While talking about translation and interpretation, many people often ask questions regarding its history and beginning. It is perhaps impossible to trace the beginning of interpretation, as spoken language was developed many years before the written system. However, historians all over the world have tried to study ancient documents and relics to discover the secrets of translation.

The word translation itself is derived from a Latin term meaning „to bring or carry across„. The Ancient Greek term is ‘metaphrasis’ („to speak across”) and this gives us the term ‘metaphrase’ (a „literal or word-for-word translation„) – as contrasted with ‘paraphrase’ („a saying in other words„). This distinction was laid at the heart of the theory of translation throughout its history.

According to Eric Jacobsonthe Romans were the first who began translation. He adds that Cicero and Horace were the first to come up with the theories of word to word and sense to sense translations. According to Jacobson, this happened in the first century B.C.

Religion too played an important role in the development of interpretation and translation. Missionaries of various religions such as Buddhism and Jainism can also be called as first translators and interpreters. These people moved beyond the boundaries of India to spread the message of their religion. Buddhist and Jain monks were soon followed by Christian and Muslim missionaries. It is believed that Prophet Muhammad encouraged learning and studying new languages and desired to increase the number of translators. Zaid Ibnu Thabet was a prominent translator in the time of the Prophet.

According to certain studies, St Jerome is considered to be the father of translation. He translated the Bible into the language of the masses thus helping people understand and interpret religion on their own accord. He was fluent in Latin, Greek and Hebrew and could understand Aramaic, Arabic and Syriac. Due to his strong and significant work in the field of translation, he is said to be the most important translator.
Religious texts have played a great role in the history of translation. One of the first recorded instances of translation in the West was the rendering of the Old Testament into Greek in the 3rd century B.C. A task carried out by 70 scholars – this translation itself became the basis for translations into other languages.

Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translation, produced a Latin Bible in the 4th century AD that was the preferred text for the Roman Catholic Church for many years to come. Translations of the Bible, though, were to controversially re-emerge when the Protestant Reformation saw the translation of the Bible into local European languages – eventually this led to Christianity’s split into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism due to disparities between versions of crucial words and passages. Martin Luther himself is credited with being the first European to propose that one translates satisfactorily only toward his own language: a statement that is just as true in modern translation theory. Ideas and concepts from the East notably India, China and Iraq have influenced the Western culture since as early as sixth century B.C. when trade ties were first established between India and the Mediterranean countries. Many medical theories of Plato and Galen of Greece had considerable influence in India.

The need for translation has existed since time immemorial and translating important literary works from one language into others has contributed significantly to the development of world culture.
According to many other significant researches, La Malinche is considered to be the most important and also one of the first translators. This is perhaps due to the fact that her translations and interpretations helped the Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs. She is also seen as the creator of the new race of Mexicans.
Translators have made it possible for Holy Scriptures like the Bible written in esoteric languages like Latin to be understood by ordinary people by translating them into more common languages without depending on a few elite priests or the members of clergy to explain what they contained. Some translators even had to pay with their life for doing this, like the famous Bible translators William Tyndale who was arrested and executed in Holland by the king in 1536 for translating the Bible from its original languages into the common vernacular of English. Chinese monk Xuanzang is supposed to have translated 74 volumes of Buddhist scriptures originating from India into Chinese in 645 AD. One of the earliest recorded translations of considerable effort in English is perhaps the translation of the Bible around 1100 AD. British translator Constance Garnett made the translating community proud through her brilliant translations of Russian classics including those of Turgenev, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky in late 19th century. Another famous translator is Gregory Rabassa who has translated many Latin American fictions into English. Dr. Arthur Waley is one of the world’s foremost translators of the twentieth century of Chinese and Japanese literature into English. More recently, Gladys Yang translated many Chinese classics into English over the last 50 years. Thus, translators have made important contributions over the centuries in disseminating ideas and information to a larger audience, in shaping cultures and thus, in a sense, they helped the world unite.

