A brief history of translations

A brief history of translations

Today, we can’t imagine our world without translation. Though an increasing number of people learn and speak English, Spanish and Chinese, people are yet to invent a universal language that can be used anywhere by anyone. And it means we need translators and interpreters to understand and be understood.
But it wasn’t always the case. 

The translation history began a long time ago, when people had already spread around the Earth but only began to express themselves verbally, translation per se didn’t exist. Only after different groups and communities began trading with one another, the idea of interpreters and (much later) translators took shape. 

Most probably first interpreters were hunters who roamed high and low in search of animals, and sometimes they met weird-speaking strangers. To get vital information about hunting grounds, settlements, and maybe just to quench their curiosity, they learned the sounds their peers uttered. It was just the primitive beginnings of what we call translation and interpreting today, but without them, we would still speak different languages, failing to appreciate the joy of interlingual interaction. 

Since those distant times, we’ve come a long way and today translation industry is changing the world. They make it better, more enjoyable, and safer in large part because of the Internet and ubiquity of digital devices. Let’s take a closer look at the history of translation to appreciate and celebrate our differences and similarities.  

Ancient Egypt

Although considering other peoples and their languages as ‘barbarian’, Egyptians had to maintain political and commercial relations with the outside world. The Princes of Elephantine undertook missions in Nubia and Sudan for the pharaohs of the 6th dynasty (2423-2263 BC). 

The population of Aswan was bilingual, and it is even estimated that the princes of Elephantine were half-breeds. The inscriptions give their names (Harkhuf, Sabni, Mechu) and show that they bore the title of ‘chief interpreter’, but they do not contain any theoretical considerations about translation. Along with interpreters, these characters were diplomats, missionaries, and it is the accounts of these that make up the bulk of the inscriptions.

Joseph's interpreter

In the Bible, there is a testimony of the presence of interpreters in the court of pharaohs during the Intermediate period (about 1640 to 1550 BC) through the story of Joseph. His jealous brothers sold him to Midianite merchants, who sold him in their turn to Potiphar, Pharaoh's eunuch, and the captain of the guard. After he became an important figure at court, Joseph was brought one day to receive his brothers who came to buy grain in Egypt.

During this scene, he pretends to be an Egyptian and to need an interpreter for interviewing them, which allows him to surprise then as he understood what they were saying to one another in Hebrew: ‘They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them’ (Genesis 42:23).


Herodotus' accounts show that in the middle of the 5th century BC Egyptians were divided into seven social classes, among which was that of the interpreters, whose origin he describes. During the Late period, Psamtik, the governor of a part of Egypt on behalf of the Assyrians, undertook to conquer the country for himself.

For that, he allied with Ionians and Carians, inhabitants of the Aegean Sea, who spoke Greek. After he became the pharaoh under the name of Psammetichus I (663-609 BC), he conceded, as promised, lands to these mercenaries and entrusted them with young people Egyptians to teach them Greek and make them interpreters, whose descendants were still officiating at the time of the voyages of Herodotus.


The Greeks did not translate much, their country being that of the origin. Greece is the cradle of the Western civilization, the country where the various forms of literature were born, as well as a set of texts to which, throughout the history of the Western civilization, one turns to extract the material, the form, the style, to imitate them or to pay homage to them by a new translation that would better capture its spirit and form.


Three characteristics stand out from the translation or adaptation work that came down to us, some of which marks a stage in the evolution of the phenomenon: translation becomes personalized, it makes up an undeniable cultural relay, and becomes a subject for reflection.

Livius Andronicus

It was in Roman times that the first signed translations appeared. The first European translator whose name is known to us is a freed Greek slave, Livius Andronicus, who around 240 BC translated ‘The Odyssey’ in Latin verse. Livius Andronicus (272-207 BC) was a Greek native of Taranto, a city of Puglia that fell to the Romans in 272 BC.

The young Andronikos was brought to Rome, as soon as he was born, with a crowd of other Greek slaves after the capture of the city. He belonged to Marcus Livius Salinator (hence his name); his task comprised both playing and writing plays and teaching Latin and Greek as well to the children of the house as to those of other well-to-do families; the teaching duties were traditional to slaves and freedmen, which included several Greeks or individuals speaking their language, then the language of culture and communication in the eastern part of the Mediterranean basin.

His master rewarded his talent by setting him free. The work of Andronicus proceeded from the double nature of his occupations. If he translated ‘The Odyssey’ in Latin verses (around 240 BC), it was to have a textbook for teaching both Greek and Latin languages. This work later remained in use. As a dramatic actor, he composed and transposed plays from the Greek repertoire, which replaced the ancient lyrical canticle of the Roman theater. One year after the First Punic War, in 240 BC, his first drama was performed on stage. In fact, Livius Andronicus was more Roman than Greek; his translations reveal he was far from having a perfect knowledge of Greek: there are misunderstandings and his style does not shine with elegance, but he had the merit of helping to introduce the epic, the tragedy, and the comedy to Rome.

The Gospels

Christ was born in a multilingual environment, the composition of which is partly displayed in the inscription that Pilate had placed on the cross: ‘it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek’ (John 19:20). In fact, Palestine had at least a significant tetraglossia configuration with Aramaic, the popular language (absent from the inscription); Hebrew, the sacred language; Greek, the language of culture and of the oldest occupation; and Latin, the language of culture and administration.

