History of Translation

Published 21st May 2013
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As part of my MA at Swansea University, I studied a module called History of Translation. I enjoyed this module, it was interesting and it was the module in which I did best in terms of exam scores. Nevertheless, every few months I dream that I have an essay due in a week for which I have done no research, and on top of that the exam is in two weeks and I’ve not even begun to revise…then when I wake up I have to consciously remind myself that it’s been three years since I graduated, and there are no overdue essays and no more exams to worry about. Phew!

So, in an effort to banish my History of Translation demons, I thought I’d write a bit about translation and its origins (I’ll be doing it somewhat self-consciously, in case my former tutors are reading).

Translation cannot happen without a source text, and one of the earliest instances of written text, and of the translation thereof, occurs at around 2000 BCE with the Epic of Gilgamesh, written in Sumerian (ancient language of modern Iraq) and partially translated into other languages of the region during that period. Translation between the languages of the Ancient Near East (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Syriac, Anatolian and Hebrew) stretches back this far, and the far Eastern countries were also developing their own translation traditions at this time.

In the first century BCE a collection of Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septaguint were translated into Koine Greek, as this was the language of the Jews living in Alexandria at the time. Later on, the Ancient Romans set great store in the translation of Ancient Greek texts and started developing their own literary translation theory and method, one of the most notable and influential figures in this field being Cicero, who focussed less on the words and more of the intended meaning of the texts to render his translations.

With the spread of Christianity through the Roman Empire, Latin was the most prevalent written language in the Church, and the translation of Greek and Arabic scientific, mathematical and philosophical texts into Latin made it the common language of academia until the Renaissance, when scholars started to translate into their regional languages. Once the printing press was invented, translated books became more accessible to non-academics and paved the way for Bible translations into the vernacular (I could write a separate blog on the History of Bible translation, so I won’t go into that now).

Attitudes towards translation varied between this period and the 19th century, and there has been a lot of scholarly debate regarding the nature of translation. During the 18th century translators would omit passages they didn’t fully understand (I would hate to be the project manager of those projects…nightmare!), but luckily this trend didn’t last long, and the 19th century translators had a much more logical perspective and strived for accuracy in their work.

This brings us to the present day, where the rise of industrialisation and globalisation calls for translation as a necessary part of global enterprise, and creates a place for translation agencies like Lingua Translations. We only employ the best translators (no one from the 18th century), who are most suited to the task at hand, and as our Dream Team is made up of linguists who have carried out translations ourselves from time to time, we understand the business from all perspectives – even an historical one!


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The service offered by Lingua Translations provides us with instant translation for every destination we travel to, and has proved invaluable.”

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