A short history of translation through the ages

LogoMarieBy Marie Lebert, July 2017.

Translators have always played a key role in society. Early medieval translators contributed to the development of vernacular languages and national identities around these languages. Translators went on playing a major role in the advancement of society for centuries. But many translators have become “invisible” in the 21st century, with a precarious life and their names often forgotten on articles, book covers and web pages. There is much to do to acknowledge (again) the translators’ major impact on knowledge, science, education, business and culture. The Wikipedia “Translation” entry was very helpful to write this essay. [Other versions — pdf, epub, kindle, daisy, text]

* In Antiquity
* In the Middle Ages
* In the 15th century
* In the 16th century
* In the 17th century
* In the 18th century
* In the 19th century
* In the 20th century
* In the 21st century
* Bibliography

In Antiquity

The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the 3rd century BCE is regarded as the first major translation in the Western world. The dispersed Jews had forgotten Hebrew, their ancestral language, and needed the Bible to be translated into Greek to be able to read it. This translation is known as the “Septuagint”, a name that refers to the seventy translators who were commissioned to translate the Hebrew Bible in Alexandria, Egypt. Each translator worked in solitary confinement in his own cell, and according to legend all seventy versions proved identical. The “Septuagint” became the source text for later translations into Latin, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian and other languages. Related biblical texts in Hebrew were also translated into Greek in Alexandria during the two following centuries.

The translator’s role as a bridge for “carrying across” values between cultures has been discussed since Terence, a Roman playwright who adapted Greek comedies into Roman in the 2nd century BCE.
The debate relating to sense-for-sense translation vs. word-for-word translation also started around that time. The coiner of the term “sense for sense” is said to be Jerome in his “Letter to Pammachius”. While translating the Bible into Latin (later known as the “Vulgate”), Jerome stated that the translator needed to translate “not word for word but sense for sense” (“non verbum e verbo sed sensum de sensu”).

Cicero, a prominent philosopher and writer, also famously cautioned against translating “word for word” (“verbum pro verbo”) in “On the Orator” (“De Oratore”, 55 BCE): “I did not think I ought to count them [the words] out to the reader like coins, but to pay them by weight, as it were”. Cicero was also a translator from Greek to Latin, and compared the translator’s work to that of an artist.

Kumārajīva, a Buddhist monk, scholar and translator, is known for the prolific translation into Chinese of Buddhist texts written in Sanskrit, a monumental work that he carried out in the late 4th century. His most famous work is the translation of the “Diamond Sutra”, an influential Mahayana sutra in East Asia, and an object of devotion and study in Zen Buddhism. A later copy (dated 868) of the Chinese version of “Diamond Sutra” is “the earliest complete survival of a printed book”, according to the website of the British Library (that owns this piece). Kumārajīva’s translations had a deep influence on Chinese Buddhism, with a clear and straightforward text focusing more on conveying the meaning than on precise literal rendering. His translations are still more popular than later, more literal translations.

The spread of Buddhism led to large-scale ongoing translation efforts spanning more than a thousand years throughout Asia, and sometimes in a rather short time. The Tanguts for example took mere decades to translate volumes that had taken the Chinese centuries to translate, for two reasons: first, they exploited the newly invented block printing; second, they had the full support of the government, with contemporary sources describing the Emperor and his mother personally contributing to the translation efforts, alongside sages of various nationalities.

Large-scale translation efforts were also undertaken by the Arabs after they conquered the Greek Empire, to offer Arabic versions of all major Greek philosophical and scientific works.

In the Middle Ages

Latin was the lingua franca of the Western learned world throughout the Middle Ages, and there were few translations of Latin works into vernacular languages. In the 9th century, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex in England, was far ahead of his time in commissioning translations from Latin into English of two major works – Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History” and Boethius’s “The Consolation of Philosophy” – which contributed to improve the underdeveloped English prose of that time.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Toledo School of Translators (Escuela de Traductores de Toledo) became a meeting point for European scholars who – attracted by the high wages they were offered – traveled and settled down in Toledo, Spain, to translate major philosophical, religious, scientific and medical works from Arabic, Greek and Hebrew into Latin and Castilian.

