A short history of translation and translators

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By Marie Lebert, 25 March 2022.

We use translated works all the time. But how about the translators themselves, and their influence on shaping languages and cultures? They were highly regarded alongside authors, and played a major role in society. Here is a tribute to translators of the past, written with the help of Wikipedia. Please see also our dictionary of translators [ebook].


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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. This translation is known as the “Septuagint”, a name that refers to the seventy scholars 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 translator’s role as a bridge for “carrying across” values between cultures has been discussed since Terence, a Roman playwright who translated and adapted Greek comedies into Latin in the 2nd century BCE.

Cicero 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, a statesman, orator, lawyer and philosopher, was also a translator from Greek to Latin, and compared the translator to an artist.

The debate about sense-for-sense translation vs. word-for-word translation dates back to antiquity. The coiner of the term “sense for sense” is said to be Jerome (commonly known as St. Jerome) in his “Letter to Pammachius” (396). While translating the Bible into Latin (a translation 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”).

Kumārajīva, a Buddhist monk and scholar, was a prolific translator into Chinese of Buddhist texts written in Sanskrit, a monumental work 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, that became an object of devotion and study in Zen Buddhism. A later copy (dated 868) of the Chinese edition of “Diamond Sutra” is “the earliest complete survival of a printed book”, according to the website of the British Library (that owns the piece). Kumārajīva’s clear and straightforward translations focused more on conveying the meaning than on precise literal rendering. They had a deep influence on Chinese Buddhism, and are still more popular than later, more literal translations.

The spread of Buddhism led to large-scale translation efforts spanning more than a thousand years throughout Asia. Major works were sometimes translated in a rather short time. The Tanguts for example took mere decades to translate works that had taken the Chinese centuries to translate, with contemporary sources describing the Emperor and his mother personally contributing to the translation, alongside sages of various nationalities.

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

In the Middle Ages

Latin was the “lingua franca” of the western world throughout the Middle Ages. There were few translations of Latin works into vernacular languages. In the late 9th century, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex in England, was far ahead of his time in commissioning translations from Latin to English of two major works: Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, and Boethius’ “The Consolation of Philosophy”. These translations helped improve the underdeveloped English prose.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Toledo School of Translators became a meeting point for European scholars who travelled and settled down in Toledo, Spain, to translate major philosophical, religious, scientific and medical works from Arabic and Greek into Latin. Toledo was one of the few places in medieval Europe where a Christian could be exposed to Arabic language and culture.

Roger Bacon, a 13th-century English scholar, was the first 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 founded an English poetic tradition based on translations or adaptations of literary works in Latin and French, two languages that were more established than English at the time. The “finest” religious translation was the “Wycliffe’s Bible” (1382-84), named after John Wycliffe, the theologian who translated the Bible from Latin to English.

In the 15th century

The trip of Byzantine pilosopher 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. During the Council, Pletho met Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence and its patron of learning and the arts, which led to the foundation of the Platonic Academy. Under the leadership of Italian scholar and translator Marsilio Ficino, the Platonic Academy took over the translation into Latin of all Plato’s works, philosopher Plotinus’ “Enneads” 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 rigour in rendering the exact words of Plato and Jesus (and Aristotle and others) as a ground for their philosophical and religious beliefs.

A “fine” work of English prose was Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” (1485), a free translation of Arthurian romances, with legendary King Arthur and his companions Guinevere, Lancelot, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table. Malory translated and adapted existing French and English stories while adding original material, for example the “Gareth” story as one of the stories of the Knights of the Round Table.

In the 16th century

Non-scholarly literature continued to rely heavily on adaptation. Tudor poets and Elizabethan translators adapted themes by Horace, Ovid, Petrarch and others, while inventing a new poetic style. The poets and translators wanted to supply a new audience — created from 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) was regarded as the first great Tudor translation, named after William Tyndale, the English scholar who was its main translator. For the first time, the Bible was directly translated from Hebrew and Greek texts. After translating the whole New Testament, Tyndale began translating the Old Testament, and translated half of it. He became a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation before being sentenced to death for the unlicensed possession of the Scripture in English. After his death, one of his assistants completed the translation of the Old Testament. The “Tyndale Bible” became the first mass-produced English translation of the Bible on the printing press.

Martin Luther, a German professor of theology and a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation, translated the Bible into German in his later life. The “Luther Bible” (1522-34) had lasting effects on religion. The disparities in the translation of crucial words and passages contributed to some extent to the split of western Christianity into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The publication of the “Luther Bible” also contributed to the development of the modern German language.

Luther was the first European scholar to assess that one translates satisfactorily only towards one’s own language, a bold statement that became the norm two centuries later.

Two other major translations of the Bible were the “Jakub Wujek Bible” (“Biblia Jakuba Wujka”) in Polish (1535) and the “King James Bible” in English (1604-11), with lasting effects on the languages and cultures of Poland and England.

The Bible was also translated into Dutch, French, Spanish, Czech and Slovene. The Dutch edition was published in 1526 by Jacob van Lisevelt. The French edition was published in 1528 by Jacques Lefevre d’Étaples (also known as Jacobus Faber Stapulensis). The Spanish edition was published in 1569 by Casiodoro de Reina. The Czech edition was published in 1579-93. The Slovene edition was published in 1584 by Jurij Dalmatn.

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

Miguel de Cervantes, a Spanish novelist known all over Europe for his novel “Don Quixote” (1605-15), expressed his own views on the translation process. According to Cervantes, translations of his time — with the exception of those made from Greek to 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 they lacked the clarity of the front side.

In the second half of the 17th century, 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”. Dryden also observed that “translation is a type of drawing after life”, thus comparing the translator to an artist several centuries after Cicero.

