A print of a famous Caravaggio painting of Saint Jerome hangs on my office wall. Saint Jerome was a foundational biblical scholar and is recognized as the patron saint of those who study and translate the sacred texts. That the painting is a masterwork of fine art is hardly surprising given the professional skill of the famous painter. Even so, I like it near at hand more for its message than the skill of its medium. The painting depicts Saint Jerome in old age as he labors at his life’s work of studying and translating the Bible. He is seated at a desk with a disheveled appearance, wrapped in a blanket as if his first act upon waking was to return to his work. Facing him, there is a human skull, reminding him of the urgency of his work as time is short. Overall, it is a picture of a man of full focus and devotion to the Word of God, and to his own work in helping the people of God to receive that Word in all its life-giving power.
As some of you know, I had the gift of studying the biblical languages and texts at The Catholic University of America and at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. My own struggles to master ancient Greek and Hebrew helped me to appreciate the magnitude of Saint Jerome’s accomplishments. Born in Eastern Europe, he made his way to Rome and later to Syria in his quest to know and understand. Above all, he desired to know Greek and Hebrew well enough to bring the books of the Bible to the ordinary people of Europe. He spent his life to create the Vulgate, the Latin language translation of the Old and New Testaments. At the time, Latin was still the everyday language of the peoples in Western Europe. His gifts continue to bless the Church even as we now translate into multiple contemporary languages. His own work was much closer to the original ancient versions of Greek and Hebrew, and his Vulgate still holds a place of honor in the annals and process of translation.
If you wonder why there are a bewildering number of Bible translations, the short answer is that translation is as much an art as a science. Sometimes, there are words that have obvious counterparts between languages. Often, however, a word or phrase may be difficult to render precisely. The process is further complicated by the role of culture. Languages use imagery, slang and metaphor familiar to the speakers of that language. These same characteristics make the work of translating more complicated, especially when texts originate in the distant past. Even as a translator must study the vocabulary of a language, he or she must also work to understand that cultural and historical context.
Few Catholics are fully aware of the ongoing work of scholars and translators in this regard. For Catholics in the United States, the New American Version of the Bible is produced by work under the auspices of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The process involves university scholars and American bishops with who have studied the ancient languages and the scriptures. I can promise you that the work involves enormous amounts of effort and fairly regular disputes. Founded on a deep reverence for the Holy Word of God, the disputes are driven by the same desire that motivated Saint Jerome – to bring the Scriptures to a new language and culture.
September 30 was the Feast of Saint Jerome. He was famously ornery in his interpersonal relations, but renowned for his devotion to his mission. May his example and intercession fill us with similar zeal for God’s word and its proclamation to a new generation.