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A short history of the translation industry

Translators have in the course of their work over thousands of years shaped the languages into which they have translated.

They have acted as bridges for carrying across knowledge and ideas between cultures.  At the same time, translators have also imported from various source languages, into their own target languages, all manner of linguistic devices and vocabulary.

The role of the translator is by no means new.  This article gives a short history of some of the milestones in the development of translation as an industry in today’s world.

Early references

Early examples of written translations include the translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh from Sumerian into Southwest Asian languages in approximately 2000 BCE.

The role of religion

Religion has also proved a frequent catalyst for the translation of holy texts, in both the Eastern and the Western tradition. However, this article relates primarily to the Western tradition.  The Old Testament was translated into Greek in the 3rd Century BCE when, during the reign of the Ptolemy II, more than seventy translators were used to translate the Bible at Alexandria, a source for later translations into multiple target languages.

In the fourth century, Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators, translated the Bible into Latin – a translation used by the Roman Catholic Church for many centuries.

Translation and the Classical World

After the fall of Byzantium in the twelfth century, knowledge of the Greek scholars passed (back) into Europe, in translation, from the original Greek into Arabic. Among many examples, the ideas and works of Arabic scholar Averoes were adopted, in translation, in the thirteenth century by Saint Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church.

Translation and the Reformation

The period at or around the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century saw the Bible translated from Latin into local European languages. This is thought in some circles to have partially contributed to the split of the church between Catholicism and Protestantism due to the interpretation of particular passages in the different languages. Indeed, variances between any translations are generally a serious cause for misunderstanding or disagreement.

On the other hand, local translations of the Bible, such as the King James Bible into English, have also actively shaped local culture and language.

Translation and the printing press

In the aftermath of the industrial revolution in the mid-eighteenth century, specialized schools and associations were formed to further the standardisation of business documentation. With this came the birth of modern translation as an industry. Many leading translation institutions from this period remain in place today at the forefront of the industry.

Translation and warfare and peacetime collaboration

In 1798, following Napoleon’s military conquest of Egypt, in the ruined fortifications of the Egyptian town of El Rashid (Rosetta), a black granite stone was recovered by French archeologists. The stone dated back to 196 BCE, the first anniversary of the reign of Ptolemy V.

One third of the stone set out a bureaucratic decree in Ancient Greek, the administrative language of the Ptolemy dynasty (a legacy from Alexander the Great). The remaining sections of the stone contained the same decree in two forms of Egyptian hieroglyphs, the first in the demotic Egyptian text in every day use at that time and the second in Ancient hieroglyphs in use only by the Pharoah’s priesthood.

In 1801, the stone was among the antiquities passed by Napoleon to the British under the Treaty of Alexandria concluded following Napoleon’s defeat by Nelson. After the Anglo-French war, the stone was made publicly available in the British Museum.

It then took more than twenty years of Anglo-French academic collaboration to resolve the text of the stone. Notably, British physicist, Thomas Young deciphered the link between certain repeated hieroglyphs and proper names. In parallel, French academic, Jean-Christophe Champollion, ascertained that the hieroglyphs were both pictorial and phonetic tools.

By 1822, the entire decree text was deciphered in all three languages of the stone, a crucial element of the decipherment of all Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The so-called Rosetta Stone remains to this day one of the most potent symbols of the translation industry.

Translation and computing

During the mid-twentieth century, efforts were made with the development of the computer to automate the translation process without human intervention (known as ‘machine translation’). The automation process is still the subject of considerable investment and progress. The strengths and weaknesses of the automation process are considered at paragraph 16 et seq. There have also been developed a number of other technological tools to assist the manual translation process but without leading to total automation (known as CAT or Computer-Aided Translation).

The localisation industry

The internet has also mirrored the parallel rise of a new industry, the localisation of centrally developed written product for use across a number of jurisdictions. In any event, translation is now an industry that represents a global market considerably exceeding USD 3 billion annually (although size estimates vary considerably). It is at the heart of this industry that Belisarius seeks to position itself. Over time, translation has served as a writing school for many prominent writers.


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