Major Dates in the History of Translation

February 12th, 2013

Translators have placed a significant role in many of the major events in history.

major dates in the history of translation

Adam’s Rib: 1400 B.C.

The earliest clear reference to translation work dates back to 1400 B.C., when the Old Testament was being written down. Many of the stories that appear in the Old Testament are, of course, borrowed from even older traditions. For example, the story of Adam and Eve and Adam’s Rib actually stems from a Sumerian legend. In Sumerian, the word that was translated into Hebrew as ‘rib’ can also mean ‘life-giving’ – in the Sumerian version of the story, Adam was ill and was visited by Eve the ‘life-giving lady.’ But the Hebrew translation firmly translated the word into ‘rib’ and now we have the firm belief that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. So, yes, mistranslations have been with us since the very beginning.

Themistocles: 493 B.C.

The first recorded instance of a translator being killed because of their work occurred in Greece in 493 B.C., when Archon Themistocles had a translator put to death for publishing the demands and laws of invading ‘barbarians’ into Greek. This underscores that document translation has always carried with it some risk – both because sometimes the ideas we bring into the target language are unwanted and dangerous, and because our errors can become diplomatic nightmares! While most translation pros work under quiet, scholarly circumstances, in times of war, espionage, and other drama we are often in danger.

Young's Literal Translation: 1898

We don’t have the space to mention every important date, of course, so I’ll skip forward and mention an event that gets very little attention, but which is, I believe, extremely important: In 1898, Robert Young published a ‘literal’ translation of the bible, arguing that when translators changed tense, grammar, or vocabulary in order to render a more coherent and pleasing text, they were changing the words of God and corrupting the message. His translation therefore preserved tenses and other oddities, making his bible unique. From a translation services point of view, however, his exercise demonstrated how much effect the translator has on the text. A relatively faithful translation, in fact, can be extremely different from the original text.

Translation has a rich history we’ve barely touched! If you’re interested in language, I would encourage you to investigate yourself!

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