The history of translation History of Translation translation jobs
Home More Articles Join as a Member! Post Your Job - Free! All Translation Agencies

The history of translation

Become a member of at just 8 EUR/month (paid per year)

Marouane Zakhir photoWhen we talk about the history of translation, we should think of the theories and figures that have emerged in its different periods. In fact, each era is characterized by specific changes in translation theory. These changes differ from one place to another. For example, the development of translation in the Western world is not the same as in the Arab world, for each nation knew particular incidents that led to the birth of new theories. In the present paper, we will study the main changes that marked translation history in both the West and the Arab world.

a.    Translation in the western world

For centuries, people believed in the relation between translation and the story of the tower of Babel in the Book of Genesis. According to the Bible, the descendants of Noah decided, after the great flood, to settle down in a plain in the land of Shinar . There, they committed a great sin. Instead of setting up a society that fits God’s will, they decided to challenge Him and build a tower that could reach Heaven. However, this plan was not completed, as God, recognizing their wish, regained control over them through a linguistic stratagem. He caused them to speak different languages so as not to understand each other. Then, he scattered them in the earth. After that incident, the number of languages increased through diversion, and people started to look for ways to communicate, hence the birth of translation (Abdessalam Benabdelali, 2006) (1).

With the birth of translation studies and the increase of research in the domain, people started to get away from this story of Babel and look for specific dates and figures that mark the periods of translation history. Researchers mention that writings on translation go back to the Romans. Eric Jacobson states that translation is a Roman invention (see McGuire: 1980) (2). He points out that Cicero and Horace (first century BC) were the first theorists who distinguished between word-for-word translation and sense-for-sense translation.

Another period which marked a turning point in translation development was related to St Jerome (fourth century CE). "His approach to translating the Greek Septuagint Bible into Latin would affect later translations of the scriptures." (Munday, 2001) (3). Later on, the translation of the Bible remained subject to much debate among Western theorists of translation for more than a thousand years.

Conflicts on Bible translation were intensified with the coming of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when "translation came to be used as a weapon in both dogmatic and political conflicts as nation states began to emerge and the centralization of the Church started to weaken evidence in linguistic terms by the decline of Latin as a universal language." (McGuire, 1980) (4)

The invention of the printing machine in the fifteenth century played an important role in the development of the field of translation. It led to the birth of early theorists of translation such as Etienne Dolet (1915-46), whose heretic mistranslation of one of Plato’s dialogues, the phrase "rien du tout" (nothing at all) which showed his disbelief in immortality, led to his execution.

The seventeenth century knew the birth of many influential theorists such as Sir John Denhom (1615-69), Abraham Cowley (1618-67), John Dryden (1631-1700), who was famous for his distinction between three types of translation; metaphrase, paraphrase and imitation, and Alexander Pope (1688-1744).

In the eighteenth century, the translator was compared to an artist with a moral duty to the work of the original author and to the receiver. Moreover, with the enhancement of new theories and volumes on translation process, the study of translation started to be more systematic. Alexander Frayer Tayler’s volume of Principles of Translation (1791) is one of the most influential studies published at the time.

The nineteenth century was characterized by two conflicting tendencies; the first considered translation as a category of thought and saw the translator as a creative genius, who enriches the literature and language into which he is translating, while the second saw him through the mechanical function of making a text or an author known (McGuire) (5).

This period of the nineteenth century knew also the enhancement of Romanticism, which led to the birth of many theories and translations in the domain of literature, particularly poetry. An example of these translations is the one used by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1863) for Rubaiyat Omar Al-Khayyam (1858).

In the second half of the twentieth century, studies on translation became an important course in language teaching and learning at schools. What added to its value was the creation of a variety of methods and models of translation. For instance, the grammar-translation method studies the grammatical rules and structures of foreign languages. The cultural model represents another witness for the development of translation studies in the period. It requires in translation not only a word-for-word substitution, but also a cultural understanding of the way people in different societies think (Mehrach, 1977) (6). In this model, we can distinguish between the ethnographical-semantic method and the dynamic equivalent method.

Another model that appeared in the period is text-based translation model, which focuses on texts rather than words or sentences in translation. This model includes a variety of sub-models: the interpretative model, the text linguistic model and models of translation quality assessments which in turn provide us with many models such as those of Riess, Wilss, Koller, House, North and Hulst.

The period is also characterized by pragmatic and systematic approach to the study of translation. The most famous figures that marked the twenties are Jean-Paul Vinay and Darbelnet (1958), Alfred Malblanc (1963), George Mounin (1963), John C. Catford. (1965) and Eugene Nida (1964).

