Throughout history, translators have facilitated the sharing of knowledge across different cultures and societies. With that in mind, we’re taking a journey through history, from famous translators of days gone by to good translation websites meeting modern needs. Let’s jump right in.
Translation can serve many purposes. It can facilitate business relationships that cross international borders. It can educate people about different cultures and ways of life. It can help to save lives by spreading knowledge of new medical techniques around the world. The list of benefits that translation can provide is enormous.
In the past, translation has also been instrumental in spreading religious doctrines and philosophies. Indeed, its use in this capacity continues to this day; the world’s most translated website is the official Jehovah’s Witnesses’ site.
When it comes to the history of translation, certain individuals stand out for the importance, quality and/or impact of their work. We’ll take a look at some of those key figures below.
Between the 8th century BC and the 5th century AD, translators played an essential role in spreading ideas relating to religion, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, science and more.
One of the world’s most famous translators – and certainly one of those whose work had the most influence in shaping the world – was St Jerome (347-420 AD). St Jerome produced the Vulgate, which became the official Catholic translation of the Bible, and which he translated into Latin from Greek and Hebrew. For the next millennium, the Vulgate was the only translation of the Bible in use.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was a prominent Roman statesman, philosopher and scholar, as well as being one of Rome’s great orators. He was a prolific writer – so much so that three quarters of the surviving Latin literature that we know existed during Cicero’s lifetime was written by him.
Cicero was also responsible for a significant body of translation from Greek to Latin. He brought many theoretical concepts of Greek philosophy to Roman audiences as a result of that work.
Translation remained a hugely important method of spreading philosophical and religious writings during the period of Late Antiquity, which preceded the Early Middle Ages. Again, several individuals distinguished themselves through the importance and impact of their work.
Buddhist monk, missionary and scholar Kumārajīva (344–413) has gone down in history as one of the best translators in the world when it comes to Chinese Buddhism. Kumārajīva headed up a team of translators who converted Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese, famously including the influential Diamond Sutra. He also founded in China the Madhyamaka school of Buddhist philosophy (Sanlun).
The Arabic conquering of the Greek Empire spurred a rush of translations from Greek to Arabic. While many translators were involved in the Graeco-Arabic translation movement, Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873) particularly stood out – so much so that he became known as the “Sheikh of the translators”. Hunayn spoke Arabic, Syriac, Persian, and Greek. He used his impressive language skills to translate 116 scientific and medical treatises from his base in Baghdad. Along with the 36 books of his own that he wrote (21 of them about medicine), Hunayn’s translations had a huge influence over the course of Islamic medicine.
Translators across the world contributed to huge advances in a range of fields of study during the Middle Ages. While there are too many to list in their entirety, we’ve included a couple of the best translators of this time period below.
Benedictine scholar Notker Labeo (c. 950-1022) was an omnivorous reader, theologian, astronomer and connoisseur of the arts. Through his teaching work, he translated at least 11 important works from Latin to German, including Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae and Aristotle’s De categoriis and De interpretatione.
Francis Raymond de Sauvetât, also known as Archbishop Raymond de Toledo, founded the Toledo School of Translators – a group of translators with a dedicated working space in the Cathedral of Toledo. He translated and oversaw the translation of important scientific, medical, philosophical, and religious works into Latin, mainly from classical Arabic. Major advances in medicine, astronomy, and algebra have been attributed to that work.
Poet, author, translator, and more, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340s-1400) is known as the “father of English literature” thanks to his authoring of The Canterbury Tales and many other works. A talented linguist, Chaucer translated books from Latin and French, as well as adapting works originally written in Italian. Among his most important translations were Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Guillaume de Lorris’ The Romance of the Rose.
The rise of printing created new demand for translated materials in the 16th century and plenty of work to keep translators busy.
German priest, scholar and author Martin Luther is best known for his role in the Protestant Reformation and the founding of Lutheranism. Translation played a key part in his work, as it was Luther’s translation of the Bible into German that made it available to the German laity, rather than just the clergy. The impact of this was felt not just by the church but across much of German culture.
English scholar William Tyndale (c. 1494-c. 1536) became a famous translator thanks to his work on the Bible. He translated the New Testament and half of the Old Testament into English, working directly from Greek and Hebrew texts. The “Tyndale Bible” went on to become England’s first mass-produced translation of this important religious book.
Let’s turn now to some notable translators from the late modern period, from around 1800 to 1945.
Another famous translator from this era was Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832). Champollion spoke Arabic, Ancient Greek, Coptic, Hebrew, and Latin, as well as his native French. He was a key translator/decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs, publishing the Précis du système hiéroglyphique des anciens Égyptiens, which provided the key to understanding Egyptian grammar.
