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Some historical notes about translation and interpretation

Bekircan Tahberer, Certified Translator
Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council


Interpretation and translation must have become popular professions as soon as cultures with different languages came in contact with one another. Although it is hard to determine when people began to interpret, it would be safe to assume that translation started right after the invention of writing.

In the late fourth and early third millennium, the Sumerians began to develop a writing system called "cuneiform" (wedge-shaped), written on wet clay with a sharpened stick, or stylus. At first, the Sumerians used a series of pictures ("pictograms") to record information having to do with business and administration, but went on to develop a system of symbols that stood for ideas and later sounds (usually syllables). In the later stages of Sumerian writing, there were about 600 signs that were used on a regular basis.

This writing system was adopted by people speaking a Semitic language called Akkadian, and continued to be used by a number of peoples up until the first century. Both the Babylonians and the Assyrians, who spoke dialects of Akkadian, used the cuneiform signs, writing not only in their own languages but sometimes in Sumerian as well. During the third millennium, a very intimate cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, one which included widespread bilingualism.

From the beginning on, no language has had immunity to foreign words, and translators and interpreters have to be careful to find the correct shade when translating those foreign words. Although translation of ancient books by professional translators was a common practice during the Roman republican and imperial eras, Roman aristocrats were expected to be knowledgeable in Greek. They often recited verses from the books of ancient Greek writers and poets, followed by their own translations. Many Roman emperors spoke Greek fluently, or so it is claimed. Tiberius, the Roman emperor from AD 14 to AD 37, was also said to speak Greek, but there were occasions when he stuck to Latin, especially at Senate meetings. The Roman historian Suetonius (c. AD 69–122) wrote in his The Twelve Caesars:

Indeed, he once apologized to the House for the foreign word "monopoly," explaining that he could find no native equivalent. And he objected to the Greek word "emblems"—meaning metal ornaments riveted on wine cups—when it appeared in a decree: if a one-word Latin equivalent could not be found, he said, a periphrasis of several words must serve1.

Although it may be assumed that there have been good and not‑so‑good language professionals through the ages, training translators and interpreters and setting standards was an important objective for those in need of translation and interpretation services. Working within one's area of competence and confidentiality are crucial parts of the job of a translator and interpreter, especially when it is a matter of life and death. During the first century, Caesar, the Roman proconsul in Gaul, wrote in his epic work The Gallic Wars that he sent away the regular interpreters and asked G. V.  Procillus, a leader in the Province of Gaul and a close friend, to interpret for him because he had the highest confidence in him in all matters. That means he did not have so much confidence in regular interpreters, so he preferred working with a friend. Caesar, campaigning in Gaul and obviously not speaking the language of the locals, wanted to talk with Diviciacus, one of the leaders of the Aedui, a Gallic people of Gallia Lugdunensis who inhabited the country between the Arar (Saône) and Liger (Loire), in modern France. Caesar had found out that Dumnorix, the brother of Diviciacus, was a traitor to his cause, and before punishing him, he wanted to speak with his close ally, Diviciacus, in order not to offend him. Due to the delicacy of the situation, he could entrust the interpretation of this matter only to a trusted friend, and not to ordinary interpreters2.

Another historical remark on the importance of interpreters' training was made by Sir Paul Ricaut, the consul of Smyrna in the Ottoman Empire in the seventeenth century. Sir Ricaut, in his book titled The History Of The Present State Of The Ottoman Empire, praised the French for training their interpreters:

The French Nation hath taken a very good course in breeding up Youths to make their Drugger-men [sic] or Interpreters; some few years past, twelve were sent to Smyrna, where being a while instructed in the Convent of Capuchins, and there taught the Turkish and vulgar Greek, they are afterwards dispersed to the several Factories; such as were of most pregnant parts, being placed with the Ambassador at Constantinople3.

As a seasoned diplomat, he carefully examined the ways the Ottoman bureaucracy worked and went on to say:

But a principal matter, which a publick [sic] Minister ought to look to, is to provide himself of spirited, eloquent, and intelligent interpreters; spirited, I say, because many times the presence is great they appear before, and the looks big and soure [sic] of a barbarous Tyrant4.

Professional translators and interpreters know very well that they have to adhere to certain rules and abide by the regulations of legal authorities. Obviously, no translators or interpreters would deliberately make mistakes in their job, but it is comforting to know that an errors and omissions insurance is available in modern societies in case they make a mistake. However, in the past, an interpreter's job was sometimes so critical that the liabilities could be devastating. They didn't necessarily need to misinterpret to be punished, but the mere fact of interpreting a sentence in a way that the other party found rude or unpleasant could result in severe consequences. Sir Ricaut explained the perils awaiting the unsuspecting interpreter and the difficulties the ambassador had to go through:

It hath been known, that the Ambassador hath been forced to interpose his own person, between the fury of the Visier and his interpreter, whose offence was onely [sic] the delivery of the words of his master; some of whom have notwithstanding been imprisoned, or executed for this cause, as we have partly intimated in the foregoing Chapter: the reason of which Tyranny and Presumption in these Prime Officers over the Interpreters, is because they are most commonly born subjects of the Grand Signior [sic], and therefore ill support the least word mis-placed [sic], or favouring of contest from them, not distinguishing between the sense of the Ambassador, and the explication of the Interpreter; and therefore it were very usefull [sic] to breed up a Seminary of young Englishmen, of sprightly and ingenious parts; to be qualified for that Office, who may with less danger to themselves, honour to their Master, and advantage to the publick [sic], express boldly without the usual mincing and submission of other Interpreters, whatsoever is commended and declared by their Master5.

In short, Sir Ricaut puts weight on the cultural and political sensitivities that would both enhance the efficiency of negotiations during interpreting and save the translator from harsh treatments.

Translating and interpreting may look like easy jobs to those who are fluent in at least two languages, but one must remember that things may easily get complicated when a person is not properly trained or does not have enough experience. The profession has come a long way, and aspiring translators and interpreters have many different means to further their training and experience. Yet it cannot be said that the days of Sir Ricaut are gone. Living in a democracy should not make us forget the fact that some translators and interpreters, even today, continue to be mistreated and sometimes work under life‑threatening conditions, especially in war zones.

Back to the note1 Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: translated by Robert Graves, London, 1979, Book III, 71.

Back to the note2 Caesar, The Gallic Wars: translated by Carolyn Hammond, Oxford Press, 1998, Book I, 19.

Back to the note3 Sir Paul Ricaut, The History Of The Present State Of The Ottoman Empire, London 1686, Book I, Chapter XX, p. 170.

Back to the note4 Ibid., p. 169.

Back to the note5 Ibid., p. 169.