Translation Musings: Moses, the Horned

Jun 16, 2015 | Language, Miscellaneous, Musings, Translation

A bad translation might not only lead to misunderstandings or confusion but it can even influence art history.

For example, let’s take Michelangelo’s Moses statue in Rome. If you look at this famous statue closely, you will notice two little horns on Moses’ forehead. Why would Michelangelo carve horns for him, you might ask?

Well, for the answer we need to go back to the 4th century when St. Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus to carry out a new Latin translation of the Bible from Hebrew – known today as the “Vulgate”.

Unfortunately – well, for poor Moses anyway! –, this new translation had some shortcomings, and in some cases failed to convey the original message. In Exodus 34:29 there is a Hebrew term “qaran” that can be translated in several ways, including its literal meaning, “horned”. However, what St. Jerome failed to see is that the word has an extra, metaphorical meaning, something like “having rays of light as a sign of God’s presence”. Doesn’t this make more sense in the context?

However, as St. Jerome’s Latin translation refers to horns, for centuriMoses_Michelangelo_-_Detailes artists imagined and depicted Moses with those two little horns in the middle of his head.

This shows how important it is to use professional translators who don’t only look at the literal meaning of the words but think outside the box and find the abstract or idiomatic meaning. The reviewing stage is also vital, particularly if your work is to be published, or is destined to be of historical importance! Had St. Jerome reviewed his translation more carefully, Moses could have been spared the horns.

First Edition’s professional mother tongue translators are required to check their work carefully before submitting it. However, if you would like extra assurance that your translation is ready to go, we are happy to arrange a second translator to check for the accuracy, consistency and style of the translation. Give us a call on 01223 356733 for a chat about your translation needs or click here for a no-obligation quote.

image credit: Westerdam (