I'm not one to care much for saints, but there is one whose feast day I regularly celebrate and who I think should definitely be praised, and that's Jerome.
Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus (Jerome to his friends in the English-speaking world) was, among many other things, the translator of the Bible into Latin, and he wrote commentaries about the work, sometimes discussing his translations as well. For this reason, he is considered the patron saint of translators, and the date of his death in the year 420, 30 September, is celebrated as International Translation Day.
So why should translators be honoured and celebrated?
Go to any library or bookstore or, hopefully, to one of your own bookshelves. Pick up a bunch of books and flip through them. You should find that a number of them are translations.
Do you have Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov? Pablo Neruda's love sonnets? Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk? Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo? The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera? Or what about a thriller by Stieg Larsson or Jo Nesbø? Or a children's book by Astrid Lindgren or Joanna Spyri or Carlo Collodi?
Oh, yeah, and what about that old classic known as the bible?
That's a translation, too (despite some people believing that Jesus spoke English).
And how did these beautiful, moving, exciting, important books find their way into English (and many other languages)?
Translators wrestle with an author's carefully chosen words and try to find a way to represent the same ideas, the same feelings, the same sounds and rhythm, and the same associations and allusions into a different tongue. If you think this sounds easy, try it out yourself. If you don't know more than one language, you'd better learn one first. If you do know one, take a poem - by e.e. cummings, say, or C.K. Williams - and try to reproduce/re-write it another language. How long does it take you to translate just one line or one stanza? What challenges do you face? Does your translation still sound like cummings or Williams? Did you feel like cummings or Williams while translating?
Now imagine doing that with an entire book of poems or stories or with a novel or play or non-fiction work. While under a tight deadline. And for little money. And while having to teach or write book reviews or do copy editing or keep up some other job at the same time, just to ensure you've got enough money to survive on, because there's often not enough work at a decent enough salary for a translator to work full-time at translation.
Translators are the unheralded, underappreciated heroes of literature. They allow us to read and enjoy and learn from writing from all over the world, even if we don't know the language the text was written in. They make intercultural communication possible. They make intercultural understanding possible.
So on 30 September this year, on the feast day of our old friend Hieronymus, let's honour the translators. Go to the library or the bookstore and check out a translated work. Think about all the effort that went into making that text available. Maybe you'll even be inspired to send a note to the translator.
Saints be praised, indeed.
Follow B.J. Epstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bjepstein