Roger Bacon, a 13th-century English scholar, was the first linguist to assess that a translator should have a thorough knowledge of both the source language and the target language to produce a good translation, and that he should also be well versed in the discipline of the work he was translating.

The first fine translations into English were produced by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. Chaucer translated the “Roman de la Rose” from French, and Boethius’s works from Latin. He also adapted some works of the Italian humanist Giovanni Boccaccio for his own “Knight’s Tale” and “Troilus and Criseyde” (c.1385) in English. Chaucer was the founder of an English poetic tradition based on translations and adaptations of literary works in Latin and Italian, two languages that were more “established” than English at the time.

The finest religious translation of that time was the “Wycliffe’s Bible” (1382-84), named after John Wycliffe, the English theologian who translated the Bible from Latin to English.

In the 15th century

The trip of the Byzantine scholar Gemistus Pletho to Florence, Italy, pioneered the revival of Greek learning in Western Europe. Pletho reintroduced Plato’s thought during the 1438-39 Council of Florence, in a failed attempt to reconcile the East-West schism (an 11th-century schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches). During this Council, Pletho met Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence and a great patron of learning and the arts, and influenced him to found a Platonic Academy. Under the leadership of the Italian scholar and translator Marsilio Ficino, the Platonic Academy took over the translation into Latin of all Plato’s works, the “Enneads” of Plotinus and other Neoplatonist works. Ficino’s work – and Erasmus’ Latin edition of the New Testament – led to a new attitude to translation. For the first time, readers demanded rigor of rendering, as philosophical and religious beliefs depended on the exact words of Plato and Jesus (and Aristotle and others).

The great age of English prose translation began in the late 15th century with Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1485), a free translation/adaptation of Arthurian romances about the legendary King Arthur, as well as Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table. Thomas Malory “interpreted” existing French and English stories about these figures while adding original material, for example the “Gareth” story as one of the Knights of the Round Table.

In the 16th century

Non-scholarly literature continued to rely on adaptation. France’s Pléiade, England’s Tudor poets and the Elizabethan translators adapted themes by Horace, Ovid, Petrarch and modern Latin writers, while creating a new poetic style on those models. The English poets and translators wanted to supply a new audience – created by the rise of a middle class and the development of printing – with “works such as the original authors would have written, had they been writing in England in that day” (Wikipedia).

The “Tyndale New Testament” (1525) is considered the first great Tudor translation, named after William Tyndale, the English scholar who was its main translator. This translation was also the first Bible translation to work directly from Hebrew and Greek texts. After translating the whole New Testament, Tyndale went on with the Old Testament and translated half of it. Tyndale also became a leading figure in Protestant Reformation before receiving a death sentence for an unlicensed possession of Scripture in English. The “Tyndale Bible” was completed by one of Tyndale’s assistants. It became the first mass-produced English translation as a result of new advances in the art of printing.

Martin Luther, a German professor of theology, was a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation, and translated the Bible into German in his later life. He was the first European to assess that one translates satisfactorily only toward his own language, a bold statement that became the norm two centuries later. The publication of the “Luther Bible” also contributed significantly to the development of the modern German language.

Along with the “Luther Bible” in German (in 1522-34), two other major translations were the “Jakub Wujek Bible” (“Biblia Jakuba Wujka”) in Polish (in 1535) and the “King James Bible” in English (in 1604-11), with lasting effects on the religion, language and culture of the respective countries. The disparities in crucial words and passages contributed to some extent to the split of Western Christianity into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, on top of the Protestant Reformation’s goal to eliminate corruption in the Roman Catholic Church.