Nowadays, translation research started to take another path, which is more automatic. The invention of the Internet, together with the new technological development in communication and digital materials, has increased cultural exchanges between nations. This led translators to look for ways to cope with these changes and to utilize practical techniques that enable them to translate more and waste less. They also felt the need to enter the world of cinematographic translation, hence the birth of audiovisual translation. The latter technique, also called screen translation, is concerned with the translation of all kinds of TV programs, including films, series, and documentaries. This field is based on computers and translation software programs, and it is composed of two methods: dubbing and subtitling. In fact, audiovisual translation marks a turning point in the field of translation.

In short, translation has a very rich history in the West. Since its birth, translation was the subject of much controversy among theorists. Each theorist approaches it from his own ideology and field of study, the fact which gives its history a changing quality.

b.    Translation in the Arab world

The early translations used in Arabic date back to the time of Syrians (the first half of the second century AD), who translated into Arabic a large heritage which belongs to the era of paganism (Bloomshark 1921: 10-12, qtd by Addidaoui, 2000) (7). Syrians were influenced in their translations by the Greek methods. Their translations were more literal and faithful to the original (Ayad 1993: 168, qtd by Addidaoui, 2000) (8). According to Addidaoui, Jarjas was one of the best Syrian translators; his famous translation of Aristotle’s book In The World was very faithful and close to the original.

Additionally, the time of the prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) is significant in translation history. The spread of Islam and the communication with non-Arabic speaking communities as Jews, Romans and others pushed the prophet to look for translators and to encourage the learning of foreign languages. One of the most famous translators of the time is Zaid Ibnu Thabet, who played a crucial role in translating letters sent by the prophet to foreign kings of Persia , Syria , Rome and Jews, and also letters sent by those kings to the prophet.

Another era that knew considerable changes in Arabic translation was related to the translation of the Holy Koran. According to Ben Chakroun (2002) (9), the early translators of the Koran focused on its meaning. Salman El Farisi, for instance, translated the meaning of Surat Al Fatiha for Persian Muslims, who didn’t speak Arabic. Ben Chakroun (2002) (10) states that Western libraries still preserve many translations of the Koran, and that some of them such as the Greek translation of the philosopher Naktis belong to the third century (BC). Besides, the Holy Koran received a special interest from the translators. It was translated into Persian by Sheikh Mohamed Al-Hafid Al-Boukhari and into Turkish language by Sheikh Al-Fadl Mohamed Ben Idriss Al-Badlissi.

Despite the improvement of the Koran translation, this matter was and is still the topic of much debate and controversy in the Arab world. An example of this controversy occurs after the translation of the Koran into Turkish language by the Turkish government in the time of Mustapha Kamal Ataturk. The latter aimed to use the translation instead of the original book as a way to spread secularism in the Islamic country. This led to a wave of criticism from Arab intellectuals, journalists and muftis.

Besides, the main problem with the translation of the Koran was related to the reason behind translation itself, i.e., whether to use the translation as a way to teach the principles of Islam or to use it in praying and legislation was a difficult choice which faced translators. In general, translation of the Koran knew various changes, the fact which led to the creation of special committees that took the responsibility of translating it in a way that preserves it from falsification.

Another era which witnessed radical changes in the Arab translation is that of ’the first Abbasid period’ (750-1250). Translation knew an enhancement with the Caliph Al-Mansour, who built the city of Baghdad , and was also developed in the time of the Caliph Al-Ma’moun, who built ’Bait Al Hikma’, the greatest institute of translation at the time. During this period, translators focused on Greek philosophy, Indian science and Persian literature (Al-Kasimi, 2006) (11).

The Arab history of translation was also characterized by the name of Al-Jahid (868-577), one of the greatest theorists in translation. His theories and writings about translation are still being used today by many professional Arab translators. According to Al-Jahid (1969), " the translator should know the structure of the speech, habits of the people and their ways of understanding each other." (12)

In addition to his insistence on the knowledge of the structure of the language and the culture of its people, Al-Jahid talked too much about the importance of revision after translation. In brief, Al-Jahid put a wide range of theories in his two books Al-Hayawān (1969) and Al-Bayān Wa Attabayyun (1968).

Further, the Egyptian scholar Mona Baker (1997) (13) distinguished between two famous methods in Arab translation; the first belongs to Yohana Ibn Al- Batriq and Ibn Naima Al-Himsi, and is based on literal translation, that is, each Greek word is translated by its equivalent Arabic word, while the second refers to Hunayn Ibn Ishaq Al-Jawahiri and is based on sense-for-sense translation as a way to create fluent target texts that preserve the meaning of the original.

