Translators in history

Early translators

Translators in history - Ebla tablet
Ebla tablet

The earliest evidence of translators in history dates back to about 2500 BC in the form of clay tablets with bilingual vocabularies in Sumerian and Eblaite (Eblaite or Eblan is an extinct Semitic language named after the ancient city of Ebla in Syria, where the tablets were found). Perhaps the best known example of these multilingual inscriptions is the Rosetta Stone, which bears a decree issued in 196 BC in three scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic (Egyptian) script and Ancient Greek. The hieroglyphs were deciphered by Jean-François Champollion in 1822, leading to our current understanding of ancient Egyptian culture.

The earliest translator in the Western world whose name we know is probably Lucius Livius Andronicus (c. 284 – 205 BC). He was a poet and dramatist who translated Greek works (including Homer’s Odyssey) into Latin, and is regarded as the originator of Latin literature. However, most educated Romans were fluent in Greek, so that the need for written translations into Latin was relatively small. The most important Roman translator from Greek to Latin was Cicero (D.P Lockwood, 1918), whose translations were aimed more at demonstrating his expertise than making Greek literature available to the Roman public. Cicero made one of the earliest references to ‘free’ or ‘sense-for-sense’ translation (in contrast to word-for-word or literal translation) when he said “I did not think I ought to count them out to the reader like coins, but to pay them by weight, as it were.”

Translators in history – the Bible

Translators in history - St. Jerome
Saint Jerome

Many early translations were religious in nature. One of the best known is the Septuagint (from the Latin septuaginta for seventy). It is a translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek, and is often referred to as the Greek Old Testament. The name comes from the seventy two Jewish scholars who translated the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses or Torah) in the third century BC. Legend has it that six Jewish scholars from each of the twelve tribes of Israel were commissioned by Ptolemy II, the Greek King of Egypt (285-247 BCE) to translate the Pentateuch in Alexandria. One account describes how the translators were assigned to separate quarters and not allowed to communicate with one another. Despite this, they produced identical versions, evidence that they were divinely inspired. The remaining books of the Septuagint were translated over the next two or three centuries.

Saint Jerome (347-420) translated portions of the Septuagint from Greek into Latin, and the whole of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) from Hebrew into Latin. He also produced the standard Latin Bible, or Vulgate, but this was criticised strongly by St. Augustine, partly because the parishioners were dismayed by the new and unfamiliar text. Jerome led a rather dissolute life as a student in Rome before becoming an ascetic monk and moving to the desert of Chalcis in present-day Syria. There are many paintings of Jerome with a lion; it was said that he had tamed a lion in the wilderness by removing a thorn from its paw. He is now regarded as the patron saint of translators.

Translators in history - Armenian alphabet
Armenian alphabet

Although St. Jerome is the best known translator of the Bible from this period, he was not the only one. Bishop Ulfila (ca. 311-382) was probably born in what is now Romania, and translated the Bible from Greek into Gothic. Since Gothic was spoken but not written at that time, he had to develop an alphabet for the purpose. Another contemporary of St. Jerome was Saint Mesrop Mashtots (c. 361-440), an Armenian born in present-day Turkey. He also needed to invent his own alphabet in order to translate the Bible into Armenian. He and his colleagues then translated from Greek and Syriac sources; Mesrop Mashtots translated the New Testament and the book of Proverbs himself.  The creation of the Armenian alphabet was also an essential step in the development of Armenian literature.

Translators in history – translations of the Bible into English

There are several translations of parts of the Bible into Old English. These include some by the Venerable Bede and Aldhelm in the 7th century, the Wessex Gospels  in about 990, and the first six books of the Old Testament (Hexateuch), translated under the guidance of Abbott Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955 – c. 1010).

John Wycliffe (1320-1384) translated the Vulgate (Latin Bible) into Middle English in 1382. He was a scholar and theologian, and a dissident Roman Catholic in the 14th century. Like Martin Luther, he supported the idea of translating the Bible into the vernacular, and his rather literal translation was distributed widely in England in the 15th century. He was officially condemned by Pope Gregory XI in 1377, but continued to write attacks on the papacy and its hierarchy until he suffered a stroke while saying Mass. He was excommunicated retroactively by the Council of Constance in 1415, and his corpse was later exhumed and burned on the order of Pope Martin V.

William Tyndale (1494-1536) was the first person to translate the Bible into English from Greek and Hebrew sources and was influenced by Erasmus and by Martin Luther, who also believed that translation from Greek and Hebrew texts was important. Tyndale played a significant role in the Protestant Reformation, and his translation was seen as a challenge to the Roman Catholic Church. In  1536 he was convicted of heresy, executed and burnt at the stake. However, two years later King Henry VIII authorised the Tyndale Bible, which continued to support the Reformation in the English-speaking world and provided a solid basis for the King James Bible.

