Translation: A Brief History - Part 1

July 24th, 2016
Translation: A Brief History - Part 1 | One Hour Translation

Language is such a powerful medium: it’s the obvious and simplest way for humans to communicate with each other.

Language is such a powerful medium: it’s the obvious and simplest way for humans to communicate with each other. Before language or the spoken word, humans had to rely on sounds, symbols or signs, in order to communicate with each other. Then gradually, over time, these sounds came to represent certain events or objects, eventually evolving into a rather complex style of expression, now known as speech.

Regardless of how language has evolved, and how primitive a language or culture may seem, language has become an important part of all cultures. Language evolution is an extremely complex process, due to the fact that there're so many variables involved. If you take just one word and study the origin of that one word and how it’s evolved over time, you could write a whole paragraph – and we’ve still only discussed just one word! There have been many attempts to identify the origin of language and human speech, but in truth, they’re all just theories - perhaps this is because human speech could well have derived from a number of sources. There are various theories on speech, ranging from Birdsong to comical and fantastic, plus some completely unrealistic theories thrown in for good measure!

Geographical Differences

The fact that the human population is spread over such a large geographic area explains why several language groups have emerged which have absolutely no relation to each other. We know that, through history, these races have evolved independently of each other, so the assumption is that language has taken the same course. Communication needs in small communities escalated into a pressing need for a common language that everyone living within a particular region could both use and understand. But the problem with this ‘specific’ use of a language is that there were issues when it came to trade. It seems that this is where translation came in because trade would have been impossible without the parties involved being able to understand each other’s systems and methods of business. And so, a solution emerged to this problem – translation!

We’re not sure that translation evolved solely because of the issues with trade, but the need for translation was definitely there. Cultures who wanted to trade with each other required interpreters who not only understood both languages but were there to act as a communication bridge. This meant that cultural artifacts of each civilization needed to be translated into another language, and this included their religious works, poetry, literary works, and so on. So now we had an important and rather urgent need for translation and interpretation.

The Earliest Translations

We’ve established that translation originated to assist nations who wanted to communicate and trade with each other, but we must also assume that these traders were probably the original translators. A large portion of their lives would have been spent at various ports, so during the course of their travels, they would have come across different languages. These travelers would probably have known and used at least two, and possibly more, languages, which actually makes them the predecessors of today’s modern translators. It’s believed that today’s modern translation industry has emerged out of this informal but necessary practice of interpreting based out of necessity.

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