remainder of the Latin version of the New Testament, an unfinished work “Contra Joannem Hierosolymitanum”, and about this time, wrote commentaries on chapters 13-23 of Isaias;
  • 401: “Apologeticum adversus Rufinum”;
  • 403-406: “Contra Vigilantium”
  • 398-405: completion of the version of the Old Testament according to the Hebrew.

Last period: 405 – 420
“St. Jerome took up the series of his commentaries interrupted for seven years (while completing ‘the version of the Old Testament according to the Hebrew’).” (ibid.)

  • 406: commented on Osee, Joel, Amos, Zacharias, Malachias;
  • 408: commented on Daniel
  • 408 – 410: commented on the remainder of Isaias;
  • 410-415: commented on Ezechiel;
  • 415-420: commented on Jeremias.
  • 401-410 (? date): wrote his sermons; treatises on St. Mark, homilies on the Psalms, on various subjects, and on the Gospels;
  • 415: “Dialogi contra Pelagianos”.

I have not delved deep enough to be able to tell you what Saint Jerome did before his first recorded translation in 374, at the age of 27, but his working life spanned some 41 years, and from the above source of information, it would appear that he went into at least partial retirement at the age of 68 or thereabouts.

There are very few translators today who could match his output, although there are still excellent translators who have seen the back of their 68th birthday and are still going strong.

Saint Jerome was also a prolific letter writer.  Not the sort of letter writer who enquires after the health of your children, but the sort of letter writer who wrote seriously on many subjects, found himself in the public eye, and had several adversaries as far as public opinion went. Apart from the serious matter of theological arguments, and the even more nerve-wracking matter of translating holy texts, he wrote so much more. I am not going to repeat what The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us; the body of work covered is too huge for the scope of this article, and I cannot do it any better.

What I will do is show you that St. Jerome had a good sense of humour, by sharing one of the his many letters I read a few days ago.  [Bear in mind that this letter appears here in English as a translation from the Latin, and reads well at that.] Such stories! They really did have a lot happening back then. Here is St. Jerome’s letter to Innocent. Please try to remember that this was written in AD 370 or thereabouts, when Saint Jerome is in his early twenties (i.e. before it appears that he started translating in earnest). With 1642 years’ hindsight, one can already tell that Jerome is destined for great things.

From the above image, we might mistakenly think that, as a friend once put it, Jerome liked to wear theatre curtains, but had a nifty page holder, and mysterious things in jars on his bookshelf. And that these items helped him to pass his days in glorious solitude, while rolling along at a gentle pace translating as and when moved to do so. Not so. He also travelled widely, and spent some time in a Syrian desert as a hermit. This might be something worth considering in a future blog; our forebears were an adventurous lot who did not view the non existence of the combustion engine as a limitation.

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us in several places that he translated an enormous body of work, but that he also worked rapidly. It is the distilled opinion of many scholars (who unlike me, have a mastery of the subject matter) that apart from some confusion as to which source text was the true source text, that Saint Jerome was indeed an excellent translator (emphasis mine):

St. Jerome owes his place in the history of exegetical studies chiefly to his revisions and translations of the Bible. Until about 391-2, he considered the Septuagint translation as inspired. But the progress of his Hebraistic studies and his intercourse with the rabbis made him give up that idea, and he recognized as inspired the original text only. It was about this period that he undertook the translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew. But he went too far in his reaction against the ideas of his time, and is open to reproach for not having sufficiently appreciated the Septuagint. This latter version was made from a much older, and at times much purer, Hebrew text than the one in use at the end of the fourth century. Hence the necessity of taking the Septuagint into consideration in any attempt to restore the text of the Old Testament. With this exception we must admit the excellence of the translation made by St. Jerome.

(Saltet, Louis. “St. Jerome.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 28 Sept. 2012.)

I hope you have enjoyed reading what I have gleaned in my personal celebration of Saint Jerome, and are like me, kicking yourselves for not having learnt more Latin when you had the opportunity, if indeed that opportunity was presented to you.  Fortunately, there have been enough hard-working and dedicated translators the world over since Saint Jerome’s time to enable us to appreciate the work of one man, and acknowledge him as a saint – whatever your definition of that term may be.

Like Mox, who jumped on the Saint Jerome band-wagon hours before me, I too find myself utterly humbled by my slight acquaintance with “the best translator ever”.


8 thoughts on “Saint Jerome, freelance translator

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  1. Quite fascinating, but reading the letters I find it frightening to think that nothing much has changed. What St. Jerome describes was happening long before his time and still happens in some parts of the world, and still in the name of religion and politics. Even in countries claiming to be civilsed, modern, tolerant and technologically advanced, whether their laws are tribal, barbaric, or “civilised and modern”.


    1. Vivid accounts and images of human torture abound in today’s world and after often sanctioned by religious and/or political authorities. Horrifyingly, this makes Jerome’s descriptions of the tortures inflicted on this pair all too easy for the modern reader to grasp. The uplifting point of Jerome’s story contained in his letter to Innocent is that he is recounting “the marvellous event” in which one woman’s faith in Jesus Christ first spares her life and then restores it. Her earthly and spiritual victory – and implied redemption – is stated in the last sentence of this letter, “The Emperor restored to liberty the woman whom God had restored to life.”


    1. Dear Mahsa,
      I have noticed over the last few years that the FIT/IFT has minimised the mention of St. Jerome in favour of adopting the more inclusive term “International Translation Day”.
      Were it not for Alexander the Great defeating Persian King Darius III in 334 BC, and the Greeks consequently taking over the great empire built by Cyrus the Great, we all may have been speaking very different languages – three of which might easily have been Aramaic, Farsi and Arabic.
      Reading about the events of Ancient History reveals some very interesting facts which are seldom taught in any great detail in Western schools. Perhaps the information now available on the Internet, thanks to scholars and translators, will help to change that perspective.
      Perhaps, too, you would like to write a more detailed blog on some of these aspects in time for next year’s translation “celebrations”? 🙂


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