Meet these Unstoppable and Passionate Translators who made history

The Power of Conviction: Saint Jerome and Sor Juana
Romina C. Cinquemani
6 min
Table of Contents

Are you ready for a real story of passion, perseverance and a lot of breaking rules that happened 1600 years ago during the bible translation… Then buckle up, and get ready to meet the patron saint of translators, Saint Jerome, and the Tenth Muse from Mexico, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. This is the story of their unlikely fellowship in spirit.

Agreed. It might be a tad bizarre to argue that Saint Jerome and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz were deeply bound by something other than religion, and devotion to God.

Nevertheless, a handful of scholars have noted that their life search, their profound love for knowledge, and their struggle to improve themselves as human beings, are only some of their flabbergasting similarities. 

 Saint Jerome, born Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, was considered one of the four Doctors of the Church. Despite his seemingly tamed attitude, it was clear that Saint Jerome had personal aspirations opposed to the life the Church wanted for him. He longed to live as a hermit, and to be able to study, read, and observe nature. 

Illustration of Saint Jerome in his study, surrounded by scrolls and books, translating the Bible into Latin, captured in the distinctive Pixar Animation Studios style.

He then fell for a trap that would work, at least, on another “saint-to-be”, Joan of Arc. He was convinced by the clergyman that, if he agreed to be ordained as a priest, he would be able to pursue his life’s work in a study of his own. A rather perverse “quid-pro-quo” even more deviated, since it came from the religious institution itself. But, as we now know, cynicism and deceit are intrinsic to human nature, regardless of religious organizations. 

In 382 A. D., commissioned by Pope Damasus I, Saint Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (known as the Vulgate). His approach was groundbreaking, since he used Judaic passages and compared texts to complete his work. This created a powerful uproar within the Church’s officials. Sadly, after the Pope’s demise and without his protection, all the violent clerical forces were unleashed, and Saint Jerome was savagely persecuted. 

He remained until his death in a Bethlehem shelter, far from the outer world’s senseless attacks, and he devoted the rest of his days to studying, translating, and writing. Although he remained within the confines of a tiny study (“studiolo”), he was still able to broaden his mind to infinity, and through his fantastic life’s work, he almost conquered Babel. He died at Bethlehem, 30 September 420 A.D., and was buried close to the site of the birth of Jesus. 

Enter Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, born Juana Ramírez de Asbaje in 1648 in Nepantla, México. She was clearly one in a million right from the start, due to her unquenchable thirst for knowledge from a very tender age. As a woman of her time, having access to formal education and books was out of the question; an abomination even. Therefore, she would be almost entirely self-taught.

She learnt to read very early and, when she was seven, she wanted to dress in a man’s clothes, so that she could go to the University. She was later sent to live with relatives in Mexico City, where her unique mind and agreeable looks enchanted the members of the court. When she was 17, she was famously tested by a panel of 40 university professors, all of whom were shocked by her deep knowledge of philosophy, mathematics, and history.

At nineteen, she entered the convent of San José de las Carmelitas Descalzas, but withdrew, because the order was too strict for her free spirit. Before turning 20, she entered the convent of San Jerónimo (Spanish for “Saint Jerome”), where she had the chance to keep her own library, a study, and a bit of social life, since she was able to chat with learned men from the Court and University. She wrote many poems and plays, she loved music and studied all branches of knowledge, from philosophy to natural science, and everything in between. 

A major example of her higher purpose and lasting effect in women’s lives is her “Respuesta a Sor Filotea”. Within it, Sor Juana defended the right of women to education and knowledge, and traced the many obstacles she had faced throughout her life in the pursuit of learning.

There was a bitter and dark counterpart to the shining beacon that was the mind of Juana. The Church became suspicious of her practices, her books, her eagerness to learn, her bold, and fearless affirmations during the “tertulias”. Women, and specially nuns, were not supposed to know anything further than house chores, and God. Not even God, but mind-numbing religious practices.

Illustration capturing the challenges faced by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, showcasing her resilience and dedication amidst the obstacles she encountered.

 After years of increasingly violent persecution, physical punishment, and humiliation, the clergy forced Sor Juan to write a letter where she admitted she was “the worst woman of them all”. A huge irony lingered over her surrender and admission of guilt. She merely wanted to be a human being, and to use her intelligence and sensitivity to explore the world, making it a better place by doing so. She was forced to burn all her books and worldly possessions and, consequently, one of the biggest and most relevant libraries from those times was lost to the world. She died after she caught the plague, while taking care of her ill sisters in the convent.

Despite the physical and spiritual pain to which Jerome and Juana were subjected, their unique humanity survived for centuries, and inspired millions of people. Still does. They defied stagnant rules of their respective times, and dared to think, and do the impossible. Their legacy lives on in thousands of intellectuals, translators, language lovers, writers, philosophers, poets, readers, thinkers, and more. It lives on in people who do not settle, who push further to become more than they are expected to be, and improve their surroundings on their enlightened path. Jerome and Juana became immortal through their incredible journey, and their written works still shine today, and remind us we are human. 

Romina C. Cinquemani
Spanish translator, writer, language lover, and constant life apprentice.
Translate twice as fast impeccably
Get Started
Our online Events!

Try Bureau Works Free for 14 days

ChatGPT Integration
Get started now
The first 14 days are on us
Free basic support