Nowadays, Arab translations know many changes. The increase of studies in the domain helps in the development of translation and the birth of new theorists. Translation in the Arab world also benefits from the use of computers, digital materials and the spread of databases of terminologies that supply translators with a considerable number of dictionaries. This has led to the creation of many associations of translation like ’the committee of Arab translators’ in Saudi-Arabia and Attaj in Morocco . Yet, comparing the number of translated books by Arab translators with those of Westerners, one may say that the difference is very significant, as the translations used by Arabs since the time of Al-Ma’moun up to now do not exceed ten thousand books, which is less than what Spain translates in one year (Ali Al-Kasimi, 2006) (14).

In short, the history of translation in the Arab world is characterized by many changes and events. Since its early beginnings with Syrians, translation knew the birth of many theorists who set up the basis of Arabic translation and theories. In fact, it is in religious discourse where Arabic translation reaches its peak, for the translation of the Koran received much interest from Arab translators. Today, translation in the Arab world knows a sort of progression, especially with its openness to Western theories and methods, but it is still suffering from the shortage of financial resources and materials.

To sum up, translation history is rich in events. Each era is characterized by the birth of new theorists and methods of translation. It is true that the Western history of translation is richer than that of Arabs, but no one can deny that translation in the Arab countries is improving day by day, especially with the great efforts of Arabs academia in the domain.


1-Abdessalam Benabdelali, (2006). Fi Attarjama [In translation], (first edition). Casablanca : Dar Toubkal, p. 13. 

2-Bassnett-McGuire S. (1980). Translation Studies, London : Methuen , p. 43

3-Jeremy Munday. (2001). Introducing Translation Studies, Theories and applications. London and New York : Routledge, p. 4.

4-Bassnet-McGuire. S, op. cit., (1980), p. 46.

5-Ibid, p. 65-66.

6-Mohamed Mehrach. (1977) Towards a Text-Based Model for Translation Evaluation. Ridderkerk: Ridden print, p. 18.

7-Mohammed Addidaoui (2000) Atarjama wa Attawāsol [Translation and communication]. Casablanca/Beirut: Al Markaz Attaqāfi Alarabi, p. 83.

8-Ibid, p. 83.

9-Mohammed Ben Chakroun (2002) Majallat Jāmiaat Ben Yousef [The magazine of Ben yousef University ], "qadāyā Tarjamat Ma‘ani Al koraān Al Karim" [Issues on translating the meanings of the Koran], 2nd ed. Marrakech: Fdala press, p.39.

10-Ibid, p. 40.

11-Ali Alkasimi. (2006) Torjomiāt [Tradictology], "Atar Attarjama Fi Ma’arifat addāt wa idrāk al akhar" [The effect of translation on the recognition of the other and the perception of the self]. Rabat : Edition of Racines , p. 83.

12-Abo Otman Al-Jahid (1969) Alhayawān [The Animal]. Realized by Abdessalam Aharoun. Beirut : Dar Al-kitab Al-Arabi [The house of the Arabic book], p. 75.

13-Mouna Baker. (1997). The Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, Part II: History and Traditions. London and New York : Rutledge, pp. 320-1.

14-Ali Alkasimi, op. cit., (2006), p. 90.

Published - September 2008

Read more articles - Free!

E-mail this article to your colleague!

Need more translation jobs? Click here!

Translation agencies are welcome to register here - Free!

Freelance translators are welcome to register here - Free!

Subscribe to newsletter - Free!

Take part in poll - your voice counts!

Free Newsletter

Subscribe to our free newsletter to receive news from us:

Recommend This Article
Read More Articles
Search Article Index
Read How to Work at Home
Subscribe to Free Newsletter
Obtain Translation Jobs
Visit Language Job Board
Post Your Translation Job!
Register Translation Agency
Submit Your Resume
Find Freelance Translators
Buy Database of Translators
Buy Database of Agencies
Obtain Blacklisted Agencies
Advertise Here
Use Free Translators
Use Free Dictionaries
Use Free Glossaries
Use Free Software
Post Your Free Ad
Vote in Polls for Translators
Read News for Translators
Read our FAQ
Read Testimonials
Read More Testimonials
Read Even More Testimonials
Read Yet More Testimonials
Become Our Customer
Use Resources
Use Site Map
Admire God's Creations

christianity portal
translation jobs


Copyright © 2003-2015 by
Legal Disclaimer
Site Map