The Literal Character of the Vulgate

by Michael Marlowe

Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, commonly known as Jerome (340-420), is responsible for parts of the Latin Vulgate version that was used as a standard text by Roman Catholics up till the middle of the twentieth century. For the New Testament he revised one of the Old Latin versions already in common use, on the basis of Greek manuscripts that were available to him. For the Old Testament he made a new translation directly from the Hebrew.

The Literalness of the Old Latin and Vulgate Versions

The first Latin translations of the Scriptures were quite literal. Westcott thinks there may have been “a preparation for a Christian Latin dialect” when churches were established in the African province, where Latin translations were first made. In any case, “many words which are either Greek (machæra, sophia, perizoma, poderis, agonizo, etc.) or literal translations of Greek forms (vivifico, justifico, etc.) abound in both” the Old and New Testament of the Old Latin version, he says, and “the exact literality of the Old version was not confined to the most minute observance of order and the accurate reflection of the words of the original: in many cases the very forms of Greek construction were retained in violation of Latin usage.” 1

A comparison of early manuscripts of the Vulgate with manuscripts of the Old Latin New Testament shows that for the most part Jerome sought to improve the accuracy of the translation by making it even more literal. Bruce Metzger observes that “at the start of his work he was more exacting than during the later later part of his work … in the earlier part of his work he introduces very frequently the participial construction into the Vulgate, in accord with the Greek idiom, to replace the Old Latin finite verb.” 2 Bonifatius Fischer states, “In general the translation technique of the Latin Bible is very literal … On the whole, the development in the Latin goes from a freer translation to an ever closer correspondence to the Greek.” 3 The literalness of the version is such that it even reproduces gratuitous Hebraisms of the Greek text which which were not idiomatic in either Greek or Latin. For instance, in Acts 12:3 we find adposuit adprehendere et Petrum for the Greek προσέθετο συλλαβεῖν καὶ Πέτρον, lit. “he put beside to seize also Peter.”

Jerome’s version of the Old Testament is somewhat less literal than his revision of the New Testament, but it is no less literal than the Old Latin versions of the Old Testament, or the Greek Septuagint version upon which the Old Latin translations were based. This literal character of the version is immediately apparent to anyone who can read both Latin and Greek, and who is familiar with Latin literature. One classical scholar, E.V. Rieu, observes that “we find St. Jerome practically inventing a Latin for the purpose” of representing the Greek original, “a Latin which … differs enormously … from the standard Latin of his day,” and this literal method is due to the fact that “the translators of the Bible have been influenced, almost to the present day, by religious rather than literary considerations.” 4

Religious Reasons for Literal Translation

The “religious considerations” mentioned by Rieu are well known to patristic scholars. Only a fairly literal translation of the Bible would have been acceptable to churchmen, because all agreed that the Scriptures were verbally inspired, and in doctrinal writings they often put great weight upon verbal details of the biblical text. Moreover, in their interpretation of the text the early Church writers often found what we may call esoteric meanings in its verbal details. Hence in his letter to Pammachius, Jerome expressed the common view that only a literal translation is appropriate for Scripture, “where even the order of the words is a mystery” (ubi et verborum ordo mysterium est). The word mysterium here refers to meaning which was hidden in the text. Likewise in his commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians he explains that the exact representation of the original is more important to him than any considerations of Latin style. In a comment on his translation of 3:6 (Gentes esse coheredes, et concorporales, et comparticipes promissionis eius in Christo Iesu per Evangelium) he writes:

I know the adding of the preposition con in the words coheredes, concorporales, and comparticipes, makes but an odd figure in the Latin tongue; yet because that preposition is in the Greek, and because in the divine writings every word, syllable, tittle and point are full of senses, we choose therefore rather to forego the composition and structure of the words than to weaken the meaning. 5

The unidiomatic character of the Latin version is also mentioned by Augustine in his commentary on the Psalms. He observes that in Psalm 51:14 the Latin version gives a literal translation of the Septuagint’s ῥῦσαί με ἐξ αἱμάτων ὁ θεὸς ὁ θεὸς τῆς σωτηρίας μου by rendering ἐξ αἱμάτων (from bloods) with de sanguinibus, and explains:

