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History of the art of translation

21 July 2022 · Bernadette Cunningham

Graphic for history of the art of translation

Translation ensures that we can communicate with people from other cultures and who use other languages to learn, negotiate, trade, and make friends and allies. But how long has translation been around for? And is the art of translation as old as language itself?

The word translation comes from the Latin phrase ‘translatio’, which means ‘carry across’ and according to some sources (though of course it’s incredibly tricky to be sure), the first translation was carried out during the Ancient Mesopotamian era when the Sumerian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh, (also considered the second oldest surviving piece of literature), was translated into various Southwest Asian languages.

Other ancient, translated works include those conducted by Buddhist monks who translated Indian documents into Chinese.

In the 14th century, the first translation of the Bible from Latin to English was done by John Wycliffe, a priest a professor at Oxford University. It was also during this century that Geoffrey Chaucer, poet, author, and translator, translated the works of Boethius, an ancient Roman scholar, from Latin into English, as well as the French work ‘Roman de la Rose’ into English.

Famous translators in translation history…

Unsurprisingly, translation has always been crucial to understanding historical documents, texts, and more importantly, the lives of people who came before us. However, this was sometimes known to be a historically dangerous job, such as with the case of William Tyndale. Tyndale, a famous English translator and scholar, was executed in 1536 in Holland partly because of his work translating the Bible into English, but also because of his religious commentary on the validity of King Henry VIII’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon.

Other prominent translators, who thankfully led less dangerous lives, include Constance Garnett, one of the first translators to interpret several literary classics from Russian into English, and Gregory Rabassa, who translated several Latin texts to English during the 20th Century.

Key fact in the History of Translation

Toledo School of Translators

The Toledo School of Translators is the group of scholars who worked as a team in the city of Toledo, Spain, during the 12th and 13th centuries. It was considered the first centre of multilingual culture in Western history, and the first school for translators and main translation centre in Europe.
The scholars in Toledo translated many philosophical and scientific works, from classical Arabic into Latin, but also to other languages.

Modern day translation

While in the past translation was reserved for monks, linguists and scholars, today it has become a thriving industry across the globe, with people from all walks of life and specialisms.

The translation industry

Some translation agencies may hand over certain translation assignments to small agencies, and at times those small agencies will commission tasks for freelance translators.
A freelance translator is a translator who works separately from agencies and has the option to reject tasks. Freelance translators have more flexibility than in-house translators, since they do not have a set working schedule.
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