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The first translation is traced to ancient Egypt (about 3000 B.C.) But European tradition is supposed to have started in ancient Rome.61 I.Tronsky claims that ancient Greek literature had nothing to do with translating fiction.62 Of course, this statement concerns only literary translation, since ancient Greeks had well-developed trade and cultural relations with other countries and, therefore, needed translators and interpreters.

The beginning of Roman literature is related to Livius Andronicus’ translating Odyssey from Greek into Latin. Livius was a Greek prisoner who had been captured by Romans and who did much for their culture. The father of Latin literature, Quintus Ennius, most famous for his Annales, also translated from Greek for the Latin theater.

The ancient world came to formulate the first conceptions of translation, developed as a result of the accumulation of translation experience. The primary challenge for the ancient translators and philosophers was the relationship between the source text and the target text. Two opposing schools appeared:

  1. the rhetoric school of translation (Cicero, important for his translations of Greek philosophy into Latin, and Horace, who introduced the theme of translator as rival to the author) admitted a comparatively free translation of the source text and required strictly observing the rules of the target language;

  2. the grammar school (beginning with the Bible translation from the second century) required word-for-word translation of Greek works into Latin.

Thus the Romans established the distinction between sense for sense and word for word translation.

As long as the Roman Empire existed, translation remained imperially important, with Emperor Augustus (63 BC – AD 14) setting up a translation office to assist in administering the Empire.


The Middle Ages was the period when the Christian religion became firmly established. Naturally, the main object of translation was the Bible. At first, it was translated from Hebrew and Greek to Latin mostly. Latin had status as the target language, since it was the international language in science and church.

In the Middle Ages, the Holy Writ was believed to be a sacred book “where even the word order holds a mystery”,63 not to be touched or changed. Therefore, transforming the form and content was considered to be a serious heresy, which resulted in the predominance of the literal translation of the Bible.

The greatest event in the early Middle Ages was the Bible as translated by St. Jerome (342-419/20). His Bible, known as the Vulgate, or standard Latin Bible, had great influence on succeeding generations of translators. During the Renaissance, he was regarded as the archetype of the humanist scholar, devoted to the beauty of correct form and language. Despite the fact that he had been neither a miracle worker nor a martyr to his faith, he was regarded as one of the Christian saints until the 17th century, and recently the International Federation of Translators (FIT) has proclaimed Jerome’s feast day (September 30) International Translators Day.64

Two years later, in the 4th century A.D., the Bible was translated into Gothic, a Teutonic language by Bishop Wulfila (Ulfilas).

Of great significance in the history of translation was a translation school established in the 9th century by the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great. He inspired translators, who were mostly monks, to translate five Latin works into Old English. That was the first attempt at translating, as Alfred put it, “books that all men should know into the language that we can all understand,”65 or the vernacular, mother tongue. The choice of source texts testifies to the wisdom of the king who would educate his people: books in history, geography, philosophy, theology, and ethics. The translation was mostly literal. One of the translators of those days was Aelfric (9-10th c.), who made the first Latin to English glossary, an appendix to Latin Grammar; he claimed that translated words should preserve special features of the source language.

While the scientific text translation in those times was overly faithful to the source text, translations of fiction were, on the other hand, reworkings, conscious borrowings, and free adaptations of the ancient texts to the tastes and requirements of the translator’s community. To create a new work, a translator could combine several texts, extract and shift episodes, extend description of some abstracts, omit outdated phenomena and attitudes and so on. Therefore, these works might be called expositions rather than translations.


In culture this period marks a greater role of translated secular literature. Special emphasis was placed on translating the classics (ancient Greek and Roman literature), which was the model for Renaissance ideas and culture. Thus the object of translation changed, though the Gospel translation from Greek into Latin was also carried out (Erasmus Desiderius, 15-16th c.). In the late Renaissance, close to the Enlightenment period, attempts were made to translate the Scriptures into national languages.

Still being the international means of communication among educated people, Latin was a primary target language until the 17-18th centuries. A new phenomenon at this time was that vernaculars, or mother tongues, served as source languages: F. Petrarch’s sonnets and Gargantua and Pantagruel by FRabelais were translated into Latin. F. Petrarch translated into Latin one of the novels by G. Boccaccio. German entertainment literature was translated into Latin. In the 17th century, the English philosopher Francis Bacon translated his philosophical works from English into Latin in order to immortalize them.

