Jerome, the illustrious theologian and linguist we celebrate as the patron saint of translators, may have been canonized after his death, but while he trudged the earth his temper was rather unsaintly. His knack for languages was rivaled only by a talent for attracting trouble and making adversaries, often going several rounds with them regarding religious and linguistic issues.
His story is documented in the prolific correspondence he maintained with other elite thinkers of his time. Among the recipients of his missives were Saint Augustine, Popes Damasus and Epiphanius, and Jerome’s longtime friend, the Roman Senator Pammachius.
To the latter he addressed one particular epistle that would be eternalized as the Magna Carta for translators. In the text, Jerome defends himself from the affronts of another reputable translator, Tyrannius Rufinus, who accused him of infidelity in rendering into Latin a letter from Pope Epiphanius to Bishop John. Given the Pope’s reputation and the purity of his style, that letter was “wanted in all of Palestine, by the ignorant and the educated alike.”
The translation in question had been commissioned by Eusebio de Cremona, “a man of no small estimation,” yet unacquainted with the Greek language. At his special request, Jerome acquiesced to “simplifying the argument” to make it more readily intelligible, and delivered the translation with the disclaimer that it be kept private. A year and a half later, Jerome’s detractors, allegedly incited by Rufinus, managed to usurp the text and publicize it as a display of translator’s neglect or mischief.
The Letter to Pammachius
The Letter to Pammachius was a passionate legal defense. An irate Jerome distills his anger through a series of examples to emphasize that even the prophets and evangelists did at times detach from a literal interpretation of the scriptures. This allowed for stylistic adaptations that, although foreign, never compromised or belittled the sincerity of their purpose. The Letter to Pammachius stands out for the richness of its content and style. It is the ultimate affirmation of Jerome’s erudition and competence as a translator and a vehement defense of good translating, which, he argues, must “render sense for sense, not word for word.” It also sheds light on the ubiquitous criticism, spite, resentment, and other inimical feelings shared by Jerome’s peers, which he seldom failed to reciprocate.
Sixteen centuries later, not everything has changed. Criticism and translation continue to walk hand in hand. Online and off, within the interpreting booth or beyond its confines, critics abound and supporters are hard to come by. In interpreting, particularly, this chronic lack of constructive feedback, coupled with an absence of objective assessment parameters, fuels a peculiar and vicious cycle where interpreters often gauge their performance relative to that of their booth mates. In such circumstances, criticism becomes the tool of choice for an instant ego boost. Pushing others down is the quickest way to feel good about ourselves, creating an easy platform on which to stand tall.
It doesn’t help when one considers that the noble craft of simultaneous interpreting came to the fore in the wake of World War II, on a continent devastated by the banalization of violence. So widespread and unprecedented had been the nature and reach of the atrocities perpetrated that a new word had to be minted to qualify them: genocide.
Despite the mounting empirical evidence and the unflattering historical roots for such belligerent disposition, the animosity experienced and spread by Jerome, and the ripples it might have sent across time, need not be replicated ad infinitum in our stuffy glassy booths or among our peers. Peace can and should be restored. In fact, it is long overdue.
Now, talking about peace is tricky, and it doesn’t take much to come off as righteous, pompous, or silly. It all sounds grand and out of reach. Yet, the type of peace we’re aiming for here—collegiality—is easy enough to reinstate. All it takes is an iota of self-awareness and an extra vigilant disposition. To try and make it less abstract, here are five detox strategies you can take to start transcending Jerome’s legacy:
- Focus on the positive. Look for and praise the types of behavior you’d like to see more of. What we concentrate on grows.
- Pay it forward. Pave the way for more positivity by being the first to offer encouragement and compliments. Do so unconditionally as well as sincerely.
- Make no excuses. We all have bad days. Own your occasional shortcomings. Offer no justification and don’t look for consolation in somebody else’s actual or projected poor performance. Review the experience honestly in search of pointers as to what might have tripped you up. Then fix it.
- Shrug it off. If a frustrated colleague finds fault with you or criticizes your performance, take the high road. If there is any truth to what they’re saying, consider Step 3 above, and thank him or her.
- Cut yourself some slack. Translation is, by design, an imprecise exercise. In our business, perfection is not only elusive but outright unattainable. Do your best and forget the rest. By acknowledging and accepting your own limitations you become more tolerant toward others
Adhering to the steps above will not make you a saint in the afterlife, but it will certainly warrant you a better experience in the here-and-now.
As for Jerome, learn to love him for his invaluable contribution to our craft and for thinking some of the hard problems through way before us. As to anything else, don’t get involved. Leave it for Jerome and Rufinus to settle in eternity.