The History of Translation

September 30 is celebrated annually as the feast of St. Jerome. Why is this important? Well, it just so happens that St. Jerome is the patron saint of translation. So, September 30 is recognized as International Translation Day.

St. Jerome was given this title because he famously translated most of the Bible into Latin in the 4th century. This translation was hugely important because this version of the bible, known as the Vulgate, became the Catholic Church’s official Latin bible in the 16th century. Latin, as the lingua franca of the period, was widely read; therefore, St. Jerome’s translation allowed for much greater circulation of the work.

In honor of St. Jerome and his contributions to the translation industry, let’s look at the long and storied history of translation.

Latin, Greek, and Sumerian

The word “translation” comes from the Latin translatio, meaning “carrying across.” Most other languages have taken their word for “translation” from this root as well.

However, the Ancient Greek term for “translation,” metaphrasis, is a little different. Metaphrasis means “literal word for word translation,” whereas paraphrasis means “saying in other/different words.” From these two words we get the modern-day equivalents of metaphase and paraphrase. These two terms are extremely important in the translation industry because one is a literal translation and one is a paraphrased translation. The translator will choose which way a text is interpreted, which will result in either a tight, loyal translation or a loose translation.

Some of the earliest known text translation dates back to 2000 BCE, when the Sumerian epic poem The Epic of Gilgamesh was translated into various other Asian languages.

Biblical Texts

Before the advent of popular novels or e-books, people read The Bible. As such, translation of the Bible into different languages for the purposes of dissemination became imperative to the Church.

A century after St. Jerome tackled the translation of the Bible into Latin, a team of 70 scholars labored to translate the Bible into Greek.

Later, Bibles would be translated into over 500 languages worldwide. Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation, famously translated the Bible into German.

The Rosetta Stone

You’ve probably heard the term “Rosetta Stone” before, but be honest – do you actually know what it is?

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 and was a big (no pun intended) milestone in the history of translation. It is a large hunk of granite-like stone containing a 2nd century BC decree from Egypt’s King Ptolemy V. The decree is written on the stone in three sections in three different languages: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Ancient Greek, and Ancient Demotic.

So why was this considered a huge discovery?

Well, up until this point in history, people did not understand how to read Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Since all three sections of text essentially translated to the same meaning, scholars were able to use the other two texts on the stone to help translate the hieroglyphs.

Translators of the era were able to use the Rosetta Stone as a sort of “key” to unlock the mysteries of the hieroglyphs, which lead to greater understanding of the Ancient Greek culture and history.

Translation in the Technological World

Some may think that the technological revolution of recent decades is what spurred the growth of translation, but it was actually industrialization. Industrialization led to increased globalization which, as we all know, necessitates translation.

Technological advances have definitely had a tremendous impact on the translation industry, though.  As early as the 1930’s machines were being used to mechanize and productize translation services. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, with the advent of computers, software was developed to translate into and from English.

Today, most people are familiar with mainstream translation services such as Google Translate and the language education software Rosetta Stone (named after the famous Rosetta Stone). With these tools at our fingertips 24/7/365, translation is becoming ever-present in an increasingly technological world. One can read a blurb in Chinese by plugging it into translation software – even if the result is more paraphrased than metaphrased.

Although translation has a rich history, Lionbridge onDemand is its future. Visit our website for more information on products and services.