The Dark History of Translation

October 15th, 2014

Translation could be a tool of censorship and political control, and the humans who do the work are our first line of defence against it – and always have been.

The Dark History of Translation | One Hour Translation

It’s pretty common for people in the modern age to forget that there’s a long stretch of history behind them, and that things we take for granted today were not always common or even possible. This goes beyond the obvious – certainly, people in the middle ages didn’t have cell phones or CAT scans or motor vehicles – and encompasses many intangibles. For example, many of the basic human rights we take for granted and consider simple and absolute would be foreign to most people plucked from history.

This applies to the world of translation services as well. Today, translation is a placid industry and discipline wherein trained men and women learn a skill that builds off their natural abilities – and further, helps to connect the world and bring us closer together by sharing the thoughts, ideas, and cultures that might otherwise be lost to us because of language barriers. But it hasn’t always been so – and it might not always be going forward, either.

Translation Heroism

It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time when being a translator meant taking real risks to life and limb. Ideas are powerful, of course, and often in history there have been efforts to control or stop the spread if ideas by controlling and suppressing the act of translation. William Tyndale is a name not often taught in schools these days, but in the translation world he is a martyr, a man who dared to translate the bible in a manner that King Henry VIII, in the midst of establishing himself as the head of a new church, disapproved of. So Mr. Tyndale was executed to show the folly of an unauthorized translation in defiance of the king.

History is riddled with examples like that – translation brings ideas from one culture to another, often in ways that have unexpected consequences. While there’s little danger of being executed for translation today, there are still dangers.

The Power that Preserves

Translators have a lot of power, because we can shape how things are perceived. One reason there will likely never be 100% automated translation no matter how advanced the technology becomes is because of this issue: Translation needs a conscience behind it to prevent it from becoming a tool of misinformation.

Think about it: You’re reading a historical text translated from another language. How do you know you are getting an accurate translation, and not some watered-down version? How do you know political ideas weren’t excised, or subverted? You don’t. You can try to get your information from a variety of sources, which helps, but you simply cannot guarantee that the translation you’re reading is truthful.

Humans remain the key. As long as humans are ultimately in charge of our translations, we’ve got the protection of basic human decency and honour. Remove that, and lord knows what our translations will look like.

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