The need for translation has existed since time immemorial

In our days, translation is part of daily life; it is an activity carried out in many areas of each person’s life, at school, at work, in the streets, listening to the radio, or watching television. We translate naturally without being fully aware of it or we translate for work and, therefore, professionally. However, we do not stop to think about the origins and nature of translation.

The destruction of Babel, which symbolises the loss of the utopia of a single language, leads to the celebration of differences: faced with numerous and diverse languages, a concrete obstacle to mutual understanding, escape into myth, the frantic search for an elusive common language or for the perfect translation does not make sense; what is needed is the concrete, toilsome, but also “pleasant” task of translating.

In ancient days, the term to interpret [from the Latin interprĕtor, āris “to translate from one language into another”] included the operation carried out both on the spoken and written language. When the use of Latin ended, the oral activity, to interpret, was separated from the written one, to translate.

If we look at the etymology and history of the word translate, we can easily see that translation is one of the world’s oldest crafts.

The terms used in various languages to indicate “trans-late” (literally “to transport” and, by extension: “to transfer a text from one language into another”), to trans–late (“to translate; to convert; to transfer), traduire [(in ancient days trans–later) “to translate; to lead”) ], über–setzen (“to translate; to turn; to transpose”), pere– vodit’ (“to lead; to transfer; to translate), refer back to the Latin trā–dūco, ĕre “to transport beyond; to transfer; to lead beyond; to make known; to translate” (composite of trans, “beyond” and ducere, “to carry”).

A very important chapter in the history of Western translation is the translation of the Bible. The contribution of Saint Jerome (4th century B.C.) was fundamental; on the subject of translation, he wrote “De optimo genere interpretandi” [“On the best kind of translation”], a letter in defence of his method addressed to those who accused him of falsifying and modifying the original texts.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger analysed the meaning of the word Über–setzung/Übersetzung and said that “a translation is faithful only if the words speak the language of the matter in question”; therefore, the task that a correct translation must perform is the “ability to translate itself while translating” an ability not just to transport, but also to let oneself be transported in the relation with the text. Translation is a movement between two languages, which must be mutual, “a going beyond and coming back from one language to another” and, therefore, it is never a one-way process.

A progressively deep theoretical examination can be seen to have evolved from the origins of thoughts on translation to our days: there has been a shift from an empirical approach to a methodological – philological – philosophical one.

Some concepts, such as text integrity, mother tongue, literary property, fidelity, and lack of fidelity remain the fundamental pillars of a correct and effective translation, even though the way they are understood and faced has changed depending on the times and historical-cultural context.

The life-giving vis [energy] of the language, its creative and poetic strength, whose sparks or light flashes we are able to glean whenever we give meaning, transforms the disaster of Babel into a rain of stars upon mankind (George Steiner)

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