Latin, a much-used language of great prestige, was incomprehensible for ordinary people, few people could read it, and, being beyond the commoners, translations were accessible only to the intellectual elite. From the 16th century, humanists began to promote translation into the vernacular for an expanding readership who did not have direct access to classical sources, the tendency widely maintained throughout the Enlightenment period.

The 10th century gave the world the first manuscript Latin- English glossary by Abbot Aelfric.66 The first bilingual glossary to find its way into print was a French-English vocabulary for the use of travelers, printed in England by William Caxton in 1480. The words and expressions appeared in parallel columns on twenty-six leaves. But far more substantial in character was an English-Latin vocabulary called the Promptorius puerorum ("Storehouse [of words] for Children") completed by Pynson in 1499. It is better known under its later title of Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum ("Storehouse for Children or Clerics") commonly attributed to Geoffrey the Grammarian (Galfridus Grammaticus), a Dominican friar of Norfolk, who is thought to have composed it about 1440.67
In the Renaissance period, translators made an effort to summarize their rules and recommendations for a good translation. Such was the work by an Italian humanist, translator of Plato and Aristotle, Leonardo Bruni, De interpretatione recta (“The Right Way to Translate”). One of the first writers to formulate a theory of translation was the French humanist Etienne Dolet (1509-46), who was tried and executed for heresy after “mistranslating” one of Plato’s dialogues. In 1540 Dolet published five translation principles, “How to Translate Well from One Language into Another”:

  1. The translator must fully understand the sense and meaning of the original author, although he is at liberty to clarify obscurities.

  2. The translator should have a perfect knowledge of both source language and target language.

  3. The translator should avoid word-for-word renderings.

  4. The translator should use forms of speech in common use.

  5. The translator should choose and order words appropriately to produce the correct tone.

It is evident that Dolet’s principles stress the importance of understanding the source text as a primary requisite.68 Dolet is also known to have introduced the terms ‘traduction’ (translation) and ‘traducteur’ (translator), though the verb ‘traduire’ (to translate) was coined a little earlier by Robert Esperre (1503-59) on the basis of the Italian ‘traducere’.

While Renaissance secular literature was translated primarily from the vernacular into Latin, the Bible translation was of another direction. The cardinal principle of that time, the ideology of the Reformation, was that each person should be granted access to the text of the Bible in his or her own tongue, that is, in the vernacular. The result was the development of education and literacy. The first translation of the Bible into English was carried out in the 14th century by John Wycliffe (1330-84), the noted Oxford theologian, and his collaborators, but this work was attacked as heretical and condemned for many years to come.

One of the pivotal figures of Western civilization, as well as of Christianity, was Martin Luther, the leader of the 16th-century Reformation movement and of Protestantism. He devoted more than a quarter of a century to creating his version of the New Testament. The main principle of Luther’s translation was to grasp thoroughly the message and to render it in a “living” German language. He even advised the future translators to use a vernacular proverb or expression if it fitted in with the New Testament - in other words, to add to the wealth of imagery in the source language text by drawing on the vernacular tradition, too.69

No less important for developing the national language was the English translation of the Bible known as the King James Bible: The Authorized Version. It was published in 1611 under the auspices of James I of England. Of the 54 scholars approved by James and supervised by William Tyndale (1494-1536), 47 labored in six groups at three locations for seven years, utilizing previous English translations and texts in the original languages. Tyndale intended to offer as clear a version as possible to laymen, and by the time he was burned at the stake in 1536 he had translated the New Testament from the Greek, and parts of the Old Testament from the Hebrew. The translation had a marked influence on English style and was generally accepted as the standard English Bible for more than three centuries.70

The Renaissance period witnessed the beginning of translators’ skepticism. Dante Aleghieri is believed to be the first to doubt the absolute possibility of the accurate translation of texts. His reasoning was that it is impossible to convey all the harmony of poetry through another language. His ideas were supported by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, who believed that no matter how artful a translator could be, he would never be as skillful as the original author.

Though the concept of “untranslatability” is not shared by the majority of today’s translators, it was a progressive theory for the time. It implied a rejection of the naive idea of interlanguage identity and of identical ways to express the same thoughts in different languages.


