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Holy Moses! It's International Translator's Day!

Michelangelo's Moses
Michelangelo's Moses


With my apologies to any Biblical scholars out there, I’d like to take a moment to pay tribute to St. Jerome, the Patron Saint of translators, on this, his Feast Day. 


Jerome was a rich kid from Rome, with records showing that he was baptized there in 365 A.D. Less than ten years later, in 373, he had a major falling out with his wealthy parents and took off to live as a hermit in the desert in Syria. Somewhere along the line, he learned Hebrew and became ordained as a priest.

After hanging out in the desert for almost ten years, Jerome apparently had enough of sand and isolation and came back home to Rome where Pope Damascus took him on as his personal secretary and asked him for the simple task of producing the Official Latin Translation of the Bible.


Jerome seems to have been, for a priest, somewhat of a non-conformist, because he didn’t hang around the Pope too long, and took off for Palestine. Unlike Interpreters, who are typically a gregarious lot, Translators tend to be a bit introverted. I could easily imagine St. Jerome in current times, hunched over a keyboard in his pajamas late into the day, not answering the phone, hunting for the perfect word…


Jerome seems to have had a violent nature, being uncompromising and inflexible. There’s a great story about how he befriended a lion in the desert, removing a thorn from the lion’s paw. The happy cat followed Jerome around like a puppy thereafter. Nevertheless, when the monastery’s donkey went missing (actually donkey-napped by a wandering bunch of Bedouins), Jerome accused his leonine friend of making lunch out of the poor beast of burden. When the donkey turned up later, the lion apparently died of grief for having lost the good graces of his master. So much for saintly compassion…


Anyway, the quality that makes Saints so attractive is their very human nature and how they overcome it. St. Jerome spent the last thirty years of his life in a monastery wrestling with translating Hebrew into Latin. His translation got major recognition by the Council of Trent in the mid 1500’s. How cool to be outlived by a translation!


But for me, the real appeal of St. Jerome is again that marvelously human flaw. St. Jerome, our Patron Saint, gave us one of the best translation errors in history.


Take a look at Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. The man has horns! Thanks to St. Jerome.


This image comes from a mistranslation by St. Jerome of the Hebrew word “qaran” in Exodus. As translators know full well, one word can have several, often conflicting, meanings. “Qaran” is derived from a noun meaning “horn”. Our buddy Jerome took the basic meaning of the word and neglected its derived meaning of “to emit rays”. Moses’ head was supposed to be shining.


As a result of Jerome’s translation, there are images all over Europe, in stained glass church windows and drawings, of a goat-like Moses.


So today, we translators celebrate a great man, St. Jerome, who devoted his life to translating the major text of his time. He was canonized for his work. His motto was “Non verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensum” which means “to express not word by word, but meaning by meaning.”


As we translators live with the gentle clicking of our keyboards in the quiet isolation of our offices, let’s give homage to our Patron Saint who was not perfect in his work, but gave it everything he had.


 

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