As well as being a famous author, Argentinian Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo (1899-1986) was a talented literary translator, having reputedly translated The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde into Spanish at the tender age of nine. He went on to translate a wide range of literary fiction for Spanish audiences, including works by Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, Rudyard Kipling, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, André Gide, Hermann Hesse and Franz Kafka. His translations were founded on a principle of “happy and creative infidelity,” meaning that sticking too closely to the source text wasn’t his top priority.
Another superb and prolific literary translator was Constance Garnett (1861-1946). Her focus was on Russian literature, which she brought to English audiences. Her translations included works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, among many others, though not all Russian authors appreciated her efforts. Vladimir Nabokov was an outspoken critic of her translations, in part as a result of Garnett’s tendency to leave out words or phrases that she didn’t understand. However, with 71 volumes under her belt, Garnett was a key literary translator who did much to build an understanding of Russian history and culture among English-language readers.
A fascinating individual, Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) is described (by Wikipedia) as an “English explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat.” Rather than setting his sights on highbrow literary works, Sir Richard focused on more controversial volumes. He was the first person to provide an English translation of the Kama Sutra, and his other translations included an uncensored version of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night – a highly controversial work given Victorian attitudes to ‘obscene material.
Given the insatiable appetite for literature in many countries, as well as the continuing translation of everything from medical papers to translations for museums, art galleries and cultural institutions, contemporary history presents rich pickings when it comes to famous translators. Here are some of the latest contenders for the title of best translator in the world.
American Gregory Rabassa (1922-2016) is another translator who did much to present foreign-language works to English readers – in his case, novels that were written in Spanish and Portuguese. His focus was on some of the greatest Latin American authors including Julio Cortazar, Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In fact, the latter felt that Rabassa’s translation of his One Hundred Years of Solitude was even better than the original work – and that after waiting three years for the translation!
Back in the field of literary fiction, Edward George Seidensticker (1921-2007) was an influential figure in terms of his translation of Japanese fiction. Indeed, many readers would be unlikely to have heard of authors such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki were it not for Seidensticker’s efforts. Not only did he benefit English-speaking readers by translating the novels of these authors, but he is also credited with helping Yasunari Kawabata become the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1968), as a result of his translation work.
The best translators today are no longer working only within the printed literary domain but also within the digital world. In 2021, Japanese science fiction author Miyuki Ono released her novel Pure as a non-fungible token (NFT). Two English translations (by different translators) were released simultaneously. As technology shifts the way we think about art and culture, translation is clearly keeping pace.
In terms of human translators (as opposed to online translators – we’ll look at those in a moment), certain skills and qualities are essential for those seeking to be the best. An outstanding knowledge of one or more foreign languages is, of course, a prerequisite. Also key are attention to detail, superb grammar and excellent writing skills.
Accomplished translators who work freelance also need excellent organizational skills, along with the ability to stay motivated and focused without someone constantly looking over their shoulder. Many also make it a point to use the best translation tools for translators, to ensure they are maximizing their efficiency for every document they work on.
We’ll wrap up our historic translation tour by coming right up to date and looking at the best translation websites. The pursuit of the best online translator is now a common one for both businesses and individuals. Here are some of the leaders in the field (note that these are translation websites – we’ve covered the best localization tools separately):
Google Translate – with automatic language identification and support for a huge number of languages, including many that other translators don’t provide, Google Translate is considered by many to be the best translator online at present. It will even read the translation aloud for you.
Bing Microsoft Translator – easy to use and lightning-fast, Bing’s translation tool is another reliable choice. Is Bing Translator better than Google? Perhaps not quite, but it’s certainly very close, with support for a huge range of languages.
DeepL – with 29 languages available, DeepL delivers results fast. It also delivers handy customization options, such as the ability to use synonyms and some handy keyboard shortcuts. Is DeepL better than Google Translate? As with Bing, it’s possibly not quite up to what Google Translate can deliver but DeepL looks to be catching up fast.
Yandex Translate – if you need websites, images or voice files translated, Yandex could be the best online translator. It also makes it easy to share your translations with others, which is great for collaborative projects.
Translate Dict – with plenty of language options and a nifty downloadable text to speech option that provides audio in both the source and target language, Translate Dict is another modern translator that is carving out a niche for itself as a contender for the best translation website throne.
There are many other examples of online translators that we could include here, showing just how dynamic the translation industry is as it continues to grow and evolve. What an exciting time to be part of the industry’s future!