“Deliver me from bloods, O God, God of my health.” The Latin translator hath expressed, though by a word not Latin, yet an accuracy from the Greek. For we all know that in Latin, sanguines [bloods] are not spoken of, nor yet sanguina [bloods in the neuter], nevertheless because the Greek translator hath thus used the plural number, not without reason, but because he found this in the original language the Hebrew, a godly translator hath preferred to use a word not Latin, rather than one not exact. 6

Jerome not only let this stand in his revision of the Psalter from the Greek, but also, as a “godly translator,” he used the same literal rendering in his new translation of the Psalms from the Hebrew. However, for the translation of secular works, Jerome says that he prefers to translate “sense for sense and not word for word,” because a literal translation is often unlovely, and sometimes even “obscures [operit] the sense.”

The editors of Jerome’s collected Epistulae have supplied titles indicating the subject of each letter, and to this one they have given the title De Optimo Genere Interpretandi, “On the Best Method of Translating.” But it is not Jerome’s purpose to offer anything like a comprehensive treatise on that subject in this letter. A better title would have been “Jerome’s Defense of his Translation of the Letter of Epiphanius to John of Jerusalem,” because the discussion of translation methods included in this letter is designed only to justify the paraphrastic method he used in that translation. 7 As he explains in § 2 of the letter, his translation was done not for publication, but for the private use of one who begged him “to translate it for him into Latin and at the same time to simplify the argument so that he might more readily understand it.” Metzger observes:

Here Jerome clearly advocated two different methods of translation, depending on whether the original is a secular or a sacred text. In the Bible every word is sacred. In his letter to Paulinus, Jerome wrote, “The Apocalypse of John has as many mysteries as words,” and these mysteries must be preserved in the translation. Since the order of words transcends human understanding, a change in the order of words not only destroys this mystery, but it also endangers the profundity of the sacred text. 8

Modern translation theorists who do not share Jerome’s view of inspiration and who have no training in historical theology find this hard to understand. Eugene Nida, in what seems to be an attempt to create an honorable pedigree for his own methods of “dynamic equivalence” in Bible translation, claims that Jerome’s Vulgate was not a literal translation. By a failure (inability?) to examine the version itself, and by a misunderstanding of the purpose of various statements that Jerome makes in the letter to Pammachius, Nida writes:

Jerome’s approach to translation was probably one of the most systematic and disciplined of any of the ancient translators. He followed well-conceived principles, which he freely proclaimed and defended, and stated quite frankly that he rendered “sense for sense and not word for word.” Furthermore, he claimed the support of Cicero, who had translated Plato’s Protagoras and other Greek documents into Latin. Cicero, for example, had declared: “What men like you … call fidelity in translation, the learned term pestilent minuteness … it is hard to preserve in a translation the charm of expressions which in another language are most felicitous … If I render word for word, the result will sound uncouth, and if compelled by necessity I alter anything in the order or wording, I shall seem to have departed from the function of a translator.” 9

Nida’s misinterpretation of Jerome is corrected by William Adler, who after taking all the pertinent facts into consideration, concludes: “Not a statement of a theoretical position, translatio ad sensum in Jerome is only a cliché whose meaning is determined by the rhetorical situation in which it appears. … at heart, he would probably have had more sympathy with the attitudes and preoccupations of the fidus interpres [literal translators] who succeeded him.” 10

We also note here that, in quoting from the letter, Nida wrongly attributes words of Jerome to Cicero, and unaccountably inserts marks of ellipsis between words which in the letter are consecutive (“What men like you call fidelity”). Probably he never read the letter, and is citing it at second hand, from a source that he misunderstands. The shoddy scholarship revealed here is not untypical of Nida, and is repeated in a later work:

Some Latin translations of the Greek classics were likewise very literal, but Roman authors such as Horace and Cicero opposed literal translating; and Jerome, taking his cue from the more enlightened attitudes of his day, produced the Vulgate translation in a form of Latin which was regarded by some as so free as to be even heretical (Schwarz,1963). Jerome’s basic principle of translating is recorded in his letter 106 to Sunnia and Fretella, “For the same rule that we have often laid down is to be followed in translation: where there is no damage to the sense, the euphony and the properties of the language into which we are translating are to be observed” (Kelly, 1976, v-vi). 11

When we consult Jerome’s letter to Sunnia and Fretella we find that the words described by Nida as his “basic principle of translating,” are really intended as an ad hoc justification for a traditional rendering from the Roman Psalter that Jerome allowed to stand in his revision (the so-called Gallican Psalter).

