Sunday, September 30, 2018

International Translation Day 2018

This day, 30 September, has been declared International Translation Day by UNESCO and the International Federation of Translators. The date was chosen because it's the feast of St. Jerome. I ought to write something original for the occasion, but as my thoughts are elsewhere at the moment I'll repeat, with a few tweaks, a post that appeared in this blog on a previous 30 September some years ago. 

Today is the feast of St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators. He was born in Dalmatia in 347. He's 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 International Translation Day. It’s perhaps ethnocentric to choose the feast of a Christian saint for International 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 (putting 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 many connections with Non-professional Translation. But to conclude, 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. At Paul's behest, Christ's disciples had to interpret into the languages of the nascent Christian communities, and they were assuredly not professionals.. Someone might well do a survey of people’s awareness of it.

Jerome. Wikipedia, 2018.

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 It also has Jerome's fine defensive Preface:
The labour is one of love, but at the same time both perilous and presumptuous; for in judging others I must be content to be judged by all; and how can I dare to change the language of the world in its hoary old age, and carry it back to the early days of its infancy? Is there a man, learned or unlearned, who will not, when he takes the volume into his hands, and perceives that what he reads does not suit his settled tastes, break out immediately into violent language, and call me a forger and a profane person for having the audacity to add anything to the ancient books, or to make any changes or corrections therein? 
 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

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

Saint Jerome in his study by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448-1494). Source:Wikipedia.


  1. It was a very nice post just loved it. Keep sharing more in future about interpretation.
    How can i find Freelance Language Interpretation Jobs and what skill i need to do this job?

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Interesting article. Thank you for writing about the need for religious translators. I'm in this fascinating business because of God. At age 50+, He led me to college to learn ASL (American Sign Language; I have no deaf friends or relatives). Then, to Spain for a master in interpretation and translation to work in the religious field. I can't wait to defend my thesis (Traducción comentada) to continue in His service.
    (I found you searching the internet for a definition of chuchotage, part of my glossary).
    Thank you, and blessings.

  4. Great research turned into Good & informative article. Also, Thanks for mentioning the reference. Keep up the good work.
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  5. This post is very useful for the professional translators.

  6. Thanks for this content on the blog. Thanks for the great articles