The History of Translation
When we talk about the history of translation, we should think of the theories and names
that emerged at its different periods. In fact, each era is characterized by specific changes in translation history, but these changes differ from one place to another. For example, the developments of translation in the western world are not the same as those in the Arab world, as each nation knew particular incidents that led to the birth of particular theories. So, what are 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 His authority 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 allover 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).
Actually, 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 they began to 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 claims that translating is a Roman invention (see McGuire: 1980) (2). Cicero and Horace (first century BC) were the first theorists who distinguished between word-for-word translation and sense-for-sense translation. Their comments on translation practice influenced the following generations of translation up to the twentieth century.
Another period that knew a changing step in translation development was marked by 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 many conflicts between western theories and ideologies of translation for more than a thousand years.
Moreover, these 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)
Needless to say that the invention of printing techniques in the fifteenth century developed the field of translation and helped in the appearance of early theorists. For instance, Etienne Dolet (1915-46), whose heretic mistranslation of one of Plato`s dialogues, the phrase "rien du tout" (nothing at all) that 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 both 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 systematic; Alexander Frayer Tayler`s volume Principles of Translation (1791) is a case in point.
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, the fact that led to the birth of many theories and translations in the domain of literature, especially poetic translation. 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 adds to its value is 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 is also a witness for the development of translation studies in the period. It required 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). With this model, we can distinguish between the ethnographical-semantic method and the dynamic equivalent method.
Another model that appears in the period is text-based translation model, which focuses on texts rather than words or sentences in translation process. This model includes a variety of sub-models: the interpretative model, the text linguistic model and models of translation quality assessments that 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 writings and figures that characterize the twenties are those of Jean-Paul Vinay and Darbelnet, who worked on a stylistic comparative study of French and English (1958), Alfred Malblanc (1963), George Mounin (1963), John C. Catford. (1965), Eugene Nida (1964), who is affected by the Chomskyan generative grammar in his theories of translation, De Beaugrand who writes a lot about translation, and many others who worked and still work for the development of the domain.
Nowadays, translation research started to take another path, which is more automatic. The invention of the internet, together with the new technological developments in communication and digital materials, has increased cultural exchanges between nations. This leads translators to look for ways to cope with these changes and to look for more 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 changing era in the domain of translation.
In short, translation has a very wide and rich history in the West. Since its birth, translation was the subject of a variety of research and conflicts between theorists. Each theorist approaches it according to his viewpoint and field of research, the fact that gives its history a changing quality.
b. Translation in the Arab world
The early translations used in Arabic are dated back to the time of Syrians (the first half of the second century AD), who translated into Arabic a large heritage that belongs to the era of paganism (Bloomshark 1921: 10-12, qtd by Addidaoui, 2000) (7). Syrians were influenced in their translations by the Greek ways of translation. Syrian`s 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 Syrian 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 of paramount importance for 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 significant 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 proliferation of the Koran translations, this matter was and is still the point of many debates and conflicts in the Arab world. An example of these conflicts 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 core of the conflicts that existed and still exist in the translation of Koran is 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 the difficult choice that faced translators. In general, translation of Koran knows various changes, the fact that led to the creation of special committees that took the responsibility of translating it in a way that preserves it from falsification.
Another era that knows important developments 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`, which was the greatest institute of translation at the time. During the period translators focused on Greek philosophy, Indian science and Persian literature (Al-Kasimi, 2006) (11).
The Arab history of translation is also characterized by the name of Al-Jahid (868-577), one of the greatest theorists in translation. His theories and writings in the domain of translation are still 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 puts 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 was 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 proliferation 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 offer translators 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 many others. However, in comparing the number of translated books by Arab translators with those of westerners, we feel that the gap between them is still wide, 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 marked by many changes and events. Since its early beginnings with Syrians, translation knew the birth of many theorists who sited 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 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 theorists, but it is still suffering from many problems and difficulties.
To sum up, translation history is rich in inventions and theories. Each era is characterized by the appearance of new theorists and fields of research in translation. It is true that the western history of translation is larger and rich in proportion to that of the Arabs, but we should not deny that the translation history of the latter started to develop year by year, especially with the great efforts of Arabic academia in the domain.