Translators in history – translations of the Bible into German

Martin Luther (1483-1546) is by far the best-known translator of the Bible into German, but by no means the only one. The New Testament was translated from the Latin Vulgate into Old High German at the Monastery of Fulda in about 820, and Notker the German translated parts of the Bible at the Monastery of St. Gallen (in present-day Switzerland) in about 1000. By the end of the fourteenth century, there were complete German translations of the New Testament (Augsburg Bible, 1350) and the Old Testament (Wenzel Bible, 1389-1400). There were also several early High German translations of the Bible before Luther, but he was the first to translate directly from the Greek and Hebrew sources, and he made a significant contribution to the development of High German as a unified national language. Luther consulted experts in Greek, Hebrew and Latin for his translation of the Bible. He believed that biblical translators should be educated in philosophy and theology, but he also made a great effort to address his translation to the lay public – partly by using verbal expressions instead of noun phrases. Verbal expression (used more commonly today in English than in German) tends to sound more lively and direct than noun phrases.

Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) was a contemporary of Martin Luther and a leading figure of the Swiss Reformation. He established a Latin school in Zurich, where he taught with his friend Leo Jud. With the participation of all Zurich’s clerics and the use of those parts of Luther’s Bible that were already available, they produced the Froschauer Bible, which was published in 1531 – about three years before Luther’s Bible.

Famous English translators in history

Several of the earliest translators into English were famous for accomplishments other than translation. These include King Alfred, Geoffrey Chaucer and William Caxton.

King Alfred (849-899) was a wise administrator and a successful military leader, but he also promoted education and literacy, and learned Latin when he was nearly 40. He commissioned the translation of a number of texts he considered important and edifying from Latin into Old English, and translated four himself (Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, St. Augustine’s Soliloquies, and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter).

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 – 1400) can be regarded as the father of English literature and was known not only as an author but also as a philosopher and  astronomer, as well as for his work in what we would now call the diplomatic service. He spoke French and Italian and knew Latin. His best known work is the ‘Canterbury Tales‘, but he was also a great poet and a translator. He translated Le Roman de La Rose from French into (Middle) English, and translated works of Virgil and Ovid from Latin, as well as Boccaccio from Italian.

Translators in history - Caxton's printer's mark
Caxton’s printer’s mark

William Caxton (c. 1415 – c. March 1491) is best known today as the printer of the first book printed in English (the History of Troy), and was listed as one of the 100 Greatest Britons in a poll conducted by the BBC. Before Caxton set up his printing press in Westminster, he worked as a merchant in Bruges, where he would probably have spoken French. In or about 1469 he decided to learn how to print, and started to translate the History of Troy from French into English.  He was therefore not only the printer of the first book printed in English, but also its translator. He published nearly a hundred books before he died, and translated about twenty-five of them himself.

Famous German translators in history

German translators and linguists who were better known for their accomplishments in other areas include Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Translators in history - Goethe 150x184
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is well known as a writer, statesman and scientist. He was born in Frankfurt and learnt Latin, Greek, French, Italian, English and Hebrew as a child. He studied law in Leipzig and Strasbourg, where he met and befriended Johann Gottfried Herder, who kindled Goethe’s interest in Shakespeare. In 1774 Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, which made him an instant literary celebrity and resulted in his recruitment to the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Goethe was interested in anatomy, geology, botany, meteorology, colour vision, religion, philosophy, politics and linguistics. But he was also a prolific translator, mainly from French, English and Greek, including works by Voltaire, Shakespeare and Homer (see ‘Liste der Übersetzungen von Goethe’ for details.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was a Prussian philosopher, diplomat, educational reformer and linguist. He also had strong intellectual and personal ties with Goethe and Schiller. Together with Friedrich Schleiermacher, he founded the University of Berlin in 1810 (now Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), based on the concept of a holistic combination of research and teaching. He also served the Prussian government as a diplomat in Rome and Vienna. But perhaps his most influential work was in linguistics. He studied several languages, including Greek, Sanskrit, Aztec and Kawi, and wrote pioneering investigations of the Basque language. He initiated the field of comparative linguistics, and developed the concept that language functioned not only to communicate ideas and information, but also as a ‘formative organ of thought’. This concept later evolved into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the idea of linguistic relativity. Wilhelm von Humboldt translated Pindar’s Olympic Odes and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and in the introduction to the latter translation he formulated a new approach to the problem of translation that was only taken up later by modern theorists.

See also: “Translators through History“.