The Enlightenment period brought new aesthetic principles to literature, the principles of classicism, which required the subordination of a work of art to particular canons - emphasis on form, simplicity, proportion, and restrained emotions – in order to meet the requirements of an “ideal” work of art. The basic goal of classical translation was to bring the target text as close as possible to the needs and ideals of culture in that period. To attain this ideal, it was justifiable to alter, correct, reduce, ornament, and make insertions into the text, often resulting in a rather loose translation.71

Thus, one of the fathers of English classicism, John Dryden (1631-1700), severely criticized the followers of literal translation, comparing the latter with rope-walkers in chains. He claimed that it is the content that should be considered sacred and inviolable, but not the form, since words and lines cannot be constrained by the source text meter.

Dryden formulated three basic types of translations:

  1. metaphase, or translating an author word by word, and line by line, from one language into another;

  2. paraphrase, or translation with latitude, the Ciceronian ‘sense-for-sense’ view of translation;

  3. imitation, where the translator can abandon the text of the original as he sees fit.

Of these types, Dryden chose the second as the more balanced path: “I have endeavoured to make Virgil speak such English as he would himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present age.”72

Another English classicist, Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who translated Homer into English, was blamed for embellishing the classical Greek epic literature to fit the tastes of aristocratic salons of the time. A. Pope rhymed the source text lines that were lacking rhyme, changed the rhythm, transformed a Greek long hexameter into a short English meter. The changes were so enormous that some critics said, ‘Pope’s poem is superb but what does it have to do with Homer?’

Thus, the basic feature of classical translation was in favor of the sense or meaning, close to free translation. Translated works were adaptations - as the British scholar of translation Myriam Salama Carr put it, they “were the distorted looking-glass through which many viewed the classics in the age of Enlightenment.”73 Nevertheless, in those days adaptation was seen as a means of adjusting the foreign work to suit contemporary tastes.

Intensive development of translation could be observed in the 17-18th century in Germany, which gave the world one of the best translation schools. One of the premier translators of the time was Johann Heinrich Voss. In particular, his translations of the Odyssey (1781) and the Iliad (1793) achieved permanent importance. The Russian man of letters N. Karamzin, comparing Voss’s translations with others, said that neither the British nor the French enriched their literature with such perfect translations from Greek as the Germans who could read real Homer. In 1775-1782 the first translation of Shakespeare’s complete works was undertaken by Johann Joahim Eshenburg, owing to whom started a process of Shakespeare’s “acquiring the status of a national German poet”.74 In the 17-18th century continental Europe, France played a leading role in politics, the sciences and the arts. French cultural predominance was reflected in the large number of translations from French. German translators frequently used intermediate French translations as source texts, even if a copy in the original language was available.75

During the 17-18th centuries, translation increased the cultural autonomy of the American colonies from England. It is interesting that the first English-language book printed in North America was a translation, The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre (1640), commonly known as The Bay Psalm Book. It was translated from Hebrew by a group of Puritan ministers in a very literal fashion.76

The 18th century gave the British nation A Dictionary of the English Language, a prescriptive work by Samuel Johnson. The first dictionary compiled in America was A School Dictionary by Samuel Johnson, Jr. (not a pen name), printed in Connecticut in 1798.77


The 19th century was the period of Romanticism, an attitude or intellectual orientation that was typical of many works of art and that can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism. With this rejection of rationalism came a stress on the individual poet’s world vision. With the affirmation of individualism came the notion of the freedom of the creative force.78 Romanticism was characterized by an obsessive interest in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins, and the medieval era; as well as a predilection for the exotic, the remote and the mysterious.79 The basic feature of romantic translation was preserving the national coloring and style of the source text.

That was not an easy job, but, as August Wilhelm Schlegel, a German critic, translator and historian of literature, put it, the aim of translation was very noble: “to combine the merits of all different nations, to think with them and feel with them, and so to create a cosmopolitan center for mankind.”80 Schlegel is believed to be one of the most eminent Shakespeare translators into German.