During the same period, the Bible was also translated into Dutch, French, Spanish, Czech and Slovene. The Bible in Dutch was published in 1526 by Jacob van Lisevelt. The Bible in French was published in 1528 by Jacques Lefevre d’Étaples (Jacobus Faber Stapulensis). The Bible in Spanish (“Biblia del oso”) was published in 1569 by Casiodoro de Reina. The Bible in Slovene was published in 1584 by Jurij Dalmatn. The Bible in Czech (“Bible kralická”) was a collective work printed between 1579 and 1593.

All these translations were a driving force in the use of vernacular languages in Christian Europe, and contributed to the development of modern European languages.

In the 17th century

The Spanish novelist Cervantes, famously known all over Europe for his “Don Quixote” (1605-15), expressed his own opinion on the translation process by offering a rather despairing metaphor for the end result of translations. According to Cervantes, translations of his time – with the exception of those made from Greek into Latin – were like looking at a Flemish tapestry by its reverse side. While the main figures of a Flemish tapestry could be discerned, they were obscured by the loose threads and lack the clarity of the front side.

In the second half of the 17th century, the English poet and translator John Dryden sought to make Virgil speak “in words such as he would probably have written if he were living as an Englishman”. But Dryden discerned no need to emulate the Roman poet’s subtlety and concision. On the contrary, Alexander Pope, a contemporary translator, reduced Homer’s “wild paradise” to “order” in his translation of the Greek epic poet’s work into English. Dryden also cautioned against the license of “imitation” in adapted translation: “When a painter copies from the life… he has no privilege to alter features and lineaments…”, while observing that “translation is a type of drawing after life…”, thus comparing the translator with an artist a few centuries after Cicero.

During the second half of the 17th century, “faithfulness” and “transparency” were better defined as dual ideals in translation, while often being at odds. “Faithfulness” is the extent to which a translation accurately renders the meaning of the source text, without distortion, while taking into account the text itself (subject, type and use), its literary qualities and its social or historical context. “Transparency” is the extent to which a translation appears to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language, and conforms to its grammar, syntax and idiom. A “transparent” translation is often qualified as “idiomatic”.

In the 18th century

According to Johann Gottfried Herder, a German philosopher, theologian, poet and translator, a translator should translate toward (and not from) his own language, a statement already expressed two centuries earlier by Martin Luther, who was the first European scholar to assess that one translates satisfactorily only toward his own language.

But there was still not much concern for accuracy. “Throughout the 18th century, the watchword of translators was ease of reading. Whatever they did not understand in a text, or thought might bore readers, they omitted. They cheerfully assumed that their own style of expression was the best, and that texts should be made to conform to it in translation. Even for scholarship, except for the translation of the Bible, they cared no more than had their predecessors, and did not shrink from making translations from languages they hardly knew.” (Wikipedia)

It was also assessed that no dictionary or thesaurus could ever be a fully adequate guide for translating. In his “Essay on the Principles of Translation” (1791), the Scottish historian Alexander Tytler emphasized that assiduous reading is a more comprehensive guide to a language than are dictionaries. The Polish poet and grammarian Onufry Andrzej Kopczyński made the same point a few years earlier, in 1783, while adding the listening to the spoken language to the assiduous reading.

The Polish encyclopedist Ignacy Krasicki described the translator’s special role in society in his posthumous essay “O tłumaczeniu ksiąg” (On Translating Books, 1803). Ignacy Krasicki was the author of the first Polish novel, as well as a poet and fabulist (often named Poland’s La Fontaine) and a translator from French and Greek into Polish. In this essay, he wrote that “translation… is in fact an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labor and portion of common minds; [it] should be [practiced] by those who are themselves capable of being actors, when they see greater use in translating the works of others than in their own works, and hold higher than their own glory the service that they render their country”.

