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International Translation Day – translation from its beginnings to today


On 30 September, translators all around the world celebrate their big day: International Translation Day, aka Jerome Day.

As a renowned translation agency in Switzerland, we know our business and would like to take you on a little journey through time today. How long have translations been around, how have they changed over the years and what myths surround this profession? This article provides the answers to these questions.

Make yourself comfortable, sit back and immerse yourself in the world of translation with us.

The beginnings of translation

The first written documents, which date back to around 5,300 BC, were discovered in Egypt and Europe. It is thought that the first translations came not long after. But the first one has been proven to be as ‘recent’ as 2,500 BC: clay tablets with bilingual and trilingual word lists that were found during excavations – including the oldest form of writing, the Sumerian cuneiform script.

Brown stone with Sumerian cuneiform inscription

Source: Egor Myznik – Unsplash

In Ancient Rome, too, many texts were translated from Greek, for example, by legends such as Virgil, Horace and Cicero. But the greatest translator of antiquity was Jerome (331–420 AD), hence the alternative name Jerome Day. His translation of the Bible into Latin, the so-called Vulgate, was subsequently used for centuries.

Fast-forward a few hundred years and we find ourselves in the Middle Ages. Back then, the ‘School of Toledo’ formed a centre for translations, where mainly Arabic texts were translated into Latin. At this time, another Bible translator went down in history alongside Jerome: Martin Luther, whose 16th century version left a lasting mark on language.

Translation experienced a heyday during the Romantic period. Famous poets and thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Wilhelm von Humboldt were translators themselves and were also concerned with theoretical questions of this discipline.

From 5,300 BC to the 19th century, translation evolved quite a bit. But by far the biggest change has been brought about by new technologies.

Translation today

While translators previously had to search through dictionaries and encyclopaedias, they can today find help in the online world. Note: We don’t mean tools like Google Translate. But more on that in the next section.

Library shelves with books

Source: Mitchell Luo – Unsplash

After completing a relevant degree, graduates either look for a permanent position with an international company, a translation agency or a public body, or they take the plunge into freelancing.

Due to globalisation, there is a need for translation in countless areas: from package inserts through to business reports and books. Translators usually specialise in just a few subject areas in order to be able to translate the specialist content accurately and to a high linguistic standard.

What a translation looks like in practice depends on the type of text. Word-for-word translations have long been passé. It is more about conveying the meaning. Some target texts are closer to the source text (e.g. medical translations), while others offer creative leeway (e.g. transcreation).

But how will translation develop in the coming years?

The future of translation

As already mentioned, online software tools such as Google Translate or DeepL are gaining ground and, admittedly, they really are getting better and better. But is that enough to make the translator’s job obsolete? We say quite clearly: No!

No matter how well a machine translates, the human touch is indispensable, especially for certain texts. And even if a text has already been pre-translated by a machine, it is essential that an experienced translator proofreads everything again. After all, no one wants an important aspect of their text to be lost. The motto here is ‘better safe than sorry’.

That machine translation will herald the end of the translator is just a myth. And there are plenty of others. Here are just a few examples …

Three myths about translation – true or false?

  1. Translators know every word in all languages

After revealing to someone what they do for a living, most translators are guaranteed to have heard: ‘Oh, cool, what does xyz mean in English?’. It doesn’t quite work like that. Firstly, context is needed: What does this word refer to? And secondly, some people are skilled in several languages, others work ‘only’ in two languages (their mother tongue and another one they have learned in detail). But that doesn’t mean they know every word. A professor once said: ‘A good translator doesn’t know every word, but they know where to look it up’.

  1. All translators are also interpreters

Not at all! Translation and interpreting are often studied together, but at some point students take one of the two paths as their main direction. Of course, there are also language experts who work as both interpreters and translators. Nevertheless, these two disciplines couldn’t be more different.

  1. Translators can work anywhere

This myth is actually true. The only two things they need are a laptop and internet. Then they are as free as a bird in their choice of workplace.

Young woman sitting at the beach with a suitcase, a laptop and a cell phone

Source: Anastasia Nelen – Unsplash

We hope you enjoyed our little excursion into the world of translation. If you need any help with your texts, please feel free to contact us at any time. Until then, we wish all translators and fans of the profession a happy International Translation Day!