History Of Translation


Various scholars have highlighted the importance of translation history. To what extent would you agree and why? Discuss and exemplify, making reference to at least two theorists.


Translation history mimics history itself. Any post-Babel relationship between tribes, nations, continents, peoples, involves translation and translators as different cultures possess different tongues. Relationships across time involve translators and interpreters to intermediate and add to the charms of civilization.

‘It is not too difficult to see how translators throughout their history have acted as both guardians and traders. They have acted both as the zealous elaborators and protectors of national languages and literatures and as the indispensable intermediaries in the opening up of the world to the circulation of commodities, people and ideas.’ Cronin (2003:70)

From war to famine, dispersion of knowledge, empire building, conquest, religious missionaries, all aspects of what we know as history involves translation. In this essay I aim to isolate a few key critical moments in the history of translation and to identify key people who have paved the way for translators in the modern world.

etienne dolet

French postage stamp depicting the translation martyr, Étienne Dolet


One of the most interesting characters in the history of translation is Étienne Dolet. A French translator, Dolet aligned himself against the modus operandi. His dissidence, obviously backed with intellectual strength and passionate commitment to his work, made him persona non grata with the leading educational establishment in France. The Sorbonne would be the natural enemy of Dolet and as powerful and intimidating as it was, the battle could only ever end in defeat for the individual.

Dolet, as an intellectual, formed part of the Ciceronian group of translation scholars. They believed that Latin should be written in the ancient style of Roman orators and writers such as Cicero; a classical Latin. They disagreed with the church-influenced modern Latin, en vogue with scholars such as Erasmus and the predominant style of European writing and thinking. Dolet was a purist and felt that the original Latin thinkers and creators of the language and its culture were not misdirected by the linguistic needs of the later movement that was Christianity. Ultimately, this passion for classicism led Dolet to the stake. Religion was taken seriously in the Middle Ages and blasphemy was a heinous offense. In his efforts to translate Plato, Dolet, paid no heed to the Christian values of the Catholic Church and, sticking to the stoical religious beliefs and attempting to find exact equivalence in his translation, Dolet perjured himself in the eyes of the authorities.

‘Dolet was condemned by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne in 1546, apparently for adding, in his translation of one of Plato’s dialogues, the phrase rien du tout (‘nothing at all’) in a passage about what existed after death. The addition led to the charge of blasphemy, the assertion being that Dolet did not believe in immortality. For such a translation ‘error’, he was burned at the stake.’ Munday (2012:37)

Étienne Dolet became a martyr for the sake of his work as a translator. This is harsh treatment but one mustn’t underestimate the social controls of religious authorities during history. There is a strict conservative tendency attached to Christianity, in particular, and change is hardly ever welcomed. For many years, interference with the Word of God was deemed so heretical that translations of the Holy Bible into vernacular languages were taboo.

St Jerome, whose 4th century A.D. Vulgate, a Latin translation of the bible, makes him the patron saint of translators. This Vulgate only arose due to the lack of Hebrew and Greek language skills among priests. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire and early church, so it made sense to create the Holy Scriptures in Latin. A ban remained on translation into vernacular tongues and St. Jerome’s Vulgate lasted well over a millennium as the sole official translation of the Bible.

‘The practice of translation was crucial for the early dissemination of key cultural and religious texts and concepts.’ Munday (2012:13)

The Vulgate, in Latin, was the working copy of the Roman Catholic church and was used across Europe through all nations. The knowledge of Latin separated the priestly caste from the masses and often there was a deep misunderstanding among believers of the true nature of God’s word as they could only rely on the Priests’ interpretations and second hand accounts of the Bible.

king james bible

The title page to the 1611 first edition of the Authorized Version Bible by Cornelis Boel


I wish to look close to home at the impact of Biblical translation into the vernacular. After years of resistance to translation of religious texts, finally throwing off the yoke of the Catholic Church, a new protestant zeal paved the way for the King James Bible, the first version of the Bible in the English language.

