Have you ever wondered how the translation of our languages ended up where it is today? There was a time when written language simply did not exist.

Language as we know it today began with signs and symbols. From there it evolved into increasingly complex writing systems that represented sounds of spoken languages. From the beginning until now, translators have always had a principal role in the evolution of language.

As the world’s population grew, groups of people moved and spread, taking their languages with them. When cultures met and intersected, languages needed to be translated. The work of early translators became the foundational basis for the translation services we have today. The earliest translators spent months and, in some cases, years working by hand, translating documents word by word, and phrase by phrase, all so that people of the world’s many cultures would be able to share each other’s text, in their own native languages.

How Language Advanced

During the first century, in the age of the Roman Empire, Cicero and Horace were theorists of translation, who presented theories of word-to-word and sense-to-sense translations.

Early traders moving through the countryside were the main impetus for correct translation. Agreements needed to be written and signed by people in different nations. Over the years, a shift took place and translation moved from legal documents and contracts to include religious, financial, cultural, and artistic interests.

The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the 3rd century BC had perhaps the most profound effects of all early major translations in the Western world. The reason for this translation was a perfectly understandable need. Most of the Jewish people had forgotten their ancestral language. So, the Bible was translated from Hebrew to Greek, the popular language at the time.

This is always the basis for translation—the need to know and learn and grow culturally. The role of a translator is to become a bridge whereby language and cultural values can be transported.

But even before the Hebrew Bible was translated, translation centers were developing in Eastern culture—some dating back to over a thousand years BC. Language has always been on the move and the need for translation has been in step with it.

Monasteries were known for their quality of translations. St. Jerome, a priest and theologian, is best known for his translation of most of the Bible into Latin along with commentaries on the Gospels. In the known Western world, translation became a highly coveted skill, especially during Roman and Greek times.

Jia Gongyan of the Zhou dynasty is credited with saying: “Translation is to replace one written language with another without changing the meaning for mutual understanding.” This shows that even over 2,500 years ago, there was a need for translation and an even greater need to understand the cultures and principles of other people groups.

The Shift to Print

Years later with the advent of the printing press, translation became more consistent but errors in documents also increased. Texts that had been carefully translated were typeset and printed over and over again. While the need for handwritten documents began to decline, the need for human translators grew.

These were people who not only translated texts and documents, but became “keepers” of language making sure what was written was correct and true from a cultural perspective. These positions were, as they are today, important jobs to hold.

Language is our link to the past, but it is our superhighway to the future. As long as there is language, there will be a need for human translators. This is because even the most advanced computer program still cannot compare to human translation. The advantage of a computer is this: once a document is correctly translated, it can quickly be checked for consistency of the translation through the use of cross-checking software.

Instantaneous translation can take place as hundreds of languages go through two opposing algorithms: statistical machine translation and rule-based translation. Statistical algorithms use data collected from previous word, phrase, and sentence translations. Rule-based translation uses grammar rules and word-for-word lexeme apps to translate from one language to another.

While most translation companies offer some type of instant translation service, they will also tell you that the only sure translation is one that is done with human resources that either localize within a culture or know the localization of a culture so well that they can translate human feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Even with all of our technology, this is something a computer just cannot do.

The bottom line is that software has been able to speed up the translation process, especially through translation memory and certain specialized glossaries. These allow translators to use and to store information in a database that is available under the watchful eye of an expert translator.

What Does the Future Hold?

Advances continue and the web, along with the rising popularity of translation apps and AI, are rapidly becoming keys to the sustainability of translation worldwide. Plus, the rapid evolution of a global market means the role of translators is more crucial than ever.

There is, however, one more extreme player on this ever-changing and expanding stage and that is the semantic web, which is an extension of our current web. On the semantic web, information is given a well-defined meaning, which enables computers and people around the world to work in cooperation with one another.

Future goals for translation include targets that once seemed unimaginable. Developers are writing code for web pages that are not only interactive but also sensitive to language. As an example of this: imagine that you went to a supplier’s web page in India, and an automated voice greeted you. If you answered in English, the web page would immediately change from a Hindi scripted page to an English script.

Translation has come a long way in over 2.5 thousand years. So, the future is going to be very exciting to watch. Wherever it goes from here, you can be sure that in this global world, translators will be on the leading edge.