The Roots of Translation

Of all the written works ever translated from one language to another, none has gained greater attention than the Bible. One estimate puts the number of languages in which biblical passages have appeared at 2,798, and at least 518 different language versions of the book’s Old Testament have been identified. They range from the original Hebrew Scriptures and those composed in Greek and Tamil before the birth of Christ to the first Esperanto translation by L. L. Zamenhof in 1915.

But the Bible was neither the world’s earliest document nor its first to be translated. Long before the scribes of the Dead Sea Scrolls had parchment upon which to write, no fewer than a dozen ancient languages had already been recorded in metal, stone, clay and bone, providing a wealth of information about the development of civilization and language as well as the importance of translation.

From Pictures to Words

History’s oldest known written document was discovered in Iraq at the site of the ancient Sumerian city of Kish. Referred to as the “Kish Tablet,” it is a piece of limestone bearing pictographs that were inscribed around 3500 BCE. Each Sumerian symbol or “glyph” conveys information nonverbally and reflects the simple agrarian nature of their society—man, woman, god, slave, mountain, mouth, bread, etc. Although such “proto-writing” greatly limited what could be communicated, it had the advantage of being understood intuitively, requiring no translation.

Soon the visual signs used by the Sumerians were adopted by the East Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia and Akkadian, including the Babylonians and Assyrians. Meanwhile, a very different set of pictographs were being developed by the Egyptians in the Nile River Valley. Proto-hieroglyphic inscriptions in the walls of tombs there date back to 3300 BCE.

Syllabic writing in the form of “cuneiform script” would evolve gradually over the next 2,000 years, thus linking written language more closely with its spoken equivalent. Traced to the 3rd Millennium BCE, written versions of the distinct Eblaite, Elamite and Hurrian languages have been found in Syria, Iraq and Iran. During the next millennium, Hittite, Luwian and Hattic texts were being written in what’s now modern Turkey. By 1400 BCE, written Greek was being used on the island of Crete. And along a completely separate path, writing also emerged in China, as evidenced by oracle bone and bronze inscriptions from the reign of Wu Ding (武丁), circa 1200 BCE.

Interestingly enough, this process of language development and fragmentation closely resembles the Bible’s story of the city of Babel. According to the Book of Genesis 11:1~9, “The whole earth had one language and one speech,” but the Lord decided to “confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech … and from there (Babel) the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the earth.” Whether manmade or ordained, the need for translation had arrived and was here to stay.

Political Necessity

Perhaps the earliest evidence of a significant rendering of one language into another is a document called the “Treaty of Kadesh.” The treaty was concluded between the Egyptians and the Hittites around 1259 BCE, roughly 16 years after the Battle of Kadesh (now in Syria). King Hattusili III had the peace terms inscribed in Hittite on a silver tablet and delivered to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II, who in turn had the diplomatic agreement written up in hieroglyphics and inscribed on the walls of Egyptian temples to quell lingering distrust of the Hittites among his people.

This unique example of cooperation in using written language would have remained unknown but for German Archeologist Hugo Winckler. In 1906~08, he came across a haul of 10,000 baked clay tablets at the ancient Hittite capital of Hattusa (now in Turkey). Many of the tablets documented Hittite diplomatic activities, and three of them contained the text of the Kadesh Treaty inscribed in Akkadian, an ancient lingua franca. Although the original Hittite text has been lost, direct comparison of this version with the Egyptian revealed only a few differences.

Better known throughout the linguistic community is another political declaration rendered in translation: The Rosetta Stone. This wondrous piece of black granite is actually a portion of an ancient Egyptian “stele” or temple pillar. In 1799, a French soldier named Pierre-François Bouchard discovered it among the ruins of Fort Julien near the town of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile Delta.

Inscribed on the Rosetta Stone’s surface is a decree issued on behalf of King Ptolemy V at Memphis in 196 BCE. Briefly, it describes how the King benefitted the Egyptians and why his birthday and coronation days should be celebrated annually. More important to the modern age, the decree appears in three scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs at the top, Demotic script in the middle and Ancient Greek at the bottom. Because the same text was presented with only minor differences in all three languages, the stone enabled deciphering of never-before translated hieroglyphs, including those used in the so-called “Book of the Dead”—Egyptian funerary texts recorded on papyrus scrolls dating back to 1550 BCE.

In Other Words

The modern word “translation” comes from Latin, trans + latus, meaning to “carry across.” But long before Rome exerted its power and influence over the Mediterranean and lands beyond, the ancient Greeks were already converting texts from other languages to their own. What’s more, they distinguished between two very different conversion processes.

A strict word-for-word translation was known as μετάφρασις (metaphrasis), meaning “a speaking across,” from which the English term “metaphrase” derived. Unfortunately, words often carry more than one meaning and depend upon context to be understood. The Greeks therefore developed another methodology in contrast to literal translation, one they called παράφρασις, (paraphrasis), meaning “a saying in other words.” This would eventually become the English word “paraphrase,” an approach that helps make translated works more easily understood by the general public.

In Alexandria between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE, a collection of Hebrew Scriptures called the “Tanakh” was translated with considerable paraphrasing into early Koine Greek. The Tanakh had developed as a Jewish oral tradition and was compiled in written form around 450 BCE. The Greek version was called the “Septuagint,” and it became a primary source for the Bible’s Old Testament. About 300 years later, an “improved” version of the Septuagint was drafted in Greek by Origen of Alexandria.

Then came the first Latin version, referred to as the “Vulgate” and commissioned by Pope Damascus in 382. It took the translator, Jerome, some 20 years to finish the work because he decided in 393 to stop referring to the popular but derivative Septuagint and instead work directly from original Hebrew source material.

The initial result was a disaster. Christian worshipers and clergy found the “new” interpretation of Old Testament stories so unfamiliar that they rejected Jerome’s work. Not until centuries after his death would his translation achieve wide acceptance. Contributing to his failure was Jerome’s belief that within the Holy Scriptures “even the syntax contains a mystery,” so his translation was word-for-word rather than sense-for-sense. It was the world’s first major example of the power of paraphrase and how much influence culture exerts on translation.

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