What is translation? In its simple form, it means to turn symbols from one set to another, such as words from a body of text in one language to that of another. Translation and its emergence have played a very important role throughout history in bridging cultural and linguistic divides that have evolved through trade as well as a means of spreading traditions and religious beliefs.
Where and how did translation evolve? How has translation changed today and how will it be used in the future?
Sumerian bilingual text – Photo from Wikimedia – Caption – “This is the first known Sumerian-Akkadian bilingual tablet which dates back to around 2270 BC. The practice of translation is believed to have begun in Mesopotamia.”
Scholars believe that writing began to emerge in humans some 5,550 years ago. First with early pictorial signs in early Mesopotamian and Egypt, then we have evidence of fully-formed writing platforms as early as 1300 BC in China. With the development of written communication, translation became a necessary means of communication for the growth of populations and trade. While translation started within trade as a business translation for financial means, translation eventually found its way into culture, art, and religion as it proved to be an effective means of spreading your beliefs, values, and traditions to other people.
The word “translation” and its meaning, comes from two different languages. The word itself comes from Latin and means “to bring or carry across” but its meaning is also derived from the Ancient Greek word metaphrasis which means “to speak across” which then led to the word metaphrase which means “word for word”. While the meaning of translation comes from these ancient languages it is believed that the those in the Mesopotamian region were the first to practice the art of translation.
One of the earliest known pieces to be translated is the Sumerian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was translated into Asian languages in 2100 BC. From there, one of the first known significant translations is that of the Old Testament in the 3rd century as the bible was translated from Hebrew to Greek. Between A.D. 383 and 404, a man named Eusebius Hieronymus, or St. Jerome as he would become known, translated the bible from Greek to Latin. What made St. Jerome’s translation so innovative is that he first translated the text from Greek but he then went back and checked his newly translated Latin text against the original Hebrew version as well (since he was fluent in all three languages) to increase the translation accuracy. St. Jerome also endorsed the transcreation method in translation, rather than the traditional word-for-word translation. In a letter St. Jerome wrote to his friend on the best methods of translation, he said,
“For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek I render sense for sense and not word for word, except in the case of the Holy Scriptures, where even the order of the words is a mystery.”
With his masterful translation of the bible and the concepts that he created, St. Jerome became one of the most prominent translators in history. St. Jerome died on September 30th 420 and since then St. Jerome has become the patron saint of translators. September 30th is also officially recognised as International Translation Day.
The evolution of translation
The earliest days of translation required the work of educated individuals who were polyglots or at least bilinguals, who would painstakingly translate passages of text by hand. This type of work would take translators months and sometimes even years to complete. The advent of the printing press made things somewhat easier as the translations became more consistent.
With the printing press, documents only needed to be translated once before being typeset and then run over and over again. While this method was more efficient in terms of producing copies, if there were any errors in the translation they too, were also reproduced, and there wasn’t a quick method to fix this. As a result, any translations with errors that were used as a foundational pieces of translation into other languages, meant that further errors followed and compounded into the next translation.
It wasn’t until the late 20th century with the emergence of machine translation and machine translation post editing that made the translation process more consistent.
With the emergence of machine translation and platforms like Google translate, anyone can get a quick and immediate translation of nearly any text. However, just like in the early days of translation machine translation alone is prone to a lot of translation errors, especially since machines can’t translate the cultural concepts, idioms, etc. that make human language so robust. Machine translations are decent at finding concordances at the sentence level but fall flat when making suggestions at a morphological level. This is why international translation companies now make the use of both machine and human translations in a process called machine translation post editing.
Even with current technology, machine translation just doesn’t compare to human translation which is what makes machine translation post editing the most effective means of translation. Translators use a machine to translation the text first, a process that helps expedite the translation process, and then once the content has gone through a machine the translator will then go through it and edit and compare it to the original text. This results in an accurate, reliable, fast, quality translation for the client or business.
Related: How to be a translator in 2022
In terms of translation management, translators today don’t need to be polyglots anymore but most translation companies hiring want translators who are experts in language pair translation, meaning a translator needs complete mastery of two languages, as well as subject-specific expertise (ie. English-Chinese legal translation). Language pair translations ensure that you’re getting the most accurate and quality translation.
Future of translation
While machines have made things easier in the translation industry, and I’m sure even St. Jerome would be impressed with the progress that has been made, as of yet, machine translation cannot operate alone and still requires the handy work of a professional translator. Using a professional translator is especially important in business as businesses today are not afforded the same luxuries of making translation errors as the early pioneers were. Companies today now use business translation services to ensure that they’re getting the best quality translation possible to represent and expand their brand. These companies use machine translation post editing with qualified translation professionals to bring about these consistent results.
That is not to say that the concept of machine-alone translation isn’t being worked on, however. The Semantic Web or Web 3.0 is an extension of our current internet that is being worked on that aims to create instant translations of any language online, which would include any semantic or cultural content, and make the searches and the retrieval of this information universal. Web 3.0 aims to analyze every piece of data that is available on the internet and have it make sense in every language. This would create interactive pages that are no longer just translations of text but would include audio/voice and all other forms of media. While the Semantic Web sounds impressive, the fact that there are over 6,800 languages worldwide and that we are still confined to our current means of machine translation, means that this idea is a very long way from becoming reality.
In the meantime, quality translations are best left to the professionals at international translation companies like Into23. Into23 offers localization and translation services in any language with professional translators from all over the globe. Into23 can help your brand or business reach new markets in other languages and offer translations solutions for every industry. Check out our services today and get a free quote.