The Ancient Profession of Translation

Sitting here surrounded by the latest in computer hardware and translation management software, it is good to work with an understanding of historical context. The old joke runs that translation is one of the oldest professions..well, I have a couple of examples from recent conversations of just how old it is.

First, a visit to see the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels demonstrated the importance of translation in spreading the word of God. Having travelled there to admire the wonderful work that was created at the end of the 7th century, professional interest kicked in. The text of the Lindisfarne Gospels is in Latin with a word-by-word translation (or ‘gloss’) into Old English added between the lines in the 10th century. It is the oldest surviving translation of the Gospels into the English language. The gloss is written in a spidery hand direct above the quite magnificent Latin script – so it is a very functional additional to the book….but a beautiful thing to see for a linguist! We are grateful to Aldred the Scribe of the Community of Saint Cuthbert, for his hard work.

Secondly, 30th September was the International Day of Translation. On wondering why this date was picked, I learnt that this is the anniversary of the death of the patron Saint of Translation, Saint Jerome in ca. 420 A.D. Jerome was best known for his translation of the bible into Latin. Wikipedia describes his most important work as follows:

“Jerome was a scholar at a time when that statement implied a fluency in Greek. He knew some Hebrew when he started his translation project, but moved to Jerusalem to strengthen his grip on Jewish scripture commentary. A wealthy Roman aristocrat, Paula, funded his stay in a monastery in Bethlehem and he completed his translation there. He began in 382 by correcting the existing Latin language version of the New Testament, commonly referred to as the Vetus Latina. By 390 he turned to translating the Hebrew Bible from the original Hebrew, having previously translated portions from the Septuagint which came from Alexandria.”

A recent visit to the conference of the Association of Translation Companies in London was important partly to keep up to date with new translation technologies such as computerised terminology management. But we never forget that the core skills of a translator are what is important, and we are working in a long tradition of communication across countries and cultures.

I have heard it said that Western Europe owes its civilization to translators. Do you agree?