A journey through the history of the translation profession

Published on 11/04/2022

The translation practice goes back to the very origin of human language. In a broader sense, almost everything in this world is a translation of something; as Derrida, the famous French philosopher, says, even the real work of a writer is a translation of his own thoughts. 

Translation is inseparable from people's lives. With this in mind, let's take a closer look at how this fascinating profession originated and how it has evolved over time. In this article aims to highlight both the translation and the translator’s history and how it evolved into what it is today.

Índice de contenidos

Index of contents

Index du contenu


  1. Etymology
  2. Since ancient times
  3. Towards modernity


The word “translation derived from the Latin word traductĭo, -ōniswhich means to carry or bring. This original Latin term defines the main meaning of translation as transferring a text from one language to another. This practice of passing on meaning of a source text has come a long way from antiquity to modernity, while opening up new debates on multiple topics, ranging from language, culture, translation theories, translation as a discipline, etc.

Since ancient times

The translation of the Bible entitled “Septuagint” in the 3rd century B.C. is considered the oldest known work of translation. The Jews who had forgotten their ancestral language, Hebrew, sought a group of seventy translators to translate the Bible from Hebrew into Greek. The name “Septuagint” stands for the seventy scholars who were assigned to translate the Bible in Alexandria, Egypt. In contrast to this, some historical accounts recognise a translation entitled “Rosetta Stone” as the world's first translation in the 2nd century BC.

Translation history can be studied under two main themes, namely Western and Eastern translations. The history of Western translation can be examined in four main periods. This classification, which was made by the Western scholar George Steiner, is the following:

  • First period: Roman translators (Cicero and Horace to Alexander Fraser).
  • Second period: from Alexander Fraser to Valery.
  • Third period: from Valery to the 1960s.
  • Fourth period: from the 1960s to the present.

Translations from these periods greatly influenced the development of European languages. Translation work exposed people to diverse cultures and identities while bridging the cultural gap between nations through literature. The Bible translation into Latin, the translation of the Sumerian poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh” into various Asian languages, etc. are considered to be some of the ancient translations that laid the foundation for Western and Eastern scholars to invent new theories and ideologies. The translation of Buddhist literary works contributed greatly to the promotion of Asian cultures and the development of Asian languages to what they are today. Almost all languages began to create richness of new words that eventually helped to nurture the linguistic variety of each language. 

Translation in China was mainly to translate the Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures into Chinese with the arrival of Buddhism in China from India. It was in the 5th century BC that China established a more organised way of translating Buddhist scriptures by founding a translation school. This milestone in translation is one of the first examples of a professional approach to translation. While the creation of translation work, the debates which invited to reflect on word-for- translation versus sense-for-sense translation and gave a whole new dimension to translation and the role of the translator. St. Jerome, the patron saint of translation appointed by the Roman Catholic Church to translate the Bible into Latin, was convinced that translators should adopt a sense-for-sense translation rather than a word-for-word translation (“non verbum e verbo, sed sensum exprimere de sensu”). 

He is recognized as the first person to have coined the term sense for sense in his “letter to Pammachius”. Similarly, Kumarajiva, an Indian Buddhist monk, also advocated that translators should adopt a free translation approach when translating sutras. This monk is said to have made this observation while examining the accuracy and readability of translated sutras using a literal translation approach. It is at this very point that Kumarajiva introduced the practice whereby the translator has to sign his name under the text he has translated, thus validating his work.

Towards modernity

Over time, the translation profession has come a long way and all its development has given rise to a platform for an emerging discipline. The need for a separate discipline called translation was fundamental as the discussion between linguistic and literary approaches to translation raged around the world. The discussion that took place at the Fourth Slavonic Congress in Moscow was historic, since it proposed the need for a separate science that could study all forms of translation. The development of translation as a discipline broadened the scope by introducing new theories and practices in translation. Before the 1990s, translation scholars followed many schools of thought, such as prescriptive paradigms, descriptive translation studies, skopos theory, etc. However, the cultural turning point took place in the 1990s opened up a multidisciplinary approach to translation studies by connecting it with other fields such as history, gender studies, feminism, cultural studies, postmodernism, etc. 

Translation theorists such as Sussan Bassnett, André Lefevere and, later, Lawrence Venuti were pioneers in establishing the cultural turn in translation studies. The translation theories that existed before this change did not shed light on the socio-cultural background under which the translation process occurred. 

It is during this time that this emerging discipline took a step forward by introducing a number of fields of translation studies. The fields that form part of translation studies can be identified as post-colonial translation studies, gender studies, sociologies of translation, audiovisual translation, interpreting, etc. Taken together, these theories and new approaches have brought about a fundamental change in translation studies with a holistic view towards the appreciating different languages and cultures. Beyond the cultural approach and paradigm shifts, the translation profession has gone through different phases over time. Machine translation can be identified as one of the latest technological developments in this field, with probably both good and bad consequences for the translator’s future. This translation branch is still incipient, as academics are still in the process of investigating the possibility of achieving high quality machine translation.

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Virginia Pacheco's picture
Virginia Pacheco

Blog writer and Community Manager interested in multiculturality and linguistic diversity. From her native Venuzuela, she has travelled and lived for many years in France, Germany, Cameroon and Spain, passing on her passion for writing and her intercultural experiences.

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