Machine Translation, Translation, Translation Culture

The Evolution of Translation

evolution of translation

Have you ever wondered how translation ended up where it is, or where it is going? Well, there was a time when written languages did not exist. So there was no need for translation!

The Origin of Translation

Written communication started with signs and symbols. It evolved into character-based alphabets representing the sounds of localized languages. Over time, people groups started to spread out and the languages collided. There had to be a way to communicate with each other. Translators and interpreters were the solution.

In the early days of translation, a document needed to be translated by hand. The process typically involved a group of individuals who possessed bilingual abilities. They would spend months, even years, working word-for-word, phrase-by-phrase to bring documents to the world.

The Evolution of Translation

It is thought that traders were the main impetus for effective translation as agreements needed to be drawn up between nations and nationalities. Through the years, the purpose of translation shifted from simply legal and financial matters to those of culture, art, and religion. Translation centers were soon developed in the main cities of the region. Many monasteries were famed for the quality of their translations. In fact, St. Jerome is revered for single-handedly translating the entire Bible into Latin. In the western world, translation became a highly-coveted skill during the times of the Romans and Greeks.

In the eastern world, translation dates back to over a thousand years BC. Jia Gongyan is credited with a famous quote during the Zhou dynasty, “translation is to replace one written language with another without changing the meaning for mutual understanding.” This shows that even 3,000 years ago there was a need for, and an understanding of, the importance of effective translation principles.

Fifteen-hundred years later, the Buddhist teachings from India were translated into Chinese. This was one of the first known uses of localization as the Chinese translators changed the Indian ideals of Buddhism into features of the Chinese culture which would resonate with the target audience.

While much of the focus of translation was mostly associated with religion, at the turn of the 20th century, Yan Fan opened the Chinese world to western thought, culture, economics, and technology. Prior to Yan Fan, most Chinese translations were pivoted through Japanese.

The advent of the printing press added to the consistency of translations. Documents only had to be translated one time, type set, and then run over and over again. Granted, if there was an error in the translation, there was no fast way to make corrections. Many times, translations of one document were used as the foundation for translation into another language. If an errant translation were used, the effects compounded with each additional translation.

The two main limitations of translation up until the late 20th century were limited direct language pairs, with many translations going through pivot languages, and the lack of consistency among translators. In the late 20th century, computers changed the field forever.

Even the most advanced computers can still not compare to a human translation, but what computers have been able to do is ensure the consistency of translations through cross-checking software.

Nearly instantaneous translations can now take place into hundreds of languages through two opposing algorithms: Statistical machine translation and rule-based translations.

Rule-based translations use grammar rules and word-for-word lexeme swaps to translate from one language to another. Statistical algorithms use data collected from previous word, phrase, and sentence translations and base future translations upon this information.

Most translation companies offer some sort of instant translation service and Google translate is available for free on the Internet. These translators do not provide reliable translations, but they do show the tremendous advances made in the field.

Software has also been able to speed the translation process through the use of translation memory and specialized glossaries. This allows trusted translations to be stored in a database and used under the eye of an expert translator. The process is not instantaneous, but it does speed up the translation process and improves the reliability of translated text throughout a document or series of documents.

Where will Translation go from here?

With computing power increasing almost daily and the surge of information discovered around the world happening at an exponential pace, the future of translation is truly exciting. Tremendous advances in all fields take place all throughout the world and are recorded in hundreds of different languages. Much of the data is accessible on the web, but if it is recorded in conflicting languages how can it be shared? The answer lies in a concept called the Semantic Web.

The Semantic Web deals with the instantaneous translation of multilingual web content to make searches and retrieval of information universal despite the search language or the language of the information. The idea is still some way off as there are over 6,800 languages in the world and many use different scripts.

There is also the idea that web pages will be interactive not just with text but voice. The pages would automatically adjust their texts to the language of the speaker. In other words, if you went to a medical parts supplier’s web page you would be greeted with an automated voice. If you answered the greeting in Hindi, the web page would automatically change to a Hindi-scripted page. If you answered in Japanese, the page would reformat itself into Japanese, and so forth. Others are looking to shorten the process even further by integrating the page displays with voice searches such as Siri.

Translation has come a long way over the last few millennia. It is going to be very exciting to see where it goes from here. Wherever it does go, one thing is certain. In this global world, there will never be a shortage of requirements for quality translations.

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