A Rebel Translator in a Biblical Era: St. Jerome

Published on June 28, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

St. Jerome

27 March 347 – 30 September 420 A.D. 

Bethlehem

“For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek I render sense for sense and not word for word, except in the case of the Holy Scriptures, where even the order of the words is a mystery.” 

— Jerome to Pammachius, on the Best Method of Translating. 

Eusebius Hieronymus, or St. Jerome as he would later be called,  was responsible for the most famous and successfully used version of the Latin translation of the Bible. Renowned for his intellect and translation skill he became a pioneer of biblical translation and one of the most talented biblical scholars of his time. Well educated, he rejected his Christian upbringing to behave as he wanted. At a visit to the crypts, he was confronted with his mortality and was scared into adhering to conservative Christian values. Baptized in 366 and became attracted to the Monastic life. Wanted to live as a hermit, but was renowned for his intellect and his skills at translation. He was eventually ordained with the promise that he could still do his own study. 

  • St. Jerome coined the field phenomenon of ‘dynamic equivalence’. He believed that translation should be equal - not only in meaning but in quality of style. This means St. Jerome was one of the first notable translators to translate “sense for sense” rather than “word for word”. This method became known as dynamic equivalence. 
  • St. Jerome was born in modern-day Croatia. His native tongue was Illyrian, but he was also fluent in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic.

  • Well educated in his youth and free-spirited, St. Jerome rejected his Christian upbringing to behave as he pleased. One day on a visit to crypts and tombs of his ancestors, it is said he was scared into behaving “better”.

  • In art, he is often depicted with a lion or an owl; this may be because he is said to have “pulled a thorn out of the paw of a lion”, which settled down in his monastery in Bethlehem and is shown in many paintings and biblical tales of Jerome.

  • After the death of Jesus Christ, shaping and spreading Christian life via the Bible was of the highest importance to the early Church. A Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, known as Septuagint, was used as the Christian Old Testament. Christianity was traveling West, and fewer and fewer people could understand Greek. Because Latin books were written in a continuous format, without breaks or punctuation between words, St. Jerome refused to translate the Septuagint from into Latin only, but cross-referenced the translation with another translation from the original Hebrew, then compared to two Latin translations to create what was known as Vulgate.
  • Vulgate to this day remains the standard Latin translation of the bible. It was also very controversial; not only was it the first translation to be done not by literal translation but by an idiomatic rendering of meaning, but also because Vulgate relied heavily on the cross-reference of the original Hebrew text- which many Christian scholars at the time ironically believed “tainted” the religion with Judaism.

  • The Vulgate was even regarded by some as having greater authority than texts in the original languages. 

St. Jerome died on September 30, (year 420), hence the celebration of the International Day of Translators on 30 September. Jerome’s translation of the Bible remains the standard Latin translation of the biblical Christian scriptures, today. In celebration of the International Day of Translators but also in celebration of our professional translators, MotaWord organizes a social media contest recognizing our professional translators. You may find the details of our contest and enter through this link to win many prizes. It is open to all professional translators registered with MotaWord; https://www.motaword.com/blog/article/social-media-contest


St. Jerome in numbers:

Years at Bethlehem at the end of his life to produce his most notable accomplishment: translating the Old Testament from the Original Hebrew to Latin.


Number of times the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution A/RES/71/288 on the International Day of Translators, recognizing the role of professional translation in “connecting nations, and fostering peace, understanding, and development.”


The amount of categories St. Jerome’s commentaries fall under: translations/ recastings of Greek predecessors, Original commentaries on the Old Testament, and New Testament commentaries. 


For more information:

Enter the United Nations St. Jerome Translation Contest.

Read The Principal Works of St. Jerome translated into English by The Hon. W. H. Fremantle, M.A., The Rev. G. Lewis, M.A., The Rev. W. G. Martley, M.A..

Read St. Jerome’s Bible in the original Latin (with side-by-side English translation) here.


About MotaWord

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About This Article

Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site. To help us make this segment more tailored to our community, contribute any comments, ideas for articles, or share your story please contact kali@motaword.com.

Citations: SMP, FirstEdition, Justus, FranciscanMedia, TheParisReview, GotQuestions