St. Jerome, patron saint of translators

St. Jerome is a Christian saint commonly known for translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin, giving rise to the famous Vulgate, which would consolidate as the reference text used by the Latin Church in the West. Considered by many as the patron saint of translators, in this short article we will focus on some of the most outstanding aspects of St. Jerome’s translatological work.

Life and work of St. Jerome

Born in the mid-4th century A.D. in Stridon, an ancient city in the Roman province of Dalmatia, he soon moved to Rome, where his passion for Latin letters and, more specifically, for the work of Cicero, led him to become one of the most renowned Latinists of his time. Once baptized, he undertook a journey to the East and settled in Antioch; it was then that he discovered his vocation to dedicate himself body and soul to the study of the Holy Scriptures, so he began to study Greek and Hebrew. After a few years, he returned to Urbe and placed himself at the service of Pope Saint Damasus, who encouraged him to undertake the difficult task of translating the Bible into Latin. At that time, a series of biblical versions in Latin were in circulation, which were attempted to be integrated into a single unified corpus, the so-called Vetus Latina. However, the lack of a common pattern among all these versions endangered the unitary conception of the Christian message, and a new translation of the Bible became necessary.

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After the death of Pope St. Damasus, Jerome went back to the East and ended up settling in the city of Bethlehem, where he remained in monastic retreat until his death in the year 420 AD. It is in this context that the paradigmatic image of St. Jerome as a scholar of Christian texts is truly formed. His participation in the theological disputes of his time and his hard-fought defense of orthodoxy led him to be considered one of the four Latin Church Fathers, along with St. Augustine, St. Ambrose and St. Gregory the Great. However, while most of the personalities of early Christianity lost weightiness over the centuries, the figure of St. Jerome remained intact, to the point that in times of the Counter-Reformation he came to be extolled as a symbol of the translator and intellectual par excellence, subject to tradition and the authority of the Pope.

St. Jerome and translation

Jerome’s translation activity can be divided into two distinct branches: on the one hand, the translation of works by Greek authors, such as Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea or Saint Pachomius, and, on the other hand, the translation of the Holy Scriptures, i.e. profane and sacred texts. Although it is true that with the translation of his early writings he had already become an intellectual of renown, it was his biblical work that made St. Jerome a universal figure.

The fact that Jerome focused his activity on translating Greek texts into Latin essentially responds to the fundamental vocation of the translator, that is, to become a bridge between cultures and languages. In the 4th century A.D., there was a huge cultural gap between the Latin-speaking inhabitants of the western half of the Roman Empire and the Greek-speaking and cultured inhabitants of the eastern half of the Empire. Therefore, St. Jerome wanted to bring the two worlds together through translation and make them a common cultural space. He had the best basis for this: educated in Rome, he had traveled to the Near East to continue his education, thus immersing himself in the Greek substratum, so he knew both cultural contexts perfectly. - saint jerome

In this sense, the translation of the Bible into Latin probably represents the greatest example of St. Jerome’s will, that is, the union of all the inhabitants of the Empire through the message of Christianity. In turn, the Vulgate was to become the most important cohesive element of Western culture.

The Jeromean translatological methodology

Having seen this, if we focus on more technical aspects related to translation, Jerome would represent a middle ground between what we might consider literal translation and literary translation. In some of his letters, Jerome gives a glimpse of his theory of translation, i.e., how he understands the translation task to be approached. Thus, while some of his contemporaries accused him of not adhering to literalism in his translations, the saint responded by arguing that, if he expressed everything word for word, it would be impossible to save the grace of style. - saint jerome

In this sense, Jerome distinguished two different ways of translation: that of the interpreter, more concerned with the literal equivalence of the source and target texts, and that of the speaker, more free. These two modes of translation correspond, in turn, to two types of text: sacred texts and profane texts. In the case of the former, since they are divinely inspired, respecting the word order is essential to perfectly preserve the essence of the original message. However, in the translation of secular texts, the alteration of word order is not so significant, since the intention to translate according to the sense prevails, that is, non verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu. This Jeronymian maxim, applicable only to texts of the second group, has become one of the main principles of Western translatology.

Carlos Sánchez Luis