Literary translation: an age-old profession

Published on 26/06/2023

From ancient times to the present day, the literary translation profession has played a fundamental role in the transfer of knowledge from one language to another. In this article, we will analyse the historical importance of this profession for the development and understanding of the world, as well as the implications for translation agencies.

What is literary translation?

Literary translation is the art of adapting a literary text from one language to another, preserving the formal and intentional characteristics of the original. Since the dawn of time, humankind has felt the need to communicate with other human beings, seeking various means to do so. One of the oldest and most universal methods is language. Language, however, has its limitations: it is an arbitrary code that can only be understood by those who have learned it, which is precisely why the need to translate literary texts arose. This task requires vast talent and language proficiency, as well as a great deal of creativity in order to maintain the spirit of the original text whether it is translated into English, Spanish, German, Italian or Portuguese.

The history of literary translation

Although the concept of a translation company is relatively recent, literary translation is a practice that dates back to ancient times. While the term "translation" did not come into use until the 15th century, the concept of transferring a text from one language to another already existed. The earliest examples of literary translation date back to the 3rd century BC, with the Greek version of the epic Babylonian poems of Genesis. Throughout history, there have been several reasons behind the need for literary translation. In some cases, the works were simply unknown in the reader's language, as was the case with Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, which was not translated into English until 1867. In other cases, readers sought out works that were banned in their own country, as was the case with the clandestine manuscripts of Don Quixote during the Spanish Inquisition. With the advent of the printing press and improvements in language and technology, literary translation became more common, laying the foundations for translation agencies as we know them. This allowed people from different cultures to access works written in a foreign language. In the 19th century, literary translation became more popular than ever, with the classics of European literature being translated into English. This marked the beginning of a new era in which readers had access to a great number of classic and modern works that were previously unavailable to them. Literary translation has also played an important role in the development of several languages. By facilitating exchange between cultures and languages, it has allowed foreign words and phrases to be easily incorporated into local vocabulary.

Literary translation as a profession

Literary translation is an age-old practice that dates back to the 1st century AD. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, literary translation is the process of "adapting a literary text for publication in another language". This definition is rather broad, but it is useful to understand the work of a literary translator. In general, a literary translator is someone who takes a text written in one language and adapts it so that it can be read easily in another language. This may include changes to the vocabulary, syntax and structure of the original text, as well as requiring the translator to explain certain cultural aspects of the original text. Sometimes, the translator may also take creative liberties with the text to suit the expectations of the new audience.

Literary translation in the 20th century

In the 20th century, literary translation became a more formal profession, leading to the establishment of schools and programmes to train translators. However, there is still much debate among translators about how translations should be done. Should a translator try to imitate the style of the original author? Or is it better to focus on producing a good literal translation of the text? Today, with so many books available in so many different languages, the work of literary translators is more important than ever. Translators and interpreters are the bridges that allow knowledge and understanding to flow freely between different cultures.

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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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