The History and Origins of Translation – Part 1

“Translation” comes from a Latin phrase which literally means, “to bring or carry across”, and since the beginning of time humans have needed to be able to translate – whether that was actions and gestures needed for survival, or moving right up to the modern form of language translation we know today. Some of the earliest forms of written languages that are commonly known are Egyptian hieroglyphs, which were the formal writing system used in Ancient Egypt. These combined logographic – a written character that represents a word or a phrase, not dissimilar to Chinese characters, syllabic – a written character representing a syllable, and alphabetic elements with a total of around 1000 unique characters. Hieroglyphic writing matured during Ancient Egypt and was prevalent right through into the Persian and Ptolemaic periods and evidence has even been found in the Roman period extending into the 4th century AD. An example of some Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into stone can be seen below:

Due to the destruction and closure of pagan temples in the 5th century, much of the knowledge of hieroglyphs was lost and the script remained un-deciphered through the middle ages and the early modern period. It would only be in the early 19th century that Jean-Francois Champollion – a French scholar – with the aid of the Rosetta Stone, that the ancient hieroglyphic writing would be successfully translated. The Rosetta Stone was inscribed with three version of a decree on behalf of King Ptolemy V, the top text written using hieroglyphics, followed by the middle text in demotic script and finally, the bottom text in Ancient Greek. This is how the stone became the key to translating the Egyptian hieroglyphs and unlocked the Ancient Egyptian history that is so widely studied to this day, thus making the Rosetta Stone perhaps one of the most famous artefacts in the history of translation.

Religion’s Importance on the History of Translation

Religion has been a driving force for the need for translation throughout history, as religions have developed the desire to spread the word and encourage faith, scripture has been needed to be available in multiple languages. One of the earliest recorded translations in the Western world was the translation of the Old Testament into Greek. Seventy scholars carried out this task and this specific translation became the template for translations of the Old Testament into many other languages. Translations of the Bible were not too common, with a Latin Bible produced by the patron saint of translation – Saint Jerome, becoming the chosen text for the Roman Catholic Church for years to follow. Translations of the Bible appeared again when the Protestant Reformation oversaw translations into local European languages, which led to Christianity’s split into Protestantism and Roman Catholicism due to differences and irregularities of integral passages and words between different versions. The importance of Religion within translation development is clearly evident by the aforementioned Saint Jerome, who the church named as the patron saint of translation.

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