Alexander Pope, a fellow poet and translator, was said to have reduced Homer’s “wild paradise” to “order” while translating the Greek epic poems “Iliad” and “Odyssey” into English, but these comments had no impact on his best-selling translations.

“Faithfulness” and “transparency” were better defined as dual ideals in translation. “Faithfulness” was the extent to which a translation accurately renders the meaning of the source text, without distortion, by taking into account the text itself (subject, type and use), its literary qualities, and its social or historical context. “Transparency” was the extent to which the end result of a translation stands as a text of its own that could have been originally been written in the language of the reader, and conforms to its grammar, syntax and idiom. A “transparent” translation is often qualified as “idiomatic” (source: Wikipedia).

In the 18th century

According to Johann Gottfried Herder, a German literary critic and language theorist, a translator should translate towards (and not from) his own language, a statement already made two centuries earlier by Martin Luther, who was the first European scholar to express such views. In his “Treatise on the Origin of Language” (1772), Herder established the foundations of comparative philology.

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).

At the time, dictionaries and thesauri were not regarded as adequate guides for translators. In his “Essay on the Principles of Translation” (1791), Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler emphasised that assiduous reading was more helpful than the use of dictionaries. Polish poet and grammarian Onufry Andrzej Kopczyński expressed the same views a few years earlier (in 1783), while adding the need to listen to the spoken language.

Polish encyclopedist Ignacy Krasicki described the translator’s special role in society in his posthumous essay “On Translating Books” (“O tłumaczeniu ksiąg”, 1803). Krasicki was also a novelist, poet, fabulist and translator. In his essay, he wrote that “translation is in fact an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labour and portion of common minds; it should be practised 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

There were new standards for accuracy and style. For accuracy, 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 J.M. Cohen, “Translation” entry in “Encyclopedia Americana”, 1986, vol. 27). For style, the aim was to constantly remind readers that they were reading a foreign classic.

An exception was the translation and adaptation of Persian poems by Edward FitzGerald, an English writer and poet. His book “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám” (1859) offered a selection of poems by Omar Khayyám, an 11th-century poet, mathematician and astronomer. FitzGerald’s free translation from Persian to English has stayed the 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, a major figure in German Romanticism. In his seminal lecture “On the Different Methods of Translating” (1813), Schleiermacher distinguished between translation methods that moved the writer towards the reader, i.e. transparency, and those that moved the reader toward the author, i.e. an extreme fidelity to the foreignness of the source text. Schleiermacher favoured the latter approach. His distinction between “domestication” (bringing the author to the reader) and “foreignisation” (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 written in an “educated” language. Yan Fu’s theory of translation was based on his experience with translating works in social sciences from English to Chinese. Of the three facets, he considered the second as the most important. If the meaning of the translated text was not accessible to the reader, there was 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 could be changed, Chinese examples could replace English ones, and people’s names could be rendered Chinese. His theory had much impact worldwide, but was sometimes wrongly extended to the translation of literary works.

Over the centuries, women translators, after being anonymous or signing with a male pseudonym, began signing their translations with their own names. Some of them didn’t confine themselves to literary work. They also fought for gender equality, women’s education, women’s suffrage, abolitionism, and women’s social rights.

In the 20th century

Aniela Zagórska, a Polish translator, translated from 1923 to 1939 nearly all the works of her uncle Joseph Conrad, a Polish-British novelist who wrote in English. In Conrad’s view, translation, like other arts, involved choice, and choice implied interpretation. Conrad would later advise 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, an Argentine writer, essayist and poet, was also a notable translator of literary works from English, French and German to Spanish in the 1960s. He translated — while 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 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” (Wikipedia).

Other translators consciously produced literal translations, especially translators of religious, historical, academic and scientific works. They adhered closely to the source text, sometimes stretching the limits of the end language to produce a non-idiomatic translation.

A new discipline named “Translation Studies” appeared in the second half of the 20th century. The term “Translation Studies” was coined by James S. Holmes, an American-Dutch poet and translator of poetry, in his seminal paper “The Name and Nature of Translation Studies” (1972). While writing his own poetry, Holmes translated many works from Dutch and Belgian poets into English. He was hired as a professor in the new Institute of Interpreters and Translators (later renamed the Institute of Translation Studies) created in 1964 by the University of Amsterdam.

Interpreting was seen as a specialised form of translation — spoken translation instead of written translation — before becoming a separate discipline in the mid-20th century. Interpreting Studies gradually emancipated from Translation Studies to concentrate on the practical and pedagogical aspect of interpreting. It also included 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 contribute to the enrichment of languages. When a target language lacks terms that are present in a source language, they borrow those terms, thereby enriching the target language.

Translation Studies have become an academic inter-discipline that includes various fields of study (comparative literature, history, linguistics, philology, philosophy, semiotics, terminology, computational linguistics). Students also choose a speciality (legal, economic, technical, scientific or literary translation) in order to be trained accordingly.

The internet has fostered a worldwide market for translation and localisation services, and for translation software. It has also brought many issues, with precarious employment and lower rates for professional translators, and the rise of unpaid volunteer translation including crowdsourced translation. 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.

After being highly regarded alongside literary, academic and scientific authors for two millennia, many translators have become invisible in the 21st century, and their names are often forgotten on the articles, books, websites and other content they spent days, weeks or months to translate.

Despite the omnipresent CAT (computer-assisted translation) and MT (machine translation) tools created 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.


Copyright © 2016-22 Marie Lebert
Licence CC BY-NC-SA version 4.0

Written by marielebert

2016-11-02 at 05:15

Posted in Uncategorized