A brief history of translation

The title of the first translation known is often given to The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem originally written in Sumerian and translated into other Southwest Asian languages in the ancient world. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates from between 2750 and 2500BCE, and is quite possibly the oldest written story on Earth. It was originally written on clay tablets in cunieform script and tells the adventures of the King of Uruk.

The earliest known texts of the Gilgamesh Epic were written in the 3rd millennium BCE by the Sumerians, the first literate civilization in Mesopotamia. By the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, the story was an epic 11-tablet text. In the 8th century BCE, Assyrian scribes added a twelvfth tablet about Gilgamesh’s preparations to journey to the underworld. Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian versions demonstrate the Epic of Gilgamesh was translated.

A recently discovered tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh: This Neo-Babylonian version inscribed in by hand in cuneiform writing tells “the episode of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.” 
Image credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

World’s Earliest Known Certified Translation: The Rosetta Stone

The Rossetta Stone is the world’s most famous translation icon. It communicates an official decree that was issued in Egypt in 196 BCE proclaiming that the priests of a temple in Memphis supported King Ptolemy V 204–181 BCE. The decree was copied on to large stone slabs called stelae, which were put in every temple in Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is one of these copies. Inscribed with 3 writing systems, the Greek alphabet (used by the administration), hieroglyphs (formal language used for religious proclamations), and demotic script (a cursive form of Egyptian hieroglyphs and the “language of the people”). This official carved translation of Greek into Egyptian, is probably our earliest known certified translation! Significantly, it enabled modern scholars to decipher ancient hieroglyphics. Originally found in 1799 by his troops during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition, the Rossetta Stone was later taken by the British in 1801 and today, it resides in the British Museum in London. The Rosetta Stone and what it actually says with Ilona Regulski | Curator’s Corner S7 Ep6 – YouTube

Evidence for commercial translation between Mesopotamian languages, Egyptian, Hebrew, Greek, Anatolian, and Syriac are well evidenced through the centuries. Iraq’s scripts and languages | The British Library (bl.uk) Egypt officially corresponded with ancient Mesopotamia in cuneiform script which suggests that translation dates back to the 3rd millennium BCE. Translation has continued to evolve for over 4,000 years in support of exchange between cultures and peoples. Commerce and religion still remain the driving forces behind translation today. 

Translation from Greek texts was an integral part of Roman culture dating from its inception in the 3rd century BCE. Beyond commerce, the ancient Greeks and Romans made significant contributions to the field of translation, with figures such as Homer and Cicero producing translations of scholarly and artistic works. In “On the Orator” (“De Oratore”, 55 BCE) Cicero cautions against translating “word for word” (“verbum pro verbo”) “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”.( A short history of translation through the ages (Marie Lebert) – IAPTI) Cicero, philosopher, writer, and translator from Greek to Latin, compared the work of a translator to that of an artist.

The Septuagint is the First Major Translation: The Hebrew Bible is translated into Greek

The most translated book in the world is The Bible.
Septuagint fragment

Aristeas tells the story of the first, and most influential Bible translation: In the 3rd century BCE, the Pharaoh of Egypt (Ptolemy II Philadelphus, r. 283–246 BCE) ordered a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek for his famous library. The mysterious story states that the Pharaoh called for seventy-two Jewish translators—six from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel to translate the Hebrew laws into Greek. Legend documented by Aristeas claims the Pharoah called for 70 scribes from Jerusalem to produce the translations. The 70 translators delivered their work in 70 days, and all 70 of the individually produced translations were, miraculously, found to be identical. This Greek translation was immediately adopted as the authoritative version of Moses’ law known forever after, as the ‘Translation of the Seventy’, the Septuagint.

The Hebrew Bible, was written in Hebrew between the 11th and 2nd centuries BCE. It is also known as the Old Testament in the Christian tradition. In Egypt, in the 3rd century BCE, an increasing number of educated Greek-speaking Jews could not read Hebrew, creating demand for translation of the Old Testament into Greek.

The Septuagint is the first great translation of the Western world and remains a wonder to this day. This translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek has influenced translators’ methods and theories for over 500 years.

The story of the Septuagint is shrouded in mystery.  It also has held general prominence over any other version of the Old Testament for over 500 years. The Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Bible, was the Old Testament relied upon by writers of the New Testament. As the majority of the Church overseers could not read Hebrew, the Septuagint became the text of choice to settle exegetical debates. Today, the Septuagint remains the canonical text for Orthodox Christians. It’s the basis from which the New Testament was written and as such, its influence is immense. With language use having come full circle, the Septuagint, a translation,  is now a key source of philological data for understanding Koine Greek for translators today. 

The tradition of translating the Bible had only just begun. During the Middle Ages, to spread Christianity, the Bible and supporting religious texts were avidly translated into many languages. The spread of Christianity led directly to the development of the first professional translators, which were called “translatores.”

The Renaissance period, with its increased interest in classical literature led to the translation of works from Greek and Latin into the vernacular languages of Europe. This was also the time when European scholars began to develop theories of translation and methods for translating idiomatic expressions.

During the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution, translation grew as scientific and technical texts were exported globally alongside machinery and technical advances. This trend continued in the 20th century with the growth of international trade and communication, requiring translations of legal, financial, and business documents.