The Evolution of Translation

Over time, translation took the driver’s seat in the vehicle of international relations because it was indispensable to the process of communication. Its importance since then cannot be overstated; of every facet of culture that involves reading or writing, translation is an integral part. If translation is integral to writing, then interpretation is integral to reading and speaking. Very early on, therefore, interpretation and translation became an indivisible part of cultural exchange in its many forms; soon, every culture had what can be termed a ‘translation center’ – there was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the translation school in Toledo, Spain, and innumerable monasteries where monks religiously undertook laborious translations and transcriptions. Even as far back as ancient Rome and Greece, translation was an elite pursuit that was part of every educated man’s repertoire of skills. As the translation industry came of age, it became an independent art and science – one that would serve the world for times to come.

Translation history is rich in events.

The invention of the printing machine in the fifteenth century played an important role in the development of the field of translation. It led to the birth of early theorists of translation such as Étienne Dolet (1915-46), whose heretic mistranslation of one of Plato’s dialogues, the phrase „rien du tout” (nothing at all) which showed his disbelief in immortality, led to his execution.
The seventeenth century knew the birth of many influential theorists such as Sir John Denhom (1615-69), Abraham Cowley (1618-67), John Dryden (1631-1700), who was famous for his distinction between three types of translation: metaphrase, paraphrase and imitation, and Alexander Pope (1688-1744).
In the eighteenth century, the translator was compared to an artist with a moral duty to the work of the original author and to the receiver. Moreover, with the enhancement of new theories and volumes on translation process, the study of translation started to be more systematic.
The nineteenth century was characterized by two conflicting tendencies; the first considered translation as a category of thought and saw the translator as a creative genius, who enriches the literature and language into which he is translating, while the second saw him through the mechanical function of making a text or an author known (McGuire). This period of the nineteenth century knew also the enhancement of Romanticism, which led to the birth of many theories and translations in the domain of literature, particularly poetry. An example of these translations is the one used by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1863) for “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” (1858).
Another model that appeared in the period is text-based translation model, which focuses on texts rather than words or sentences in translation. This model includes a variety of sub-models: the interpretative model, the text linguistic model and models of translation quality assessments which in turn provide us with many models such as those of Riess, Wilss, Koller, House, North and Hulst. The period is also characterized by pragmatic and systematic approach to the study of translation.

Translation Today

In the modern world, translation is as important – if not more so – as it was several millennia ago. Officially, there are about 6,800 languages spoken around the world, of which a significant portion have unique scripts and many have shared scripts based on the origins of the language in question. These challenges are enhanced by the fact that nearly every culture in the world has interactions with every other culture. This means that there are an incalculable number of translation requirements every second of every minute of every day around the world. It’s no wonder, then, that translation is a dominant part of intercultural interaction.

Translation and Technology

With the dawn of the technological age, the application of software to the field of translation became an interesting subject that was, and continues to be, pursued relentlessly.
In its most advanced form, Machine Translation (MT) may give satisfactory output for unrestricted texts, but it is still best used when domains and variables (such as disambiguation or named entities) are controlled in some way. There is no doubt that the need for human translators will remain, and that even the best MT software can only go so far where sensitive or specialized translation is required. For results of the highest quality and integrity with respect to the source and target material, there is still no adequate substitute for a trained, certified and experienced human translator.

Modern Theory and Practice

Nowadays, translation research started to take another path, which is more automatic. The invention of the Internet, together with the new technological development in communication and digital materials have increased cultural exchanges between nations. This led translators to look for ways to cope with these changes and to utilize practical techniques that enable them to translate more and waste less. They also felt the need to enter the world of cinematographic translation, hence the birth of audiovisual translation.
There are about 6,800 to 6,900 languages spoken in the world today, of which a significant portion have unique scripts and many have shared scripts based on the origins of the language in question. Nearly every culture in the world has interactions with every other culture.

Interesting Facts about Languages

  • The population of Europe is about ¼ of the whole world, but Europeans speak only 234 languages.
  • About 94% of all languages are regularly spoken by just 6% of the population of the world.
  • Most languages are constantly used by less than one thousand native speakers.
  • David Harrison, a linguist from the Swarthmore College, predicts that by 2050 about 90% of spoken languages will be dead.
  • In Papua New Guinea there are less than 5.5 million citizens and about 830 languages spoken by them.
  • The United Nation has six official languages, used in meetings: Arabic, Chinese, French, English, Spanish, and Russian.
  • Esperanto is the most popular artificial language.


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