The most crucial question about the translation of religious texts involves the degree of literalness. This was the principal issue among scholars in the classical world and was the crucial problem in the early Latin-speaking church. Was the church in the Western part of the Roman Empire to use the rigidly literal translations in the Old Latin tradition or Jerome's Vulgate translation prepared in the language of the common people, the vulgus? 12

Here Nida ludicrously suggests that the word Vulgate was designed to express the notion that Jerome’s revisions and new translations of the biblical books represented “the language of the … vulgus,” as if the word were equivalent to the expression lingua vulgaris; but in fact the term Vulgate derives from the phrase Vulgata editio, the common edition or commonly accepted text of Scripture. He even implies that the desirability of a non-literal translation in “the language of the common people” was a “principal issue” of Bible translation in the fifth century. But there is no evidence that a debate over the degree of literalness that should be used in Latin Bible translations ever took place in ancient times. Nida is misrepresenting the character of the Vulgate, and projecting modern ideas and conflicts about Bible translation back into antiquity. The principal issue of the fifth century with regard to Bible translations was not the degree of literalness but the basis of the translation. Jerome had translated direct from the Hebrew instead of from the Septuagint, and the question was whether the Church could accept such a new basis for its exposition of the Word of God. Eventually the teachers of the Church muddled through the issue with a compromise, in which most of Jerome’s translations of the Old Testament books were accepted and became a part of the commonly-used text (Vulgata). But for the Psalter—which was for Christians the most familiar part of the Od Testament—a severely literal Old Latin translation from the Septuagint (revised by Jerome, and known as the Gallican Psalter) was retained, and in the centuries that followed more manuscripts of this Psalter were made than any other portion of the Old Testament.

Michael Marlowe
September 2010


1. B.F. Westcott, “Vulgate,” in Dr. William Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Ezra Abbot, vol. 4 (Boston, 1881), p. 3453.

2. Bruce Metzger, The Early Versions of the New Testament (New York, 1977), p. 353.

3. Ibid., p. 369, emphasis mine.

4. E.V. Rieu, in “Translating the Gospels: A Discussion Between Dr. E.V. Rieu and the Rev. J.B. Phillips,” The Bible Translator 6/4 (October 1955), pp. 153-4.

5. Scio appositionem conjunctionis ejus, per quam dicitur, coheredes et concorporales, et comparticipes, indecoram facere in Latino sermone sententiam: sed quia ita habetur in Graeco, et singuli sermones, syllabæ, apices, puncta, in divinis Scripturis plena sunt sensibus: propterea magis volumus in compositione structuraque verborum, quam intelligentia periclitari.

6. “Erue me de sanguinibus Deus, Deus salutis meae.” Expressit latinus interpres verbo minus latino proprietatem tamen ex graeco. Nam omnes novimus latine non dici sanguines, nec sanguina; tamen quia ita graecus posuit plurali numero, non sine causa, nisi quia hoc invenit in prima lingua hebraea, maluit pius interpres minus latine aliquid dicere, quam minus proprie.

7. Douglas Robinson’s statement that this letter is “the founding document of Christian translation theory” (Western Translation Theory from Herodotus to Nietzsche [Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing, 2002], p. 23) represents a serious misunderstanding of the letter’s purpose.

8. Bruce Metzger, “Theories of the Translation Process,” Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (April-June 1993), p. 143.

9. Eugene Nida, Toward a Science of Translating (Leiden, 1964), p. 13.

10. William Adler, “Ad Verbum or Ad Sensum; The Christianization of a Latin Translation Formula in the Fourth Century,” in Pursuing the Text: Studies in Honor of Ben Zion Wacholder on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, edited by John C. Reeves and John Kampen (Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), p. 321-48.

11. Eugene Nida and Jan De Waard, From One Language to Another (Nashville, 1986), p. 183.

12. Eugene Nida, “The Sociolinguistics of Translating Canonical Religious Texts,” Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction 7/1 (1994), p. 203.