It’s International Translation Day! Not coincidentally, September 30 is also the feast day of Saint Jerome (347-420), who translated the Bible into Latin (known as the Vulgate), as it was known for hundreds of years in medieval Western Europe. Jerome is also the patron saint of translators because of his reputation.
Jerome’s legacy as a translator was well known in the Middle Ages. Because of his monumental work translating the Bible, many traditions emerged about him and his work. So influential was Jerome’s work and so great was his reputation that medieval scribes misattributed works to him, falsified stories about translations he never made, and even forged works in his name–all under pretenses that gave those works a sense of Jerome’s authority.
Two works that circulated in the Middle Ages and benefited from associations with Jerome’s reputation as a translator were the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary. I’ve spent the past few years myself translating both apocrypha from Latin into English, to be published with full commentaries. Both of these apocrypha circulated in medieval manuscripts with prefatory material that made these associations explicit. These prefaces are fascinating in their attention to issues of language and translation, as well as how they align the works they’re attached to with Jerome’s name, reputation, and authority.
Both sets of prefaces include letters stylized as if they were written by or to the Bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus, historical figures who knew Jerome and corresponded with him. They also include other claims commonly found alongside Jerome’s name, about the antiquity of these works, their connections to the apostle Matthew, and their origins in the Hebrew language. All of these aspects clearly speak to issues of translation still with us today.
Here I want to present translations of these prefatory materials (without the extra apparatus that will appear with them in print) as a kind of preview of the full translations and commentaries.
PREFACES TO THE GOSPEL OF PSEUDO-MATTHEW
To the most beloved brother Jerome the Presbyter, Bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus greet you in the Lord.
In apocryphal books we have found the birth of Mary, Queen of Virgins, together with the birth and childhood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Considering that many things in them are contrary to our faith, we believed that the writings should be completely rejected, lest, with Christ as pretext, we give joy to Antichrist. Then, while we were considering this, the men of God Armenius and Virinus came, who were saying that your holiness found a volume in Hebrew written by the hand of the most blessed Matthew the Evangelist, in which was written about the Virgin Mother and the childhood of our Savior. For that reason, seeking your charity through our Lord Jesus Christ himself, we request that you translate it out of Hebrew for Latin ears, not so much for perceiving which things are signs of Christ, as for rejecting the craft of heretics, who, in order to teach evil doctrine, have mingled their lies with the good birth of Christ, so that they might hide the bitterness of death through the sweetness of life. Therefore, it will be the purest charity should you obey us, asking as your brothers, or if you prefer, you could pay us as bishops demanding a debt of charity that you believe is fit for us to receive. Be strong in the Lord and pray for us.
To the holy and most blessed lords Bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus, Jerome, a humble servant of Christ, greets you in the Lord.
Whoever digs in ground known for gold does not immediately seize whatever the torn trench might pour out, but first holds the sifting shovel, lifting up the shining stone from the bottom, pausing to turn and overturn the dirt, and maintains hope for profits not yet increased. Arduous work is put upon me, since this was commanded me by your blessedness—something not even Saint Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist wanted to be published openly. For, indeed, if this were not more secret, certainly he would have added it to the Gospel that he did publish. But he made this little book in Hebrew letters as a sealed document, which he never published, so that today the book—written in Hebrew letters by his own hand—is possessed by the most religious men, who have received it from their predecessors over successive ages. They never handed over this book to anyone to translate, but they have told its story one way and another. Thus it came to pass that this book was published by a disciple of Manichaeus named Leucius (who also wrote the false acts of the apostles), presenting the material not for edification but for destruction; and so in a synod it was judged according to its merits that the ears of the church should not be open to it.
Let the bites of those who bark cease, for we do not add this little book to the canonical Scriptures, but we translate the writings of an apostle and evangelist for exposing the falsehood of heresy; in this work, we obey the commands of pious bishops as much as we oppose impious heretics. Therefore, it is the love of Christ that we satisfy, believing that those who gain knowledge about the holy childhood of our Savior through our obedience might assist us in their prayers.
PREFACES TO THE NATIVITY OF MARY
You seek from me a small favor, seemingly light work but heavy because of wariness against falsehood. You ask that I write down everything that I have found by chance about the birth of the holy and blessed Virgin Mary up to her incomparable birth and the first beginnings of Christ. This thing certainly is not difficult, but dangerous, as I said, for its dangerous presumption to truth. For what you request of me, now that I have a white head, I learned about written in a certain little book that fell into my hands as a very young man; and certainly so much time has passed and other weighty things have intervened that some easy things might have slipped from my memory. Therefore, not unjustly, I may be accused, if I obey your request, of omitting or adding or changing some things. That it may be, I do not deny; but that it is done by my will, I do not concede. Thus, satisfying your wishes, and considering the curiosity of readers, I remind you and any reader of the little book I mentioned that, if I remember correctly, it likewise had a preface, with the sense like what follows.
Letter from Jerome to Bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus
You ask of me that I write back about a little book that some have on the nativity of Saint Mary. And therefore I want you to know that much in it is found to be false. For a certain Seleucus, who wrote the Passions of the Apostles, composed this little book.6 But just as he said what was true about their deeds and miracles, while lying much about doctrine, in this way too he fabricated many untruths from his heart. Therefore, I will be careful to translate word for word what it has in Hebrew, since it is said that the holy Evangelist Matthew composed the same little book sealed with Hebrew letters and placed it at the head of his gospel.
Whether this is true I put to the author of the preface and the fidelity of the writer. I myself say this is doubtful, but I do not affirm it to be false. I say this freely, which none of the faithful will deny, that if this is true, or if this is false, great miracles preceded the holy birth of Saint Mary, and it was followed by the greatest (miracle); and for that reason those who believe by this that God is able to perform them are able to believe and to read without danger to their souls. Finally, as much as I am able to recall—following the sense and not the words of the writer, not by the same byway, nor proceeding by the same steps, by some digression but returning to the same path—in this way I will observe the style of the narrative, so that nothing is said other than either what is written there or what might reasonably be written.