Do translators really need a saint? – A whimsical reflection on Saint Jerome’s lion

st-jerome-Celebrating International Translation Day on a day traditionally devoted to a Christian saint has always seemed a bit sectarian to me, but September 30, the day the Catholic church honors Saint Jerome, is now irrevocably identified with translators all over the world. Although Saint Jerome has long been the patron saint of translators, it must be admitted that he had a repulsive side. For example, he reportedly exhorted a young Roman society woman to fast until the poor creature died of anorexia. Furthermore, as a translator who often altered the texts he worked on to support his own theological agenda, he’s less than a shining example for those plying the trade today. On the other hand, he did provide the intellectual basis for later Biblical archeology and his surviving correspondence provides modern readers with a vivid glimpse of his times. It certainly was not his fault that thousands of prints and paintings executed long after his death show him decked out with incongruous accessories such as a cardinal’s red hat and cloak, objects related to an office not instituted by the church until the tenth century.

I have to admit that it’s easy to like a guy who plucked a thorn from the swollen foot of a suffering lion, although according to religious scholars, the attribution of that feat to Jerome rests on a confusion between the name of Geronimus, the late Latin rendering of the name Jerome, and Gerasimos of the Jordan, another saint with a more legitimate claim to the legend.

St. JerasimosJerome’s lion has always seemed a bit sad to me. In the legends of Saint Jerome, he’s described as wandering into the monastery seeking help and later playing the role of a servant. In contrast, Gerasimos’s lion is an integral part of the story of that saint’s life and a mechanism for conveying moral lessons. According to this tradition, Gerasimos came across the suffering lion while fasting in the wilderness. After he extracted a thorn from the lion’s foot, the grateful beast willingly followed him back to his monastery, where he became a part of the monastic community, helping the monks with their daily chores and even watching over the monastery’s donkey as it carried water back to the monastery from the river. However, the story goes that one day a passing trader made off with the donkey while the lion slept on the job. Believing that he had succumbed to an overpowering urge to eat his charge, Gerasimos nevertheless praised him for not running away after committing such a dreadful deed and gave him the opportunity to redeem himself by assigning him the donkey’s daily job of carrying water from the river to the monastery. The beast assumed this task with humility and resignation. However, when he spotted the trader again with the donkey and a string of camels in tow, he bellowed so loud that the man fled in terror. The lion then proudly led the entire caravan back to the monastery. Realizing that they had St. Jerome2unfairly judged the noble creature, Gerasimos and his fellow monks promptly dubbed him Jordanes. The rehabilitated lion remained a beloved member of the religious community until the death of his friend and mentor five years later. Legend has it that the distraught Jordanes threw himself down on the Gerasimos’s grave and died of grief. In contrast, Jerome’s lion seems to have never been given a name or assigned a fanciful, dramatic end. There’s no love, moral message, or meaningful relationship between man and nature in this version. The lion is nothing but a stiff, lifeless symbol tacked onto the life of the saint by an error (horror of horrors) in the translation of a name. As far as legends go, Gerasimos’s followers wove a richer, more interesting tale than Jerome’s. In reading stories that link the lion to Jerome, the editor in me sees shoddy plagiarism instead of creative inspiration.

For his high profile as one of many translators of the Bible, the contentious Saint Jerome seems fated to be our standard-bearer. However, I can’t help thinking that it would be nice to celebrate a truly International Translation Day not weighed down by geo-specific religious overtones. After all, we are an international community that represents many different cultures.