On Translating: Jerome

Horace too, an acute and learned writer, in his Art of Poetry gives the same advice to the skilled translator:—

And care not thou with over anxious thought
To render word for word.

Terence has translated Menander; Plautus and Cæcilius the old comic poets. Do they ever stick at words? Do they not rather in their versions think first of preserving the beauty and charm of their originals?

Jerome, in other words, advises translators to translate sense and not woodenly and literally.  That is, it must be said, what distinguishes good translations from bad: beginners from seasoned pros.  In fact, you can easily spot an unskilled translation by a beginning translator if the text is hobbled by an overly unwieldy literalism.

Beginners think that the purpose of translation is to render one word in one language into one word in another language.  But nothing destroys meaning quite as quickly.

Experts understand that living within the language one is translating, immersing oneself in it, and thus thinking in it is the only way to reliably bring it from one tongue into another.

When translators can read a sentence and put the sense of it, and cling to the sense of it, in another language, they have arrived.

2 thoughts on “On Translating: Jerome

  1. John C. Poirier

    Unfortunately, the advice of Jerome (and the more obviously paraphrastic approach of Cicero) have been cited as authority for some really sloppy translations. It’s obvious that most of the new translations of the past twenty or so years move in a really problematic direction — in that they paraphrase the Hebrew and Greek to an unwarranted degree — and too often Jerome and Cicero are cited as authorizing such a move.

    If Jerome cared enough about the original wording to render a *new* Latin translation *directly from the Hebrew*, then presumably he would have a problem with the NLT, the Message, etc. An overly literal translation might be cumbersome to read, but it’s a lot better than handing someone a copy of the NLT and telling them it’s a “Bible”.


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