What do you know about the history of translation? Translation plays an important role in our modern, globalised world. It supports everything from the sharing of medical and scientific advances to the smooth operation of international business ventures. It helps us understand different cultures and gain insights into societies with different values and different ways of life. And this has been the case since the very first translations were produced.
Translation has been a respected and skilled art for millennia. Below, I want to dive into the history of translation, looking at the craft’s valuable role in everything from language development to religion. Shall we begin?
The word “translate” derives from the Latin root “translat,” which means “to carry across.” The earliest evidences of ancient translation involve religious texts and poetry, including the Sumerian poem, “Epic of Gilgamesh.” The epic poem was translated from Akkadian to various Asian languages around 2,000 BC.
Before we look at the origin of translation, I want to consider why the history of translation is so important. Well, over the centuries, translation has contributed to everything from the large-scale spreading of religions to the development of a wide range of modern languages. It has enabled communications, insights and understandings that would not otherwise have occurred.
Translation has influenced societal development in both subtle and overt ways for millennia. And we’re still feeling its impact today.
We can’t say for certain when the first translation was undertaken, but we do still know a surprising amount about ancient translations and their impact.
In around 2500 BC, for example, we know that the translation of symbols from Sumerian to Eblaite was carried out on clay tablets.
In the Western world, we know that a collection of texts from the Hebrew Bible and deuterocannonical books were translated into early Koine Greek between the 3rd and 1st centuries BC. Called the Septuagint due to being worked on by 70 translators, the ancient translation enabled Jews whose geographical dispersion had eroded their Hebrew language skills to read the Scriptures in Greek.
Another hugely important insight into the history of translation comes from the Rosetta Stone. Discovered in 1799 by Napoleon’s French army, the stone dates back to 196 BC. Probably originally displayed within a temple, it is inscribed with a decree issued by King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The decree is carved in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs at the top, the Ancient Egyptian Demotic script in the middle and Ancient Greek at the bottom. This remarkable find has proven invaluable in translating Ancient Egyptian and shows the importance of translation in everyday life well over 2,000 years ago.
This is one of the things I find so fascinating about translation history – the dual role of translations that have been discovered. They reveal insights into ancient civilisations that we would not otherwise have. They also help us to understand ancient languages in new ways, just as we’ve seen with the Rosetta Stone.
Throughout history, translations have been very much the purview of the elite. Royalty, scholars, religious leaders… these were the individuals who drove the craft of translation forward at a time when literacy levels among the masses were low.
One by-product of this is that almost all surviving ancient translations were produced by men, so we have very few insights from a female perspective (I explore the impact of this in an article on Professor Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey – you can click the link below for further details).
Even today, there remains a substantial gender imbalance when it comes to literary translation from other languages into English, with far more books written by male authors being translated than books written by female authors. Campaigners such as Meytal Radzinski are working to address this, so for now let’s just bear the imbalance in mind as we continue to explore the history of translation.
Since the origin of translation, religious texts have been a key focus. Saint Jerome – the patron saint of translation – was a Christian priest whose translation of the Bible into Latin gave us the Vulgate – the version of the Bible used by the Catholic Church. Previous Latin translations of the Bible (collectively known as the Vetus Latina), were based purely on the Ancient Greek Septuagint. However, the Vulgate used the Septuagint as the basis of the Old Testament, but with adjustments made based on Saint Jerome’s reading of the Bible in Hebrew as well. His translation was made between 383 and 404 AD.
Translation played a key role in the spread of Buddhism across Asia as well (a process that spanned much of the first millennium AD). Key to this were the translations of the Buddhist monk Kumārajīva. During the 4th century AD, he translated a wide range of religious texts from Sanskrit into Chinese. The most well-known of these today is the Diamond Sutra. It remains popular due to its clear delivery of the meaning of the original texts (I’ll talk a bit more about literal versus ‘sense for sense’ translation below).
The Tangut Empire in particular ramped up the translation of Buddhist texts, using block printing as part of the translation development process.
Religion remains a key driver of translation today – you can find out more about that via the link below.
Read more: What is the World's Most Translated Website?
While many of the first translations were religious in nature, scientific, medical and philosophical texts also played a major role.
In England, King Alfred the Great is credited with doing much to aid the growth of the English language, thanks to his commitment to translating works such as The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History from Latin to English.
Scientific and philosophical translations also played an important part of the Arabic domination of the Greek world, with the conquering Arabs translating key Greek texts into Arabic.
Those Arabic texts later influenced the advancement of the Spanish language too, as well as of science, philosophy and culture throughout Europe. This was in large part due to King Alfonso X of Castile founding the Schola Traductorum (School of Translation) in Toledo in the 13th century. Many Arabic texts, alongside texts in Latin and Hebrew, were translated there by a range of scholars of different faiths.
With the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid-1400s, and its introduction to England by William Caxton in 1476, the scene was set for the more widescale production and consumption of literary works, as well as other writings. Prior to that, however, plenty of work was already being put into literary translation.
Geoffrey Chaucer stands out during this period, as his translations, adaptations and original works drove forward the use of Middle English as a literary language during an era when French and Latin still very much dominated.
In England and in Italy at this time, as well as elsewhere around the world, the boundaries of translation were being pushed considerably, particularly with printing presses meaning that documents were being distributed more widely. Let’s take a minute to consider how this impacted the history of translation.
The word translation (in English) comes from the Latin word translatio, meaning to bring across or to carry across. However, the way in which language has been ‘carried across’ has varied hugely since the days of the first translations.
Saint Jerome, for example, is credited with coining the term ‘sense for sense’, meaning that translators should deliver the sense of a text rather than a word for word translation.
German priest, author and theologian Martin Luther, meanwhile, asserted that a translator should translate into his native language, rather than from that language into a second tongue. This stance was later backed by translator and poet Johann Gottfried Herder.
In England, by the end of the 15th century when Thomas Malory translated Le Morte Darthur, verbal accuracy was being stretched to the limit in works of literature. Malory’s version should more accurately be called an adaptation rather than a translation. This approach continued for centuries, with translators often feeling that contemporary audiences would prefer to read their own style and take on a work, rather than sticking doggedly to the original. Ease of reading became the priority.
In Italy, however, things went a different way. Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the works of Plato and Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus’ translation of the New Testament led to the beginning of translation attempts in which accuracy became the top priority. So many religious and philosophical beliefs were tied in with the words of Jesus, Plato and Aristotle that were being translated, that readers became particularly interested in their accuracy compared to the source texts.
I’ve mentioned a few individuals above who have played a notable role in translation development over the years. You can read in more depth about these individuals and others by clicking the link below, but there are a few more individuals that warrant a mention here.
In the literary world, many writers have not only created their own works, but also served to translate the poems, novels and other compositions of their fellow authors. Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Stiller, Constance Garnett, Vladimir Nabokov, Gregory Rabassa, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vasily Zhukovsky, Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, Edward George Seidensticker, Lydia Davis, Haruki Murakami, Sir Richard Burton, Achy Obejas and countless others have all contributed to the wealth of texts that we have available in multiple languages today.
Read more: Who Are the Best Translators in History?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick journey through the history of translation. Translation continues both to influence our contemporary societies and to fascinate scholars; there’s a reason the Rosetta Stone remains the most-visited exhibit in the British Museum, even after being on display there for more than 200 years.
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