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Historical Facts about Translation

In this article, we cover 15 interesting historical facts about translation.

Author: Olafs Berzins

Top 15 Interesting Historical Facts about Translation

When you search the internet for interesting translation facts, you normally stumble upon the usual suspects: the world’s most translated book is the Bible; 30 September is International Translation Day; French, German, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic (paired with English) are the most popular target languages of translations. But these are not the only translation facts.

AD VERBUM has selected 15 translation facts that are rarely known and discussed, and in the field of history:

Four Periods of Translation

1) A barely known fact is that translation history can be divided into four periods:
• The first period dates back to Cicero’s and Horace’s works concerning translation and ends with the publication of Alexander F. Tyler’s ‘Essay on the Principles of Translation’ in 1791.
• The second period is until 1946: the year of publication of Valery Larboud’s Sous I’inovation de Saint Jerome.
• The third period spans two decades from the 1940s until the 1960s when the first papers on machine translation were published.
• The fourth period starts in the 1960s and is still ongoing.

The Most Famous Translators in History

2) When a king gives ‘a gallon of wine a day for the rest of his life’ to a translator, it means something. This happened to Geoffrey Chaucer in 1374 when King Edward III awarded the aforementioned prize for his literary works and translations. A fun side note: ‘a gallon a day’ means four and a half liters, and that is for every single day.

3) You don’t often see a translator being described as a ‘traitor, hungry for sex and wealth’, but this is the case for Dona Marina who was brought to Spain in 1519. Over ten years, Dona or La Malinche was a translator (among other things) for Herman Cortes during the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

4) Cicero and Horace were the first theorists who distinguished between word-for-word and sense-for-sense translation.

5) As far back as the 13th century, an English scholar named Roger Bacon came to the conclusion that the only way a good translation can be done is if the translator has good knowledge of both the source and target languages, and that he or she should be well versed in the discipline of the work being translated. Eight centuries later and this very same fact is repeated by academics to every up-and-coming translator.

6) St. Jerome is revered as the patron saint of translators and scholars. This is because of the year 382, when the pope, Damasus, commissioned the leading biblical scholar of the time, St. Jerome, to provide a translation of the Bible; therefore, producing the Vulgata, which is the canonic Latin version of the Bible used by the Catholic church to this day.

7) In the past, translation was a dangerous profession to be in. For example, William Tyndale was executed in Holland in 1536 because he worked on a translation of the Bible into English. His translation is considered to be the first case of a registered biblical translation in English that draws directly from Hebrew and Greek texts.

8) A translator whose name all translators should know, but nobody does, is Lucius Livius Andronicus (circa 284–205 BC). He is widely regarded as the earliest translator in the Western world, being a poet and dramatist. Lucius translated Greek works into Latin and is regarded as the originator of Latin literature.

Historical Translations

9) The first bilingual legal document in the world is from the 13th century BCE. After a war between the Egyptians and the Hittites, the two parties signed a peace agreement known today as the Treaty of Kadesh. In addition to being the first bilingual legal document, it is also the first known diplomatic agreement in the region and the oldest surviving written treaty.

10) Historians have concluded that translation was carried out as early as the Mesopotamian era when the work of the Sumerian poem, Gilgamesh, was translated into Asian languages, dating back to around the second millennium BC.

11) One of the most famous works of translation or even the archetypical symbol of a translator is a slab of granodiorite that was found by French soldiers in 1799 during Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egypt campaign, the Rosetta stone.

A Mistranslation Leads to the Atomic Bomb

12) A mistranslated word that led to the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. The unfortunate word was ‘Mokusatsu’ and it was uttered by the Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki when asked by the press about Japan’s surrender. The word means ‘no comment’ but can easily be mistranslated as ‘not worthy of comment’. The international press picked the latter, which provoked retaliation from the English forces. Ten days later, the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Translation Marks a Change in Society and Norms

13) A lesser-known translation fact: it was only in the 19th century that female translators started signing their work with their own name; previously women used pseudonyms or did not sign their translations at all to avoid ridicule or rejection of their work.

14) Often when studying translation and interpreting, the Nuremberg trials are brought up. It marked two events, first being the trials of Nazi war criminals, and the second, the beginning of simultaneous interpreting as a standard in diplomatic conferences. During the process, interpreting was provided in four languages: English, Russian, French and German.

Inventors of the translation service

15) A translation service is considered a Roman invention; some argue that this is because of their inability to create their own literary pieces. Therefore, they employed scholars, poets and monks who translated various pieces of literature.

Translation Marks a Change in Society and Norms

The Bottom Line

Most people like to remind others that the Bible is the world’s most translated book (translated into 698 languages). However, if religious books are excluded, then the world’s most translated book is The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Since its first publication in 1883, it has been translated into 260 languages.

History is fascinating, even, as we just discovered, the history of translation, and at AD VERBUM we value it. We want to help you make your own history, and you can do that by speaking globally with the help of AD VERBUM. Find out more in our blog (link to, learn more interesting facts about the Translation and Localization Industry, and stay up to date with future articles on various subjects related to facts and translation by subscribing to our Newsletter.

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