The History of Translation: How Translation Evolved Over Time

Throughout history, people all over the world have found ways to grow, communicate and develop relations with each other. Regardless to say, communication plays a vital role in establishing bonds between countries, nations, and their citizens. But meaningful communication can only take place when the communicating parties understand each other. And the only way to have meaningful communication is through translation.

In the past, countless translators have contributed to making communication between speakers of different languages possible. In fact, since medieval times, translators have proven to be providers of great assistance in the development of languages, the formation of scholarships, and the shaping of national identities. Although translation has been done for a long time, the first ‘official’ translation was carried by Saint Jerome, one of the most popular patron saints of translators, who translated the Bible written in Greek and Hebrew into Latin, which is now known as the official version of the Bible used by Catholics.

As time passed, the translations got even better, making cross-communication easy. It is interesting to note here that when these translators undertake the task of translation, they are not just translating ordinary documents, but also literary works, critical documents, speeches, breakthrough inventions and contracts, discoveries, presentations, medical diagnoses, clinical trials, court cases and much more. As a matter of fact, translators have become necessary for culture, science, literature, and awareness today.

To fully comprehend the importance of translation, it is imperative to look at the history of how translation evolved through the ages.

Translation in the Early Ages:

As mentioned above, the first translation to be carried out was that of the Bible, and the Western world regards this Bible translation from Hebrew to Greek as the first translation work of great significance. Known as the Septuagint, this translation work got its name from the 70 separate translators who distinctly worked on the translation in the 3rd century BC.

According to historians all of these 70 translators came up with the same translation in almost 72 days. The translation was then read before the queen and king. Each translator was appreciated and rewarded for his work.

At that time, the Jews were scattered in different places and had forgotten their mother tongue, which was Hebrew. Owing to this, a fresh version of the Bible was the ultimate need of the hour. The Septuagint version of the Bible was then later used as the source material for translations into Armenian, Georgian, Latin, Coptic, and many other languages.

The medieval age:

In the 5th century, the Latin language was very famously and popularly used in all works of literature and arts. During the 9th century King of England “Alfred the Great”, commissioned the Latin to English translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by Ecclesiastical, making it officially available in the English language for readers. Following the lead, many works of literature began to be translated from Latin to English, laying the foundations of the development of the English writing style.

In the 12thand 13th centuries, a group of translators from the Toledo School of Translators presented the modern Spanish language. In fact, most of the translators came from different parts of Europe to work on the translations of significant medical, religious, scientific, and philosophical works into Latin and Castilian Latin from Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek language. In the 14th century, “John Wycliffe” did the first translation of the Bible from Latin to the English language.

Late medieval to early Renaissance:

In the period of the early renaissance, a Byzantine scholar “Gemistus Pletho” (Plethon), from Constantinople went to Florence to bring back the philosophy of Plato. He also influenced Cosimo de Medici for establishing the Platonic Academy, led by an Italian scholar and translator. Consequently, Plato, Enneads, Plotinus, and many other works were translated into Latin by Platonic Academy. As the readers began to demand more accuracy in rendering philosophical and religious works, the need to translate Bible into different languages arose. The works of Erasmus of Rotterdam and Ficino translated a fresh version of the “Bible’s New Testament” in Latin, assisting in improving the performance of translation.

In the 15th century, another major translation work was introduced, known as the free adaptation and translation by Thomas Mallory of ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ based on the legends of King Arthur and the other characters like the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

The rise of the English Translation:

As the demand for new literary material increased globally, the expansion of the printing process and the evolution of the middle literary class during the 16th century further developed the translation process. This was when “William Tyndale”, a famous English scholar in 1525, headed a group to work on the initial Tudor translation of the New Testament. For the first time, the part of the Bible was directly translated from Hebrew and Greek writings into English. Tyndale was able to translate half of the Old Testament after completing the translation of the New Testament.

The Period of French and American revolutions:

“Johann Gottfried Herder”, a German poet, philosopher, translator, and theologian, further restated the earlier saying of “Martin Luther” that a translator must translate into his local language instead of the other.

In this period of French and American resolution, most of the translators concentrated on rendering the translated work simpler and easier. At that time, accuracy was not yet a problem for the translators, because in the case of finding any difficulty in translation, the portion used to be omitted entirely.

However, these times were a difficult phase in the development of translation as the translators barely paid attention to translating accurately, having the view that their translation skill was the most accurate one and the source material must fit into their translation. Consequently, this over-confidence and misconception led to big translation errors, where these translators even translated languages they could barely speak.

The start of the industrial revolution:

With the passage of time, accuracy in translation began to be demanded as the top priority by linguists all over the world. The start of the industrial revolution was all about accuracy, style, and policy of the translation followed in the text. This was maybe due to the Victorian era, where the purpose of the translators was to tell the readers that the book or text they were enjoying had originated from a foreign language. Hence explanations using footnotes were made necessary.

The Chinese scholar and translator “Yan Fu”, established a three-facet translation theory in the year 1898, based on his wide experience in English to Chinese translation. The three Yan Fu theories are elegance (availability of the translation in a language that the target accepts as educated) faithfulness (being close to the source material in context) and expressiveness (accessibility of the translation to the intended audience). These theories put a great impact on the field of translation globally.

The End of the 2nd millennium:

Translation became more structured and prominent in the 20th century, where it became essential to interpret the context of the written text. Aniela Zagórska, a famous Polish translator translated the work of Joseph Conrad into the Polish language. Joseph Conrad was her uncle who advised on the interpretation of the text, instead of just translating from one language to another.

Additionally, literal translations were confined to historic, academic, scientific, and religious materials. Interpreting which was previously recognized as a special kind of translation, was introduced as a different discipline in the middle of the 20th century.

The Last Word

The world of today, powered by technological advances and the internet has created a global market for translation and related works. The creation of advanced translation software and Localization Services, has created jobs for millions of translators around the world today, allowing the rise of freelance translators who do the translation tasks without leaving their homes. In fact, working as translators has opened new opportunities for bilingual people to acquire education for translation.

The only difference seen in the translation through the ages of antiquity till today is the status of translators—while translators in the past were recognized as scholars, researchers, and authors, today their contributions are barely recognized, with most of their names not appearing in documents they took so much time to translate. Nevertheless, the market for translators is high as ever, with a high potential for growth in the future.

Read Also: History of Translation and its Essence Today

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