Some major dates and events in the history of translation - by Alex Gross

The following piece was first presented as the keynote address for the International Jeromian Conference on Translation 3 at the Universidad of Vera Cruz, Xalapa, on Sept. 28, 2004.


The speaker will try to show some common threads in the history of translation or at least some modern parallels with more ancient examples. As for instance the perils of translating from Sumerian into Hebrew, Sacred Egyptian into Classical Greek, or Aramaic into Arabic. Or the even greater physical perils suffered by translators who have been murdered for their efforts, from a Persian interpreter executed by Themistocles to French and English translators burnt at the stake by religious conservatives to the forced suicide of Walter Benjamin in Spain to the assassination of Hitoshi Igarashi, Salman Rushdie's Japanese translator.

Voltaire' s translation of Hamlet's soliloquy into rhymed Racinian alexandrine couplets will be compared and contrasted with the problems of translating into and out of other "Public Presentation Languages," such as the epigrammatic four-character maxims of Chinese philosophy, poetry, and medicine. The work of a remarkable Iberian who long ago invented the first relational data base and also sought to intervene between Christianity and Islam by translating his own works into Arabic will be described, as will the career of Xuanzong, perhaps the best-known translator in the world.

After a brief glance at the Persian translation academy of Jundishapur and the convergence at Toledo, the presentation will close with an attempt to characterize the past fifty years in translation, which have witnessed our field's greatest outgrowth but have also seen the development of some curious beliefs concerning linguistics and machine translation. Some other examples of the speaker's research into translation history can be found on his website at:

Let me start by showing you one citation that sums up everything else I'll be saying today and ought to fill us all with at least a certain sense of pride: From Translation all science had its offspring. -Giordano Bruno (quoted by John Florio, 1603) 1 In a way that says it all. John Florio was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and compiled the first Italian-English dictionary, including all the words for fornication in both languages. His translation of Bocaccio's Decameron into Elizabethan English is available on-line.

I've called today's paper Some Major Dates and Events in the History of Translation, and I want to follow the order of these dates and events as described in the abstract, at least for the first eight or nine examples. But thereafter I may be skipping around a bit, perhaps jumping back and forth in history, because I'm eager to tell you about as many of these dates and events as possible, so that you can see what they have in common from century to century. And I'm even more eager for you to see how often history has repeated itself, how the same observations about translation have repeated themselves in quite a few eras and cultures over time.

And that's the point of the "Recurrent Ideas about Translation" sheet, let's look at it for a moment (available at the above URL). I don't want to go into much detail about it, we'll see some of that detail as we move along, so what I'd like to happen instead is for you to take my word for it right now, the claim I'm making is that there have only been some eight recurrent ideas about translation expressed over and over again over the centuries. And they're all right here on this sheet. And it's really a rather simple claim.

Article reproduced with the permission of the author Alex Gross.
The full version of this work (and other interesting articles)
can be found on his website