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Was Paula a bible translator?

September 2, 2012

Jane Barr has written a very interesting paper demonstrating that Jerome’s translation of Genesis is uneven, and when the subject matter relates to female issues, the translation is notoriously paraphrastic, supplying phrases not in the original Hebrew. I looked at her references – the stories of Dinah and Tamar – and decided to try out one of my own. Here are two lines from when Rachel dies in childbirth, Gen. 35:16,17,

וַיְהִי בְהַקְשֹׁתָהּ, בְּלִדְתָּהּ

ob difficultatem partus periclitari cœpit (Jerome)

By reason of her hard labour she began to be in danger (D-R)

Quumque difficultatem pateretur in pariendo (Pagninus)

And it came to pass, when she was in hard labour (KJV)

And as she was having great difficulty in childbirth (NIV 2011)

וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ, כִּי מֵתָה

Egrediente autem anima præ dolore , et imminente jam morte (Jerome)

And when her soul was departing for pain, and death was now at hand (D-R)

Fuit autem egrediente anima eius (nam mortua est) (Pagninus)

And it came to pass, as her soul was in departing, (for she died) (KJV)

As she breathed her last—for she was dying (NIV 2011)

In both cases something is added by Jerome to his Latin translation. In the first case “danger” and in the second “pain.” On the other hand, one might suggest that the King James Version has underplayed the difficulty of childbirth. The women in the scriptures lived in a different time than us, and every pregnancy endangered their life. But childbirth is greatly desired in the Hebrew scriptures nonetheless.

I cannot help but think of Paula, the widow and mother of five children, who refused to marry again. She studied with Jerome and provided for him. She established a monastery and convent, providing manual support and scribes for his work. She also learned Hebrew and sat and discussed and edited his work.

Is it not possible that Paula influenced his translation, that she assured Jerome that childbirth was dangerous and painful? What was her role as patron, assistant and editor? Can we consider her to be on occasion also a co-translator?

However, in Gen. 3:16, Jerome, who had no difficulty discussing the most learned theological points with women, placed the wife squarely under her husband, writing sub viri potestate eris – “you will be under the authority of your husband.”  He knew very well that this was not a translation of the Hebrew since in Gen. 4:7, he translated sub te erit appetitus ejus.

It is true that Jerome did sometimes add adverbs to his Latin translation to make the translation accord with his notion of good Latin style. Still, this does not seem to explain his eratic translations on all matters relating to women.

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