History of Translation

The basis for the development of translation was the emergence of languages about 100,000 years ago and the creation of the first script about 5,000 years ago. But, little is known about translating in cultures outside of Europe and the Mediterranean. Moreover, the history of interpreting, which is almost certainly older than writing and has encouraged cultural exchange in cultures without scriptural tradition, has not been much explored.

Rosetta Stone
Ancient Egyptian at the top, Demotic in middle, and Greek at the bottom

The First Documented Translations

In 247 BC, the Septuagint, the first translation of the Jewish Bible from Hebrew into Greek, emerged, which according to legend was done by 72 translators in 72 days.

At about 196 BC, the Rosetta Stone, a priestly decree, was written in two languages ​​and three scriptures: Demotic, Ancient Egyptian with hieroglyphics, and Greek. This multilingual nature of the document helped to decipher the hieroglyphs.

Translations have often played a central role in the transfer of knowledge and cultural techniques between different peoples. At certain times, there were accumulations of translations between certain languages which are now used to track historical streams of knowledge.

A center of the translation activity was the ancient Rome, where Greek literature was heavily translated into Latin. It was from those times that theoretical writings on literature and rhetoric appeared first.

Jerome, The Patron Saint of Translators

A prominent figure in the history of translation is Jerome (c. 331-420 AD), who was later canonized and is considered the patron saint of translators (see International Translation Day).

Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to translate the Bible into Latin based on accepted Greek texts. Later he re-translated the Old Testament from Hebrew. The Latin Bible he created, the Vulgate, was for a long time the definitive text for the Roman Catholic Church.

House of Wisdom and Toledo School of Translators

In the 9th and 10th centuries, another focal point of translation activity emerged in Baghdad. Priority was given to translating scientific works from Greek into Arabic (see House of Wisdom).

These translations have played an important role in the development of science in medieval Europe, as they formed the basis for another translation center, the Toledo School of Translators. In the 12th and 13th centuries, texts of Arabic and Greek origin were translated into Latin and later into Spanish.


The Renaissance period, which began in Italy in the 14th century, marks a revival of translation, with its renewed, increased interest in the texts of antiquity. It continued with the increased written dissemination of knowledge through the development of printing until the Reformation.

Many of the Reformers were Bible translators and the best-known in German-speaking countries is Martin Luther, who took the view that the content of the Bible should be expressed in the language of the German target language in such a way that it would be understandable for everyone: in “natural” German, not tied to the grammatical structures of the source languages.

In his “Letter on Translating,” he explains his interpretation of translation. The Lutheran translation of the Bible was of great importance for the development and above all for the standardization of the German language.


Another central era for translation in German-speaking countries, whose representatives have also gained European importance, is Romanticism. Above all, literary translations from other European languages ​​into German played a role, such as the still-read Schlegel-Tieck Shakespeare translation. At the time of Romanticism, many intellectuals also dealt theoretically with the field of translation, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Modern Translation

In the twentieth century, in addition to the explosive growth of specialist translation, in particular, through the expansion of world economic relations, there appeared an increasing scientific theorizing about the professionalization of translation. Translatology, or Translation Studies, is an interdisciplinary discipline that is still relatively young.

Older translation-scientific approaches tend in part to the view that the translator should consider as much as possible all aspects of a source text (such as metaphors and comparisons, emphasis patterns and thematic progression, sentence patterns, linguistic varieties as dialect or sociolect).

The more recent approaches of translation, however, require that the different aspects of the source text must be given different priorities so that the translation meets exactly the requirements of the target text. These requirements are mainly determined by “text-external factors” such as location and time, intention of the sender and expectation of the recipient, conventions for certain types of text in the target culture.

In March 2018, Microsoft announced that it’s AI technology would be able to translate with an artificial intelligence of equal quality (in the case of Chinese into English) as a professional human translator. This is the breakthrough in machine translation that even Microsoft had not expected so early.

Translated from German: Wikipedia.de

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