Translation: Its Traditions

Sreedevi K. Nair

Language is the man-made medium for expressing and communicating ideas and feelings. Even though all animals express themselves in one way or the other, it is man alone who possesses a clear and clever way of communication. Thus, language is one important factor which makes man distinct and individualistic. But just as the use of the same language brings people together, difference of language creates barriers and keeps people apart. The biblical story of the tower of Babel points to this.


 A child acquires the language and the ways of the society into which it is born quite naturally and with ease. But mastering a second language needs skill and deliberate effort. People who live in borders which separate two different linguistic areas, develop the ability to use both the languages fluently. Maybe, they were the first translators who made communication possible between groups of people who spoke different languages.

How old is formal translation? Encyclopaedia Americana states that “This art is as old as written language.” Literary historians have been able to trace it as far back as 3000 B.C. Emperor Sargoan of Assyria made proclamations of his adventures in the Assyrian language. Since several languages were spoken in the vast Assyrian empire, the emperor’s proclamations were translated into all these languages. This is supposedly the first ever attempt at a formal translation. The proclamations of Hammurabi, the ruler of Babylon in 2100 B.C. were also translated into several languages. Besides these, “Fragmentary versions of the old Sumerian Gilgamesh Epic (q.v.) have been found in four or five Asiatic languages of the 2nd millennium B.C.” It is possible that these were read in their own languages by early biblical authors and by the poet of The Iliad. But the Rossetta stone writing of 200 B.C. is now regarded as the most important model of ancient translation. In this, the ideas expressed in the Egyptian language using the Egyptian scripts Hieroglyphic and Demotic were translated into Greek using the Grecian script.

 The ancient Romans contributed greatly towards translation. Eric Jacobsen claims that translation is a Roman invention. The Romans were so impressed by their neighbours in Greece that most of them learned Greek. Otherwise, there would have been more translations from Greek into Latin. Around 240 B.C. the Greek slave Andronicus translated The Odyssey into Latin. He is the first translator whose name is recorded in Europe. Perhaps, he is not the first European writer who made a translation but his effort is of interest because of its long survival. Later, the early Latin authors Naevias and Ennius made translations of the Greek plays, especially those of Euripedes. They were partly responsible for bringing the hexameter to Rome. Catullus also was a remarkable translator of this period. Then followed the translations of the great Greek dramas and the Dialogues of Plato. A general translation of Greek into Latin and to a smaller extent of Latin into Greek went on for several years. As Theodore Savory said, this practice continued as long as there was literature to be translated and a tradition of learning to appreciate the results.

 In the West, a form and order was lent to the process of translation through the rendering of the Bible. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. But there were many Jews who did not know the Hebrew language. For them, the Bible was translated into Greek two or three centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. But these translations were purely literal and made use of a poor and archaic Greek, full of semitic constructions. They were unsuited to the Greek language as the translators had little sense of literature. Unlike the literary people, the religious ones never gave priority to standards of verbal excellence and preferred the bare meaning. But, as there were only few translations into the Greek language at that time, these are noteworthy. Normally, the Greeks did not translate much, as they considered their neighbours barbarians.

 After the Greeks and the Romans, it was the Arabs who promoted translation greatly. In the eighth, ninth and the tenth centuries, the Arabs translated into their language many books on Algebra, Geometry, Medicine, Music, Chemistry and Logic from Sanskrit. It was during this period that the works of Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Hippocrates and others were translated into Arabic by a group of Syrian scholars. Thus, the city of Baghdad became acknowledged as an important site of learning and translation. In due course, Arab learning declined and was succeeded by a European interest in intellectual matters. Then, Toledo in Spain acquired the place of Baghdad and there, a group of translators engaged themselves in converting Arabic manuscripts into Latin. Toledo attracted a number of scholars to work within its libraries for more than a century. Among them, there was Adelard of Bath who translated an Arabic version of Euclid’s Principles into Latin and Robert de Retines who produced the first translation of the Koran in 1141-43. By A.D. 1200, scholars began to realize the desirability of making direct translations and to this period belongs the famous translation Liber Gestorum Barlaam et Josaphat. Its original in Greek had a large circle of readers in many European languages, and Barlaam and Josaphat appealed so much to the faithful that the Latin Church was obliged to recognize these fictitious characters as saints. Their names entered into Greek writing from about 1300 A.D. and in 1584 Baronius included them in the roman martyrology thinking that they were real people. This episode has been described as “perhaps the most curious result attained by translation.”