When most of us stop to consider what’s involved in translation services, we probably think in terms of a linguist converting modern text from one language to another. For some people, the topic may even conjure up notions related the recent advent of machine translation apps. But translation is nothing new. In fact, linguists have been practicing their trade since ancient times, often playing critical roles in society. The history of translation is such a large topic that we’ve decided to devote several different blogs to the subject in an effort to promote a broader understanding of how important translation services have been in the advancement of different societies throughout history. We’ll begin with some of the earliest known translations, which date back to ancient times.
Most language scholars would agree that some of the earliest recorded translations were during the Mesopotamian era, sometime around the second millennium BC. At that time, the popular Sumerian poem “Gilgamesh” was translated into several Asian languages. Centuries later, Arabic scholars translated the works of academics from Ancient Greece, and after that empire fell those same scholars created their own works based on the Ancient Greek texts. But they weren’t alone. Many years later, Roman scholars were known to have translated Ancient Greek texts, using them as the basis of many Roman literary works designed for the entertainment of the Roman aristocracy.
The first religious translation of any import was the translation of the Bible from Hebrew to Greek. This monumental task was accomplished in the 3rd century BC by 70 translators, each of whom worked individually to produce exactly the same translation of the text within a period of 72 days. This translated version of the Bible, called the “Septuagint” version in homage to the 70 translators who worked on it, was later used by numerous linguists who translated the coveted text into multiple other languages.
It probably comes as no surprise that religion played a huge role in ancient translations. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church named Saint Jerome as their patron saint of translation. And it was St. Jerome who, in the 4th century AD, created the Latin bible. This patron saint is also credited for developing the notion that a translator should avoid word-for-word translations and instead translate in a more sensible fashion – a method that is still followed to this day by language professionals.
The rise of Protestantism in Europe later created the need for biblical translations into European languages. The result were two quite similar, yet markedly different, versions of the Bible – one used by Protestants, and the other used in the Roman Catholic Church. While the crux of the text remained the same, some of the vocabulary and certain passages in the two versions of the Bible differ greatly.
There were several scholars who left their mark on the history of translation during ancient times: Roman writer, philosopher and translator Cicero during the 1st century BC; Buddhist monk, scholar and translator Kumārajīva in the 4th century; and a group of Armenian scholars called the “Holy Translators” who, during the 3rd and 4th century, worked on translating text from Greek and Syriac into Armenian (including the Bible and many literary works).
While there’s no doubt that translation has evolved enormously over the centuries since these scholar/translators completed their work, they laid the foundation for how language professionals practice their art to this day. But that only begins to describe the important role that these early translators played in the history of mankind. If it weren’t for these early linguists, the religious and cultural makeup of our modern world would be very different indeed.