There are thousands of manuscripts of these texts which for the most part date from the 5th century and offer variants, some of which are because of copyist errors. The texts were written on scrolls; from the 2nd century, one will use sheets making up a codex (book). The texts which were long considered being the oldest and most reliable are the Codex Vaticanus, kept at the Vatican Library, and the Codex Sinaiticus, kept at the British Museum, dating from the early 4th century.

There is every reason to believe that Christ spoke in Aramaic and preached in this language. Now the Gospels were written in Greek (maybe in Hebrew for the one from Mathieu), and some consider that these transcripts of given oral teaching in Aramaic are a form of translation. The evangelists would then have been the first Christian translators. Besides their sacredness which will make them of the Scriptures of a new style, the Gospels are an artistic production of a new type that offers four points of view on the life of the protagonist who is the bearer of good news that needs to be spread. The name ‘Gospel’ comes from the Greek Evangelion (meaning ‘good news’), which is found in the head of the Gospel of Mark.

Several types of work developed around the Scriptures, more or less directly related to translation. Another biblical translator to be mentioned is St Jerome of Stridon. He is surely the most famous translator in the world, since he dedicated the last 34 years of his life to writing the Vulgate, a revision of biblical texts that were later (until the 20th century) the only official version recognized by the Catholic Church. To celebrate his life’s achievements, he is considered the patron saint of translators. 

The middle ages

The Latin language was the main literature language for a very long time. Until the 9th century, no one even bothered to promote other widely spoken languages. But Alfred the Great, the king of England, thought it would be a good idea to have translated in English ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ by Boethius and ‘Ecclesiastical History’ by Bede. That gave a boost to English literature. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon, an English linguist, made a point that in order to produce an accurate translation, a translator must be fully knowledgeable in both the source and the target languages.

He also noted that they must be experts in the subject matter. As you can see, the idea of an expert translator is about 700 years old now. Another century went by, and John Wycliffe did the first bible translation into English. Also in the 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous author and poet, translated various works from Latin, Italian and French into English. Readers liked the works of foreign writers so much that translation from Italian and Latin became a tradition.

Late medieval to early Renaissance

Gemistus Pletho (Plethon), a Byzantine scholar from Constantinople, went to Florence to reintroduce the philosophy of Plato. He persuaded Cosimo de Medici, a banker and the founder of the Medici family, into founding the Platonic Academy.

The Academy translated all the works of Plato, ‘Enneads’ by Plotinus and several other works into Latin. The 15th century was also marked by another important translation work - Thomas Malory translated ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, the collection of legends about King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, Merlin, and Queen Guenever. 

Early Modern era

John Dryden, an English poet and translator, came up with an original idea of translating Virgil’s work as if the Roman poet had been from England. He thought, for the sake of a better translation, one could forgo Virgil’s subtlety and the spirit of ancient Rome.

Another English translator and poet, Alexander Pope, didn't agree with his brother in trade. And his opinion had a certain weight to it since Pope had translated Homer's Iliad’. He said the translator was just the one who ‘copied’ the meaning from one language into another and had no right to change or alter the original text.  

It was at that period when the two key criteria of translation were formed - faithfulness and transparency. Faithfulness means transmitting the message of the source text while provoking the same feelings and evoking the same effects on readers of the target text as on the receivers of the original one. Transparency means integrity, consonance and equivalence, and it is as good as the original.

Translation today

Translation services have developed further with the rise of the Internet and digital technology. With the constant expansion of international trade, many industries recognize the need to communicate with foreign markets - which could not happen without the use of translation services. From marketing materials to product information, it seems plausible to suggest that the only way to be successful in today's society is to target a larger customer base and understand different cultures. It is also important to see how translation services have spread to a wide range of uses.

Although it was originally developed to facilitate communication in business and commerce, translation has become paramount in areas such as the workplace and tourism. Any business that strives for a diverse workforce must adapt to those who speak a different native language. Without translation, communicating important aspects of the workplace, such as health and safety guidelines and company rules, could become a particularly laborious task.

Moreover, translation services have become an essential aspect of tourism. From a traveler's perspective, being able to spend time comfortably in another country is imperative, as the language challenges of orienting and reading menus are easily overcome with translation and technology. Despite their original goals, translation services are no longer just for business purposes. It is important to recognize how much the activities of different industries and fields are improved by the use of translation. Modern technology dramatically improves translation capabilities to meet human needs in a booming digital society. Previously this was the literal (word-for-word) translation, but translation services have adapted to innovative systems, using software like machine translation to translate into multiple languages ​​at once.

The future

The future looks bright for the language services industry, which was projected to reach $56 billion by 2021, growing by $5 billion in 2 years. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic affected these projections, but maybe not in a bad way. Today, the world becomes more and more interconnected. Yes, we might travel less, but we definitely spend more time online reaching out to people from many other countries. Modern technologies made it a lot easier for businesses to go global, which means they need to communicate with customers who speak different languages. This is where translation agencies step in.

As to the new technologies in translation, such as machine translation, they are seen as a helping hand and not as a threat to human translators. PoliLingua is a proud custodian of translation traditions.

We keep the best from the past and look forward to the future to ensure your translation is not only accurate and professional but also reads and sounds smooth to native speakers. At the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to engage the target audience, and that’s what we do word by word, project by project.  Contact PoliLingua now for a quick quote. We will get back to you within 12 hours. PoliLingua is here to help you all day every day, lockdown or not, whatever the country you are in, and whatever the language pair you need to work with. Just tell us your source language and your target language, and will walk you through the translation process

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