Translation and Virginity


On Translation

Remembering Saint Jerome on International Translation Day.


Detail from Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Jerome Reading in a Landscape, ca. 1480–5.

Raise a glass, say a prayer in a language other than Hebrew and Greek, or wear a donkey’s ear in your buttonhole: it’s International Translation Day, aka the Feast of Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and libraries, schoolchildren, students, Bible scholars, and translators. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin and died in Bethlehem on this day in 419 or 420 A.D.; he single-handedly (so to speak) created the Vulgate, a translation read as the sacred original for some thousand years.

He famously said that you should translate the meaning of the original text, not the words themselves, but translators must have always known this intuitively—even Jerome cites half a dozen predecessors. Because he was one of the early ones, though, he gets the credit, along with Horace, who said the same thing. Jerome made a partial exception for the Bible, whose very word order was a sacred mystery; his balance between the competing demands is what made his translation so good.

He was born in 331 or 347 in the town of Stridon, possibly in what’s now northwest Croatia; its only mention in history is Jerome’s comment that he was born “in the town of Stridon, now destroyed by the Goths.” He was also by far the crabbiest of the Church Fathers, as befits a man who earned sainthood by scholarship and rigorous asceticism, not working with people. As important a theological polemicist as he was a translator, he fired off letter after letter, volume after volume, from his library in Palestine, written in elegant classical Latin studded with choice insults. To someone who questioned his translations, he countered: “What men like you call fidelity in transcription, the learnèd term pestilent minuteness”; a heretic, Pelagius, was “a very stupid dolt weighed down with Scottish porridge.”

Yet strangely, Jerome is also one of the most admired saints, even most loved. Maybe it’s not so strange, given the overlap between antisocial scholars and reputation-makers. Three early fourteenth-century forgeries purporting to be by Jerome’s disciples and colleagues, describing his last hours, death, and numerous miracles, were runaway hits in the original Latin and, appropriately, in Tuscan, Sicilian, German, Dutch, French, Spanish, Catalan, Danish, and English translation. (Some four hundred manuscripts and thirty-six printed editions are known before 1501.) By the early Renaissance, Jerome was the object of widespread popular devotion, speeches every September 30 giving thanks for miracles, and the adoration of his brother and sister scholars.

In art, St. Jerome became the most popular theme in Renaissance Christian painting after the Annunciation. He was usually shown with a book or two, his red cardinal’s hat, and a lion, because when a lion limped into his monastery courtyard and the other monks fled, Jerome welcomed the beast and called back his brothers to wash and treat its injured paw. They took out the thorns and tamed the lion. (This is an old story, one of Aesop’s fables and probably mis-assigned to Jerome—in Latin: Hieronymus—from the life of the similar-sounding St. Gerasimus.)


Caravaggio, Saint Jerome Writing, 1605–1606.

Italian artists invented another, even more popular motif around 1400: Jerome penitent in the wilderness, beating his ascetic breast with a stone. This allowed Christian painters to glorify the male near-nude, as they often did with St. Sebastian; and the wilderness setting, along with Jerome’s passing mention of “having nothing but scorpions and wild animals for company” in the desert, let painters indulge in naturalistic portrayals of animals: not just lion, but badger, cheetah, otter, squirrel, goldfinch, heron (three kinds), partridge, snake, snail … One zoologist/art historian has identified sixty-five kinds of animal in Renaissance paintings of Jerome, not counting the imaginary dragon, harpy, and unicorn, and the humdrum, “plot point” animals: camel, donkey, sheep.

Finally, Jerome was the Christian Father who did the most to make virginity and the Virgin Birth a central part of Christian doctrine. In his eyes, sexuality was irredeemable: while Augustine said that marriage was good and continence better, Jerome said marriage was bad and fornication worse. That Scottish porridge Pelagius’s problem was denying that sex was “defilement” and bodily urges a sin.

The combination could mean nothing—maybe Jerome was a guy with two unrelated interests—but something tells me translation and the Virgin Birth do go together. Translations are creative acts that don’t come from the self, at least not in the usual sense: In the translator’s creativity, the generative seed isn’t planted in quite the same way. There’s a third party involved, a God or Gabriel, an author who’s both the originator and totally absent from the actual formation of the translated work, or at least invisible in it. The translator is in a sense barren, ungenerative, but surely Mary is in some sense the mother of God, not just the vessel or bearer, and the translator is not just an empty conduit through which the original passes.

I say “surely,” but that glosses over centuries of Catholic controversy. Aside from the early debates over whether Mary was a virgin at conception, and whether she remained a virgin after Jesus’s birth (scriptural mention of Jesus’s “brothers” explained away as a mistranslation of “cousins”), there were even more extreme debates about whether Mary’s virginity remained intact during Christ’s birth. In one radical second-century Syrian text, the eventually noncanonical Protoevangelium of James, a skeptical friend of Mary’s midwife puts her hand up Mary afterward to check and gets it fried in a blaze of holy fire. (She repents and her hand is unwithered.)

Even most early Christian ascetics shrank back from that position, but not Jerome. And ever since the second century, this last and most mystical virginity has been a metaphor for holy writing: “The Lord’s scriptures bring forth the truth and yet remain virgins, hiding within them the mysteries of the truth. ‘She has brought forth and has not brought forth,’ says the Scripture.” Writing that is and isn’t what it is: as good a definition for translation as any.

Damion Searls is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.