In the 19th century

The 19th century brought new standards for accuracy and style. In regard to accuracy, as observed by J.M. Cohen, the author of the “Translation” entry in the “Encyclopedia Americana” (1986, vol. 27), the policy became “the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text” (except for bawdy passages), with the addition of extensive explanatory footnotes. In regard to style, the Victorians’ aim was to constantly remind readers that they were reading a foreign classic.

An exception was the outstanding translation of Persian poems by the English writer and poet Edward FitzGerald. “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám” (1859) offered a selection of poems by Omar Khayyám (1048-1131), who was also a mathematician and astronomer. FitzGerald’s translation actually drew little of its material from the Persian original poems, but it has stayed the first and most famous translation of Khayyám’s poems to this day, despite more recent and accurate translations.

The “non-transparent” translation theory was first developed by German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher during German Romanticism, before becoming a mainstream theory two centuries later. In his seminal lecture “On the Different Methods of Translating” (1813), Schleiermacher distinguished between translation methods that move “the writer toward [the reader]”, i.e. transparency, and those that move “the reader toward [the author], i.e. an extreme fidelity to the foreignness of the source text. Schleiermacher favored the latter approach. His distinction between “domestication” (bringing the author to the reader) and “foreignization” (taking the reader to the author) inspired prominent theorists in the 20th century, for example Antoine Berman and Lawrence Venuti.

Yan Fu, a Chinese scholar and translator, developed in 1898 his three-facet theory of translation: faithfulness, i.e. be true to the original in spirit; expressiveness, i.e. be accessible to the target reader; and elegance, i.e. be in the language the target reader accepts as being educated. Yan Fu’s theory of translation was based on his experience with translating works of social sciences from English into Chinese. Of the three facets, he considered the second as the most important. If the meaning of the translated text is not accessible to the reader, there is no difference between having translated the text and not having translated the text at all. According to Yan Fu, in order to facilitate comprehension, the word order should be changed, Chinese examples may replace English ones, and even people’s names should be rendered Chinese. His theory had much impact worldwide, but was also sometimes wrongly extended to the translation of literary works.

In the 20th century

Aniela Zagórska, a Polish translator, rendered into Polish nearly all the works of the Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad, who wrote all his works in English. In Conrad’s view, translation, like other arts, inescapably involved choice, and choice implied interpretation. Conrad would later advise Aniela Zagórska (who was his niece): “Don’t trouble to be too scrupulous… I may tell you that in my opinion it is better to interpret than to translate… It is, then, a question of finding the equivalent expressions. And there, my dear, I beg you to let yourself be guided more by your temperament than by a strict conscience” (cited in Zdzisław Najder, “Joseph Conrad: A Life”, 2007).

Jorge Luis Borges, a famous Argentine short-story writer, essayist and poet, was also a notable translator of literary works from English, French, German, Old English or Old Norse into Spanish. He translated – while simultaneously subtly transforming – the works of William Faulkner, André Gide, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf and others. Borges also wrote and lectured extensively on the art of translation, holding that a translation may improve upon the original, may even be unfaithful to it, and that alternative and potentially contradictory renderings of the same work can be equally valid.

Other translators still consciously produced literal translations, for example translators of religious, historic, academic and scientific texts, who often adhered as closely as possible to the source text, sometimes stretching the limits of the target language to produce an unidiomatic text.

The second half of the 20th century saw the birth of a new discipline called “Translation Studies” as well as the creation of new institutes specializing in teaching it. The term “Translation Studies” was coined by James S. Holmes, a poet and translator of poetry, in his seminal paper “The Name and Nature of Translation Studies” (1972), regarded as the foundational statement for this new discipline. Born in the United States, Holmes moved permanently to Amsterdam, Netherlands, as a young man. While writing his own poetry, he translated many works from Dutch and Belgian poets into English. He was hired as an associate professor in the new Institute of Interpreters and Translators (later renamed the Institute of Translation Studies) created in 1964 within the University of Amsterdam, and also wrote a number of influential articles about translation.