‘[The King James Bible] still remains for many the key translation of the Scriptures and the model of seventeenth-century English prose…Its influence can be traced in the work of Milton and Bunyan, of Tennyson and Byron, of Johnson and Gibbon and Thackeray; the power of its cadence is to be found everywhere. The King James Bible invigorated the consciousness of the nation and inspired some of its most eloquent manifestations.’ Ackroyd (2014:35)

What at first appears unnatural, especially considering the formal equivalence translation legacy bequeathed to us by St Jerome’s manner of literal translation, the language of the King James Bible became a key component and influence for all future English authors. Foreignization of the text, sticking as close to the original Hebrew and Greek tongues, shed new light on the English language. From the floral romance of Songs of Solomon to the dark abyss of Revelation, the translated Biblical language became embedded in people’s minds. The King James Bible became the most widely distributed text in the world and was the cornerstone of the building of the British Empire. Missionaries took forth the word of God in the English language to the most far-flung places of the planet and a translation became the keystone for foreigners to understand and learn how to speak English and to understand British values.

friedrich schleiermacher

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834)

On the subject of embellishing a language with foreignization in translation, we can look at the example of Schleiermacher, the early 1800s German translator and translation theorist. It was Schleiermacher who first developed the concepts of domestication and foreignization in translation. Schleiermacher favored the practice of foreignization whereby ‘the author was left in peace and the reader moved towards him.’ This was in contrast with domestication whereby the author was disturbed and the reader’s ease was the object of the translator. The irony of this foreignization technique was that it didn’t automatically appear to promote knowledge and understanding of the foreign language. Schleiermacher’s motives were nationalistic and he saw his preferred method of translating as a way of enhancing his own mother tongue and to promote the nationalist ideology that was a growing movement in 19th century Germany.

‘Schleiermacher’s nationalist theory of foreignizing translation aims to challenge French hegemony not only by enriching German culture, but by contributing to the formation of a liberal public sphere, an area of social life in which private individuals exchange rational discourse and exercise political influence.’ Venuti (2008:91)

Resistance to France in the post-Napoleonic, post Franco-Prussian war, saw the rise of nationalist values in Germany. The strength of this movement gave birth to great German writer-philosophers during this period such as Nietzche and Heidegger. A fortified language allowed Germany’s empire-building prospects to increase and Schleiermacher’s foreignization in translation was a means of fortifying German so that it was possible for it to be a language of empire. Of course, the nationalism in Germany did lead it down a dangerous path that culminated in the two world wars of the following century. An argument against Schleiermacher’s translation style, perhaps? It can be seen the impact a translator can have on wider history and also how a translator’s work is affected by the political movements within their native environment.

I have chosen to discuss three key moments in Translation history. A translation martyr, the first official Bible translation into English, and the attachment of translation to the rise of nationalism in 19th century German politics. One must remember, that the role of translators in society and history is often a hidden role.

‘…notions about writing as creative work and translation as an always-foiled attempt at achieving equivalence, which rendered translation a second-class art’ von Flotow (2001:9)

The translator is, on the whole undervalued and is absent from the wider public lens. I think that very often, the public take for granted the role of translators. It is expected to be able to read the works of great foreign authors, without thinking of the actual process of transmission that has enabled the process. War, international politics, trade and commerce: Most is conducted with the actual language facilitators remaining unaccredited, invisible bystanders, out of the limelight. Yet, this does not reduce the impact of translators in history. If anything, these elusive characters deserve increased attention, as it is they who are actually determining the reality of global history. Translation history is inseparable from history and despite being obscured translators are important figures to be remembered and understood.

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Ackroyd, Peter. 2014 The History Of England Volume III: Civil War. London: Macmillan

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, R., von Flotow, L., Russell, D. 2001 The Politics Of Translation In The Middle Ages And The Renaissance. Ottawa: University Of Ottawa Press.

Cronin, Michael. 2003 Translation And Globalization. London: Routledge

Munday, J. 2012 Introducing Translation Studies: Theories And Applications [3rd Edition] London: Routledge

Venuti, Lawrence. 2008 The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (2nd Ed.). Oxon: Routledge

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