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St. Jerome - Patron Saint of Translators

Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius, better known as Jerome, was born sometime between 340 and 347 AD in Stridon, a town on the border between the Roman provinces of Dalmatia and Pannonia (now on the Italian side of the modern Italian-Croatian border).

 Jerome the librarian

Domenico Ghirlandaio's "St. Jerome in His Study." Click on image to expand.During his lifetime, Jerome created one of the world's most famous libraries of his time, copying most of the books himself. Click on the image of Domenico Ghirlandaio's "St. Jerome in His Study" to see a larger version. 

He received a classical education and was tutored in Rome by the grammarian Donatus. At age eighteen he was baptized in Rome by Pope Liberius. He was well read in the Pagan poets and writers, but not as interested in Christian literature at that time.

Jerome traveled extensively throughout the Roman Empire. He began formal theological studies in Trier. He moved to Aquileia in 370, where he met St. Valerian. About 373 he headed to the East.

From 374 to 379 Jerome led an ascetic life in the desert southwest of Antioch. During this period he heard Apollinaris of Laodicea, a leading Bible scholar, who later left the Church. In 379, he was ordained a priest at Antioch by St. Paulinus.

Jerome went to Constantinople about 380 to study scripture under St. Gregory Nazianzus. In 382 he returned to Rome, where he became secretary to Pope Damasus. who suggested that he revise the translations of the Gospels and the Psalms.

When Damasus died in 384, Jerome had to leave Rome, because his outspoken, often harsh criticism of Roman society created enemies. His travels returned him to Antioch, then to Alexandria, and finally to Bethlehem in 386, where he settled in a monastery.

There he translated the Old and New Testaments into Latin. This translation was recognized eleven centuries later by the Council of Trent as the official version of the Bible: the Vulgate.

Jerome as a cardinal?

El Greco: St.Jerome as a Cardinal. Click on image to expand El Greco's painting portrays St. Jerome as a Roman Catholic cardinal, despite the reality that neither the designation of cardinal nor this style of clerical dress existed in the Fourth Century. The portrait hangs in London's National Gallery.

In 410 Rome came under attack by the barbarian Alaric, creating numerous refugees who sought safety in the Holy Land. In the interest of providing for them Jerome wrote, "I have put aside all my study to help them. Now we must translate the words of Scripture into deeds, and instead of speaking holy words we must do them."

Jerome died at Bethlehem from a long illness on September 30, 420. He is buried at St. Mary Major in Rome.

Jerome's work fell into five main categories: biblical analysis, theological debate, history, correspondence, and of course translation.

His earliest translation subjects (379-81) included the homilies of Origen on Jeremias, Ezechiel, and Isaias and the Chronicle of Eusebius. But he earned his place in history mainly from his translations and revisions of the Bible. Originally he believed the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek several centuries B.C.E., to be divinely inspired. However, his continuing study of Hebrew and discussions with rabbis convinced him that only the original text was inspired. This led to his decision to undertake a new translation of the Old Testament.

This new translation drew chiefly upon Hebrew texts in current use, whereas the Septuagint was translated from an older Hebrew version, presumably more authentic. Modern critics cite this neglect of the older text as a shortcoming, especially compared to the general excellence of Jerome's translation work.

Jerome's humility regarding his own work set a good example for translators who followed him. He freely admitted ignorance, even embarrassment, when warranted, and revisited some of his translations, making corrections and additions. On the other hand, he also pointed out that a translation's accuracy depended greatly on the reliability of the source text: copyists often inadvertently introduced errors, which would be compounded and passed down through the centuries.

  Even a saint can make mistakes

Translators and interpreters the world over now mark September 30th as their day, since it is the Feast Day of the patron saint of librarians, scripture scholars, students, and of course, translators and interpreters. Although canonized by the Catholic church (date unknown), St. Jerome’s work was not perfect.

Jerome once observed, “I am not so stupid as to think that any of the Lord’s words either need correcting or are not divinely inspired, but the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved faulty by the variations which are found in all of them.” Indeed, Jerome acknowledged his own fallibility and made a few errors himself.

Michelangelo's "Moses." Click on image to expand.Perhaps his most famous mistranslation put horns on Moses’s head. The original Hebrew scripture (Exodus 34) stated that when Moses descended from Mt. Sinai, he had “rays of light” coming from his head. The Hebrew word can also mean “horns,” and Jerome chose the latter meaning. This error has been perpetuated to the present in many ways. When Michelangelo sculpted a marble Moses in 1515, he relied on Jerome's description in the Latin Vulgate translation. The resulting 235-cm-high horned statue can be seen in Rome (S. Pietro in Vincoli) today. 

Go to TopArticles on St. Jerome by R. Michael Conner

More on St. Jerome

Catholic Encyclopedia. Entry on St. Jerome includes a detailed chronology and analysis of his works.

St. Jerome: The Perils of a Bible Translator. Feature article in the September 1997 issue of online version of The Messenger.

Life, Death and Miracles of Saint Jerome French manuscript (1495-1515) from the Brigham Young University Special Collections. Excellent image reproductions.

How St Jerome Came to Be at Bethlehem. Biographical notes plus depictions of the saint by DaVinci and Pollaiuolo.

Catholic Online Saints. Brief biography.

Liturgical Calendar

 

 
     

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