Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 30, Feast of St. Jerome

Today is the feast of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators. The patron of Professional Expert Translators, that is; because he had to be a multilingual expert for his work on translating the Bible (the so-called Vulgate version), and he was a professional in that he was commissioned to do it by Pope Damasus I. That’s why associations of professional translators around the globe celebrate today as World Translation Day. It’s perhaps ethnocentric to choose the feast of a Christian saint for World Translation Day, but never mind, for he was a great translator. Furthermore, he had definite views about translating and he put them into a long epistle defending them, his Letter to Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating.

The oft-quoted key sentence in the Letter is:
Not only do I admit, but I proclaim at the top of my voice, that in translating from Greek, except from Sacred Scripture, where even the order of the words is of God’s doing, I have not translated word for word, but sense for sense.

People focus now on the last part of the pronouncement (meaning before words) because it supports the popular norm for 'good' translation; but in religious translating "God's doing" is also important. It explains why many Muslims are against any translation at all of the Koran.

Today I reflect, therefore, that we’re commemorating a religious translator. I’ve long been dismayed at the lack of interest shown in this branch of translation by our university professors of translation studies. When they introduce it into their graduate programmes, they usually treat it historically and ignore its continued contemporary vibrancy, which among other things has given us Eugene Nida’s classic Toward a Science of Translating. A great many of them are concerned these days with the cultural causes and effects of literary translation, but don’t they realize that religious translation has had an even greater impact on culture? Why so? Because religion moves the masses.

From my 20 years at the University of Ottawa, I can only recall one thesis on the Bible or any other religious translation – and that was on St. Jerome. We were once approached by the Wycliffe organization of Bible translators to host a summer school for them, and none of my colleagues was interested.

So I think I may return to the topic, because it has connections with Unprofessional Translation. But first, here’s an old Canadian joke.
You have to know that there were, and indeed there still are, many ‘rednecks’ in English Canada who regard the official requirements for the use of French as an intolerable imposition. The more open-minded son of one such man tells his father that times are changing and he’s decided to learn French. “Why in Heaven’s name learn another language?” asks the father. “If English was sufficient for God when he composed the Bible, it ought to be enough for you.”

Well the old man, who was probably a Protestant anyway, certainly didn’t know about Jerome’s Catholic Latin. But the point of the story is, of course, that many people aren’t even aware that the Bible they are reading is a translation – far less that it’s often the translation of a translation. Indeed it’s always a translation of a translation in part: Christ, for example, spoke in Aramaic and his words were translated into Greek and from there to Latin and from Latin to the European vernaculars, and from those to the indigenous languages spoken in the colonies, so on. It may well be the longest of all the chains of ‘relayed’ translations, and there have been important spin-offs from it like the invention of writing systems by missionaries for languages that didn’t have one. Someone might well do a survey of people’s awareness in this respect.

The full Latin text of the Vulgate is available on the web, intercalated with a famous English translation of it, the Douay-Rheims Bible (1582-1610). It’s at http://vulgate.org.

I was introduced to Jerome’s Letter to Pammachius through the English translation made in the 70s by my Ottawa colleague Louis Kelly, who now lives in retirement in Cambridge, England. Unfortunately that translation is not now available, but Kelly discusses the Letter in his book The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West, which is on sale at www.amazon.co.uk.

Online there’s another translation of the Letter at http://mb-soft.com/believe/txuc/jerome18.htm.

The Nida classic is:
NIDA, Eugene A. (American Bible Society). Toward a Science of Translating / With special reference to principles and procedures involved in Bible translating. Leiden: Brill, 1964. 331 p.

I see I should have called it International Translation Day not World Translation Day, because that's UNESCO's and FIT's official name for it. Never mind, it's St. Jerome's Day.


  1. Nice article. However, most modern EN Bible translations ignore the Vulgate and go back to the Greek.

    1. Thank you Jonathan. You’re right as regards the Vulgate and its Latin. Even within the Roman Catholic church, they lost their primacy as a source for other translations 70 years ago.

      Nevertheless, the ‘universal’ language Latin has been partly replaced as a pivot by another universal language: English. I’ve noticed a number of American Evangelist missionaries (Wycliffe et al.) translating from English

      Incidentally, two Germersheim participants have told me how grateful they are that you organised the panel.

  2. I can add my appreciation also for the organisation of ‘panel 19.’

    The Jerome excerpt is a beautiful translation. Is it from Kelly’s book, or your own translation? I would like to cite it.

    Kelly’s book looks very interesting. I notice that the hardcover is listed on Amazon at £84.94, whereas an original, Nov 1979 copy is for sale at: £4,318.82. If you have an original, it may therefore be an heirloom.

    1. It's too good to be mine. This wording of it may have come originally from Louis' translation of “Letter to Pammachius”, which I published in an on-demand edition in 1976. Unfortunately my copy of the Letter and of True Interpreter are back among my papers in Ottawa and irretrievable from Spain. However, there's a similar translation that you can find at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3001057.htm. ('Misterium' is translated there as 'mystery' and not 'God's doing', but the church Fathers often used it to mean 'divine mystery'.)

      Yes, I do have the first edition of True Interpreter, but the astronomical price in the Amazon ad is absurd. I would think it was a typo were it not that I've seen antiquarian booksellers ask ridiculous prices for other books.