From Antiquity to the mid-20th century, interpreting was only seen as a specialized form of translation – spoken instead of written – before becoming a separate discipline. Interpreting Studies gradually emancipated from Translation Studies in order to concentrate on the practical and pedagogical aspect of interpreting. It also developed a different interdisciplinary theoretical framework including sociological studies of interpreters and their working conditions – while such studies are still sorely lacking for translators to this day.

In the 21st century

Like their ancestors, contemporary translators have substantially helped to shape the languages into which they have translated. When a target language lacks terms that are found in a source language, they borrow those terms, thereby enriching the target language with source-language calques (literally translated words or phrases) and loanwords (words incorporated into another language without translation).

Translation Studies is now an academic interdiscipline that includes many fields of study (comparative literature, computer science, history, linguistics, philology, philosophy, semiotics, terminology), with the need for translators to choose a specialty (legal, economic, technical, scientific or literary translation) in order to be trained accordingly.

The internet has fostered a worldwide market for translation services, for language localization and for translation software. It has also brought many issues, with precarious employment, scarce freelance work and lower rates, and the rise of unpaid volunteer translation – including crowdsourced translation – promoted by major organizations that have the necessary funds to hire many professionals, but no professional translators.

Bilingual people need more skills than two languages to become good translators. To be a translator is a profession, and implies a thorough knowledge of the subject matter. While this was obvious in the Middle Ages and later on, this seems less obvious now.

After being regarded as scholars alongside writers, researchers and scientists for two millennia, many translators have become “invisible” in the 21st century, with their names often forgotten on the articles, books covers and web sites they spent days, weeks or months to translate.

Despite the omnipresent MT (machine translation) and CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools that are supposed to speed up the translation process, some translators still want to be compared to artists, not only for their precarious life, but also for the craft, knowledge, dedication and passion they put into their work.


[1772] Ignacy Krasicki. “O przekładaniu ksiąg” (On the Translation of Books). In the newspaper “Monitor”, no. 1.

[1791] Alexander Tytler. “Essay on the Principles of Translation”. London.

[1803] Ignacy Krasicki. “O tłumaczeniu ksiąg” (On Translating Books). In “Dzieła wierszem i prozą” (Works in Verse and Prose).

[1813] Friedrich Schleiermacher. “Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens” (“On the Different Methods of Translating”). Lecture.

[1959] Roman Jakobston. “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation”. Essay.

[1969] Eugene A. Nida & Charles R. Taber. “The Theory and Practice of Translation, with Special Reference to Bible Translating”. Brill, Leiden.

[1972] James S. Holmes. “The Name and Nature of Translation Studies”. In “Translated! Papers on Literary Translation and Translation Studies”. Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1972-88.

[1979] Louis G. Kelly. “The True Interpreter. A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West”. St. Martin’s Press, New York.

[1983] Christopher Kasparek. “The Translator’s Endless Toil”. In “The Polish Review”, vol. XXVIII, no. 2.

[1986] J.M. Cohen. “Translation”. In “Encyclopedia Americana”. Grolier, New York, vol. 27.

[1990] Amparo Hurtado Albir. “La notion de fidélité en traduction” (The Idea of Faithfulness in Translation). Didier Érudition, Paris.

[2003] Umberto Eco. “Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation”. Phoenix, London.

[2008] Lawrence Venuti. “The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation” (2nd edition, first edition 1995). Routledge, London.

[2009] Mona Baker & Gabriela Saldanha. “Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies” (2nd edition). Routledge, London.

[2012] Jean Delisle & Judith Woodsworth. “Translators through History”. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

[2016] Claudio Galderisi & Jean-Jacques Vincensini. “La fabrique de la traduction” (The Translation Making). Brepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium.

Copyright © 2016-17 Marie Lebert
License CC BY-NC-SA version 4.0

Written by marielebert

2016-11-02 at 05:15

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