The great German poets of the time were interested in questions of translation. Thus, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) left us his ideas of the relation between national culture and translation:

“There are three kinds of translation. The first acquaints us with foreign countries on our own terms.” It surprises us “with foreign excellence in the midst of our national homeliness, our everyday existence.” “A second epoch follows in which the translator really only tries to appropriate foreign content and reproduce it in his own sense, even though he tries to transport himself into foreign situations.” (“Just as the French adapt foreign words to their own pronunciation, so do they treat feelings, thoughts, and even objects. For every foreign fruit they demand a counterfeit in their own soil.”) “We have lived through the third epoch, which could be called the highest and final one in which the aim is to make the original identical with the translation, so that one should be valued not instead of the other, but in the other’s stead.”81

The first tendency, mentioned by Goethe, is known today as the foreignizing strategy of translation. It often means a close adherence to the foreign text, a literalism that results in the importation of foreign culture and language, and, because of deviating from native literary canons, this translation seems obscure and unreadable to the contemporaries.

The second tendency is now called the domesticating strategy. It can be exemplified by Latin translators, who not only deleted culturally specific markers but also replaced the name of the Greek poet with their own, passing the translation off as a text originally written in Latin.82 Translators of later periods modernized texts in domesticating them.

The similar idea of the naturalizing and alienated methods of translation was also advocated by Friedrich Schleiermacher who had a great effect on further translators.

In the 19th century two conflicting tendencies can be distinguished. The first considers the translator as a creative genius in his own right, enriching the literature and language into which he is translating. The second describes translation in terms of the more mechanical function of making known a text or author.83

Toward the end of the 19th century translations began to be pragmatically valued. It was required that the translation have the same effect on the receptor as the source text had in its time and on its nation. Ulrich von Willamowitz-Moellendorff, a German philologist and translator, expressed the idea most vividly:

“It is important to spurn the letter and follow the spirit, to translate not words or sentences, but to take in thoughts and feelings and to express them. The dress must become new; what is in it must be kept. All good translation is travesty. To put it in more cutting terms: the soul remains but it changes bodies – true translation is metempsychosis.”84

The British translation tradition, however, based on the idea of adhering to the style of the original, attempted to keep all specific features of the source text (the foreignizing trend). The more peculiar the source text was, the more necessary it was to preserve this peculiarity. This resulted in the tendency towards literal, overfaithful translation. Thus, Robert Browning, a famous English poet, required the translation to be absolutely literal, with the exact translation of words and their order.85

The same attitude was expressed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-81), who tried to make Dante’s poem “as literal as a prose translation”, for “the business of a translator is to report what the author says, not to explain what he means; that is the work of a commentator. What the author says and how he says it, that is the problem of the translator.”86

Percy Bisshe Shelley developed the idea of the untranslatability of poetry, and the vanity of translation:

“it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principles of its colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed or it will bear no flower – and this is the burthen and the curse of Babel.” 87


The 20th century is called the age of translation, since it has touched all spheres of life - social, economic and cultural.

In the 19th century translation was mostly concerned with fiction, a unilateral means of communication among educated people. In the 20th century, foreign classics continue to be translated in popular series, like English Penguin Classics (1946 - ) and others.

The 19th century’s trade, on the other hand, was carried on in the language of dominating nations, and diplomatic practice was carried on at first in Latin, then in French. The 20th century has seen the translation into all, even minor, languages. In the early 1990s, the United Nations membership was at more than 175 countries, which required simultaneous translation into their respective languages.

Multinational companies have appeared all around the world, increasing the need for translation. Special translation agencies have appeared to translate contracts, instruction manuals, and technical information. This created a translation industry.

The scientific and technological revolution has emphasized the role of translation for promoting discoveries and new technologies.

In the twentieth century, English has come to occupy the place of Latin as an international language worldwide. English is used in trade, business, science, and the mass media. Therefore, the number of translations into English far outweigh those into any other language.

Due to translation, some authors are better known abroad than in their own countries. For example, T. Dreiser is much better known in Russia than at home, in the U.S. On the other hand, a foreign audience is often more familiar with the translated works of Russian dissidents than are some Russian people.

The twentieth century has witnessed an upsurge of interest in translation studies. International and national professional associations have been founded; translation periodicals (British Translation and Literature, The Translator; American Translation Review; French Traduire, Palimpseste; German Lebende Sprachen, Mitteilungsblatt fur Dolmetscher und Ubersetzer, Der Ubersetzer, Translation Theorie) have been published.

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