lost in translation · St. Jerome · translation · translators

How being too literal led to an epic bible mistranslation

{It seems that the horns on Michelangelo’s
statue of Moses are the result of
something lost in translation.}


I was reading the biography of St. Jerome, the Patron Saint of Translators on a site called TIHOF just now and I wanted to share it with you. Too interesting not to mention.

First of all, I need to say that I find that St. Jerome’s life and work isn’t only intriguing but also full of inspiration for translators.

So why wait till 30th of September to talk about him?

Okay then.

While I was reading the aforementioned article, I was impressed to read that St. Jerome once observed:

  “I am not so stupid as to think that any of the Lord’s words either need correcting or are not divinely inspired, but the Latin manuscripts of the Scriptures are proved faulty by the variations which are found in all of them.”

Later in the article, it says that St. Jerome made a few errors in the translation of the Bible into Latin known as the Vulgate. The most famous one was that instead of translating a passage regarding Moses’ descend from Mount Sinai into “rays of light”, he used the word “horns”.

This is why Michelangelo’s statue of Moses, now in S. Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, features horns. So it seems.

And of course I HAD to investigate which translates to not doing what I was planning to do (nothing to do with blogging, computers or translation).

Here’s what I found.

This is a paragraph from Wikipedia’s entry on Moses (Michelangelo):

The statue has what are commonly accepted to be two horns on its head.The depiction of a horned Moses stems from the description of Moses’ face as “cornuta” (“horned”) in the Latin Vulgate translation of the passage from Exodus in which Moses returns to the people after receiving the commandments for the second time. The Douay-Rheims Bible translates the Vulgate as, “And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord.”This was Jerome’s effort to faithfully translate the difficult, original Hebrew Masoretic text, which uses the term, karan (based on the root, keren, which often means “horn”); the term is now interpreted to mean “shining” or “emitting rays” (somewhat like a horn). Although some historians believe that Jerome made an outright error, Jerome himself appears to have seen keren as a metaphor for “glorified”, based on other commentaries he wrote, including one on Ezekiel, where he wrote that Moses’ face had “become ‘glorified’, or as it says in the Hebrew, ‘horned’.” The Greek Septuagint, which Jerome also had available, translated the verse as “Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was glorified.” In general medieval theologians and scholars understood that Jerome had intended to express a glorification of Moses’ face, by his use of the Latin word for “horned.” The understanding that the original Hebrew was difficult and was not likely to literally mean “horns” persisted into and through the Renaissance.

What Wikipedia is saying is that St. Jerome tried to faithfully translate the difficult Masoretic text.

And here’s a quote from an article I found on Taylor Marshall’s site which I think is interesting:

No doubt, the Hebrew reads “horns,” but horns need not be goat horns. A “ray” is, in a sense, a horn. When you shine your flashlight in the darkness, it makes the shape of a horn.

According to the author, it wouldn’t be easy to carve light so he instead carved horns. He continues by saying that Michelangelo didn’t follow St. Jerome’s “mistranslation” but that he formed non animal horns that evoke the glory of God, power, divinity, and the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Hm, could that be the case?

You can read the entire article HERE and see if you agree.

What it seems to be the case is that St. Jerome overlooked that the word qaran is also a Hebrew idiom which means to radiate. This is confirmed by the following excerpt which digs a little bit deeper. This is from Grace Church.

Now, for Moses’ horns.  The ancient Greek translation of Exodus 34:29 reads, “when he went down from the mountain, Moses knew not that the appearance of the skin of his face was glorified” (καταβαίνοντοςδὲαὐτοῦἐκτοῦὄρουςΜωυσῆςοὐκᾔδειὅτιδεδόξασταιὄψιςτοῦχρώματοςτοῦπροσώπουαὐτοῦ).  This Greek translation is not faithful to the original Hebrew, but does give the sense of the passage – Moses’ face shone brightly.

So, where did Michelangelo get the horns?

The Hebrew of Exodus 34:29 is:


The issue is with the third to the last word, the Hebrew verb  קָרַ֛ן (qāran).  The noun form of this verb, קֶ֤רֶן (qeren) has as its primary meaning, ‘horn,’ like the horns of an animal.  However, this word can also refer to things that are long and cylindrical or that radiate from a common source.  For instance, this noun refers to the horns of the altar in the Temple in 1 Kings 1:50 and even to rays of light in Habakkuk 3:4: “His radiance is like the sunlight; He [God] has rays flashing from His hand.”  A Bible translator might therefore understand this verb form in Exodus 34:29 much like the noun, as either referring to literal animal horns or to something like light radiating from Moses’ face.


Jerome decided on the former.

The Latin of Exodus 34:29 is: “et ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies”: “and he (Moses) was ignorant that [his] face was horned” (Latin: cornutus, -a, -um, adj., horned, having horns).  Thus, in their (Latin) Bible, Moses had animal horns! (Jerome lived in Palestine, Bethlehem, while he did his translation.  I hope an unbelieving Hebrew teacher did not perpetrate this prank!)

During the Reformation, translators removed the horns from the text of Exodus.  However, according to some, Moses with horns became a common western, medieval depiction of Moses.

What a difference a little Bible mistranslation makes!

St. Augustine (354-430 AD), an expert in Latin confessed: “A Christian teacher who is to expound the Scriptures must know Greek and Hebrew in addition to Latin.  Otherwise, it is impossible to avoid constant stumbling.”

So, that was a longer than predicted blog post but never mind.

Actually, this is not over.

I am not finishing this post without sharing this spicy detail.

In Greek, there is a saying about cheating which involves the use of the word HORN.

Με κεράτωσε

(Me keratose)

(literally: he put a horn on me)

In St. Jerome’s case though what happened was the contrary. He was too faithful (to the text) and Moses got the horns!

A presto,