Translation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Where would we be without the benefits of translation? Probably confused, lost and argumentative at best! Translation has a fascinating history and a huge impact on our lives today.
On 30 September, we celebrate International Translation Day, as established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2017. This day was chosen because it is the feast day of Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators. The holiday was proposed on the belief that it would bring solidarity to the translation industry and recognise their impact on globalisation today.
HISTORY OF TRANSLATION
Translation pre-dates biblical times, although many of the most famous early translations are of the Bible. St Jerome was the original translator of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek to Latin in the 4th century. This translation was the only translation of the Bible used for just over 1,000 years, until Martin Luther hired a team of people to help translate it into German. Martin Luther’s translations are significant because, for the first time, the Bible was translated into a language that common people used and understood. Previously, the Bible could only be read and understood by members of the Catholic clergy. While translating, Luther and his team found many teachings that the Catholic church had been delivering that were not in keeping with the writings of the Bible and, thus, Lutheranism was formed. This became the foundation of the Protestant movement. It is intriguing to ponder where the Christian faith would be today if not for Luther’s translations.
Later, in 1799, the Rosetta Stone was found, which marked another huge milestone in the history of translation. No, we aren’t talking about the Rosetta Stone language learning software! We are referring to the actual inspirational rock the software was named after. It was a tablet made of rock, inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in Egypt around 200 BC. The three language versions were: ancient Egyptian hieroglyph, demotic script and ancient Greek. The translations were so close, that after many years of study, Jean-François Champollion was able to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Translation has remained important in more modern literature too.
For example, any reader who picks up a translated version of Tolstoy, Chekov or Destoyevsky, is likely reading work completed by Constance Garrett, the first Russian literature translator. A tireless worker, she was known to complete the translation of a page and toss it on the floor, moving immediately to the next page. Unfortunately, if she didn’t understand a word or a phrase, she would leave it out entirely! This doesn’t seem to have affected the overall quality of her translations, and many of them remain in print today.
Could you image translating a book without having read it first? That is what Gregory Rabassa was sometimes known to do! He translated literature from Spanish to English. He was so highly regarded for this work that author Gabriel García Márquez waited three years for Rabassa to begin translating One Hundred Years of Solitude!
Sometimes the need to localise literature can be questioned. Translation is often considered a word for word process; localisation takes the context into account. Mark Twain once translated his own work to illustrate this. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” had been translated into French. He took that translation and translated it back into English. It ended up being a ridiculous understanding of the text and illustrated why back-translation is hurtful to the intent of a text. He published this back and forth in “The Jumping Frog: in English, then in French, and then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil.”
IMPACT OF TRANSLATION
No blog post honouring International Translation Day would be complete without looking at the impact of translation.
Translation has influenced how we understand history. As illustrated above with the multilingual versions of the Bible and the Rosetta Stone, translating important documents is key for modern people to understand ancient times. Whether we are talking about Central American natives or diverse African tribes, translation has always been important for communities to understand each other and communicate effectively.
In the words of author Edith Grossman: “Translation not only plays its important traditional role as the means that allows us access to literature originally written in one of the countless languages we cannot read, but it also represents a concrete literary presence with the crucial capacity to ease and make more meaningful our relationships to those with whom we may not have had a connection before. Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight. The alternative is unthinkable.”
As things continue to globalise, the need to be able to clearly understand documents and materials across multiple languages continues to grow. Translation affects our ability to do business, grow charities, discover new things, and maintain international accord. It drives the creation of international agreements and policies and contributes to the dissemination of new and exciting ideas across the globe. It allows us to not just grow financially or politically, but as people as well.