A Brief History of Translation

In today’s globalised world, the importance of translation – and by extension, of translators – is clear. The translation of a language into another effectively creates bridges between cultures, traditions, ways of life, and beyond. Throughout the history of translation, people have devoted themselves to the artful practice of conveying messages across linguistic barriers, while taking care not to leave an imprint of their own voices or biases. This has been vital for preserving knowledge, enabling communication, and cultivating cultural exchange.   

This article explores the rich history of translations through millennia, a practice that has enriched societies’ knowledge and understanding of one another. Translation has also helped preserve cultural heritage beyond generations and cultures, providing a vital tool for peoples to safeguard their collective and individual identities. This, while fostering empathy and tolerance in allowing different cultures to understand and recognise themselves in one another. As a vehicle for cultural exchange, translation has been paramount in the shaping of human history, enabling the cooperation that has been instrumental to our progress and innovation as a species. From its humble beginnings to its crucial role today, the tapestry of the history of translation is rich and complex, illustrating a journey through time and space that has shaped our world as we know it. Join us and discover why translation is so important. 

Ancient Beginnings: The Dawn of Translation 

Since the dawn of civilisation humans have recognised the importance and the necessity of communication beyond linguistic barriers. Ancient peoples recognised the importance of communication to allow not only for a peaceful coexistence, but to foster understanding between cultures that would enable advancement through trade, diplomacy, and the sharing of knowledge. Let us remember that languages and how we communicate – systems of communications comprehending a series of symbols, words, gestures, and rules – have gone through their own evolutionary process where layers of sophistication and complexity have been added through time. Therefore, it follows that delving into the history of translation takes us through an intricate journey going back in time all the way to the cradles of civilisations. 

Ancient civilisations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China developed rudimentary methods to enable intercultural communication in early societies where linguistic diversity was widespread. The scribes of ancient Mesopotamia were learned in languages like Akkadian, Sumerian, and Babylonian, with the first acting as a sort of lingua franca in the region. Given Mesopotamia’s political structure and the fact that it held many city-states, it is hard to overestimate how crucial a part translation played in its administration. Nevertheless, we should mention that the history of interpretation predates the history of translation. The orality factor of this knowledge has put its longevity at a much higher risk. However, we should not forget that before the translation of the written word, there were translators or interpreters whose works we cannot trace tangibly today, but to whom we are indebted.  

 Ancient Egyptians translated hieroglyphic bodies of text into demotic script, thus providing more accessible information for diplomatic and administrative purposes. These efforts did not only benefit their contemporaries, but they have allowed for religious texts and administrative records to be preserved for centuries until our days. For example, if you have ever visited the British Museum in London, you might have come across the Rosetta Stone. This carved and inscribed slab of stone looks simple enough, but it has been instrumental for scholars to decipher the meaning behind ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as it depicts a decree issued by King Ptolemy V in hieroglyphs, demotic script, and Greek. Translation in ancient China has had a major role in the shaping of civilisation in and beyond East Asia. 

Classical Antiquity: Translation’s Golden Age 

The Classical Era brought about a quantum leap for humanity in terms of knowledge. In that context, it is hardly surprising that translation efforts were ripe and instrumental to societies’ developments. These were cultures which understood the value of bringing in foreign knowledge into their own. In Greece, intellectuals like Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, and Herodotus translated works from the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian originals into ancient Greek. While this was no easy feat, their work made transcendent contributions to Hellenic culture.   

It is believed that the history of literary translation began in the third century BC with Livius Andronicus’ translation of Homer’s Odyssey into Latin. This denotes not only the value held in the written word in other languages as we have seen with ancient cultures, but also the sophistication of societies that held literary texts in high esteem. In this act, Richard H. Armstrong identifies a paradigm for the cultures that would come after in terms of being inherently indebted to antiquity for the shaping of their own literatures1. We can link this to Roland Barthes’ definition of translation as a metalanguage in that one language becomes another language’s object. 

Romans believed they were the rightful heirs of Greece and its glistening history and tradition. Virgil, Horace, and Cicero were only some of the renowned Roman translators who broke through the linguistic barriers between Greek and Latin to lay the foundations for the dissemination of classical knowledge through Europe. Later on, the introduction of Greek works and knowledge into Medieval Europe was transformational. It led to seismic changes to life and thought. 

Interpreting Divinity: Translation and Religious Texts 

The translation of religious texts dates back thousands of years. Many founding religious scriptures were written in what we call dead languages today, such as Aramaic, Sanskrit, ancient Hebrew, and classical Arabic and Greek. Had these sacred words not been translated into more modern and accessible languages, those traditions and beliefs – or at least some of them – would have been lost forever.  

The Septuagint, a third century BC translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek, is one of the most notable examples of religious translation. Another important Christian translation is the Vulgate, written by Saint Jerome in the fourth century AD as commissioned by Pope Damasus I. This aimed to standardise and the ancient sacred word and also to increase its accessibility (hence the name, meaning ‘common’ or ‘popular’ in Latin). Later, medieval Monasteries would become hubs of intellectual activity, and this included translation, as monks were dedicated to rendering Greek and Latin manuscripts into contemporary languages.  

The close links between power, legitimacy, and religion, gave another dimension to the relevance of translating religious texts and controlling its reach and meaning. As empires expanded in medieval times, philosophical works, sacred texts, and theological treatises became formidable tools for the powerful. Later on, reformists and scholars like Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam dedicated great efforts to translating religious texts into modern languages not exclusively understood by the elites in what we may call an attempt to democratise of the sacred word. 

With the increasing expansion of European powers into new territories, there was a need for the translation of religious texts into indigenous languages. There are numerous documented cases of local interpreters who became fluent in European languages and were able to bridge the linguistic gaps between colonisers and colonised. Missionaries and colonial administrators translated a varied body of works to foster the cultural assimilation of the colonies and hegemony. Religion was used as a way to justify the presence of European powers in these territories which, although their existence had not long been known to these foreign empires, had long histories of occupation, and had developed their own languages and means of communication. 

The Modern Era: Translation in a Globalised World 

Modern times have meant enormous technological leaps that have transformed how we relate to the world around us and to one another. This extends to linguistic development and to the sophistication of languages and their rules, and, by extension, to the ever-growing field of translation. Translation studies grew in the twentieth century, with scholars like Mikhail Bakhtin, Walter Benjamin, and Lawrence Venuti contributing to translation theory. Literary translation also grew exponentially as a field, following the footsteps of centuries past, and texts were increasingly translated beyond the most popular languages. 

Nowadays, translations are accessible anywhere to anyone with access to an internet-connected device. These computer-assisted translation tools have made translations easier and faster, especially if one takes tourism and travel into account, but also research and specific words. Nonetheless, machine translations cannot compare to the careful work of translators who take painstaking efforts to capture nuances of meaning, tone, and cultural context. 

History of Translation: Conclusion 

Translation can be considered both a science and an art. It is a finely crafted skill that has evolved through millennia with a major and noble purpose, to unite humankind beyond linguistic diversity. Hence, it is a testament to our search for human relationships beyond the surface, recognising the humanity in others no matter our differences. At Global Lingo, we know the importance of bridging gaps between languages and culture in a globalised landscape. This is why we offer translating services in more than 150 languages. Join us in your pursuit of linguistic goals and exploration. 

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