Religion is still a key driver of translation. The Bible is the most translated book in the world, with portions or the entire text translated into more than 3,300 languages. The Quran, known as the Muslim holy book, is the second most translated book, with translations in more than 1,500 languages. Another religious text, the Book of Mormon, holds third place for the most translated religious book with translations available in more than 111 languages. The Gandhāran Buddhist texts, found in Afghanistan and written in Gāndhārī, date from the first century BCE to the third century CE and are currently the oldest surviving written Buddhist texts. Buddhist texts were traditionally passed on orally by Buddhist monks, and only later written down as manuscripts in various Indo-Aryan languages including Pāli, Gāndhārī, and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. These were then translated into other languages such as Buddhist Chinese (fójiào hànyǔ 佛教漢語) and Classical Tibetan. Although no comparative statistics for translations of individual Buddhist manuscripts are given, the immense influence of translation on the spread of Buddhism is as significant as that of the Septuagint for Christianity.

In terms of non-religious books, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is considered one of the most translated books, with translations in more than 300 languages. The Tao Te Ching attributed to the sage Laotzi has been pubished in over 250 languages. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes and The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi are also among the most translated books. The Arabian Nights, also known as One Thousand and One Nights, has been translated across the globe for centuries. With evidence of translation dating to the 9th century, this book with its collection of stories harvested from many cultures and languages, is itself a collection of translations, giving evidence of a higher level of historical global communication and translation than we usually acknowledge.

With the advent of the internet, machine translation and computer-assisted translation have become increasingly important. The development of sophisticated algorithms and software for automating the translation process mean people have unimaginably speedy access to languages and communication tools never before available. Today, translation technology continues to evolve, and has become an essential tool for businesses and organisations operating in our inter-global and net-based commercial world. Human translators, can now use machine translation tools and AI to speed the translation process along, enable consistency of terminology and translate more words than ever before imaginable. However, using machine translation does have its limitations. It is accurate only up to about 70%. Documents need to be formatted to be suitable for machine translation use. This adds preparation time for any project. So, while the translation process will be faster, the pre-translation preparation time may result in longer delivery times for projects with machine translation use. Plus, post-editing the imperfect outputs add more time and can only reasonably increase accuracy rates by up to 10%. High preparation demands combined with a much lower accuracy rate than manual human translation, mean machine translation is not the solution for all translation projects. It does however, enable global communication on a scale never before thought possible. And, with more words to translate than humans can manage, it provides a viable solution for repetitive texts.

“Translation is the language of Europe. It is through translation that the European spirit has been able to express itself throughout the centuries.” – Goethe

As we move into a world reliant upon automated text and instant translations, it will be interesting to watch how communication techniques evolve and how the spirit will be divined with AI and machine translation.

Here is a timeline of key events in the history of translation:

  • 3000 BCE: The ancient Egyptians translate religious texts and inscriptions.
  • 2700 BCE – 2000 BCE: The Mesopotamians translate Gilgamesh.
  • 800 BCE: The ancient Greeks begin to translate works from other languages, including the epic poem “The Iliad” by Homer.
  • Before 247 BCE: The Septuagint is translated.
  • 196 BCE: 27 March 196 BCE – The Rosetta Stone was inscribed
  • 100 CE: The Roman poet Horace writes “Ars Poetica,” which includes advice on translation.
  • 400 CE: Saint Jerome completes the first translation of the Bible into Latin, known as the “Vulgate.”
  • 1000 CE: The Arabic translation movement, which translates works from Greek, Persian, and Indian literature into Arabic.
  • 14th century: The first professional translators, known as “translatores,” begin to work in Europe.
    • During the Middle Ages, the “translatores” were the first professional translators. Typically monks or scholars proficient in multiple languages, they were commissioned to translate the Bible and other religious texts, into various languages to spread Christianity. These translators worked in monasteries and universities, using their knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew to produce accurate translations of religious texts. They were highly respected members of the community and their work was considered a sacred task. The translatores were a key factor in the spread of Christianity and the preservation of knowledge during the Middle Ages.
  • 15th century: The Renaissance period sees an increase in the translation of classical literature from Greek and Latin into vernacular languages.
  • 18th century: The German scholar Johann Gottfried Herder develops the theory of “naturliche Übersetzung,” which emphasizes the importance of capturing the spirit of the original text.
  • 19th century: The Industrial Revolution leads to an increase in the translation of technical and scientific texts.
  • 1950s: The first machine translation systems are developed, using rule-based algorithms.
    • The field of machine translation (MT) began to take shape, with the development of the first machine translation systems. These early systems were based on rule-based algorithms, which used a set of predefined rules to translate text from one language to another. These rules were based on linguistic knowledge and were designed to handle basic grammatical structures and vocabulary. The goal of these early systems was to automate the translation process and reduce the need for human translators.
    • Warren Weaver and his team at the Rockefeller Foundation developed the first machine translation system. They began work on the project in the late 1940s, and by the early 1950s, they had developed a system that could translate simple sentences from Russian into English. 
    • IBM developed the first commercially available machine translation system in the mid-1950s. Others were not far behind. Despite the initial promise of these early systems, they had several limitations. The rule-based algorithms were not able to handle idiomatic expressions or complex sentence structures, and the systems were not able to produce translations of a high enough quality for practical use. Despite these limitations, the development of the first machine translation systems laid the foundation for the field of machine translation, which continued to evolve and improve over the following decades.
  • 1990s: Statistical machine translation and neural machine translation systems are developed, improving the quality of machine translation.
  • Present day: Translation technology continues to evolve, with the use of artificial intelligence and neural networks to improve the accuracy and efficiency of the translation process.