Translation is the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text.[1] Whereas interpreting undoubtedly antedates writing, translation began only after the appearance of written literature; there exist partial translations of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2000 BCE) into Southwest Asian languages of the second millennium BCE.[2]

Translators always risk inappropriate spill-over of source-language idiom and usage into the target-language translation. On the other hand, spill-overs have imported useful source-language calques and loanwords that have enriched the target languages. Indeed, translators have helped substantially to shape the languages into which they have translated.[3]

Due to the demands of business documentation consequent to the Industrial Revolution that began in the mid-18th century, some translation specialties have become formalized, with dedicated schools and professional associations.[4]

Because of the laboriousness of translation, since the 1940s engineers have sought to automate translation (machine translation) or to mechanically aid the human translator (computer-assisted translation).[5] The rise of the Internet has fostered a world-wide market for translation services and has facilitated language localization.[6]


The word translation derives from the Latin translatio (which itself comes from trans- and fero, together meaning "to carry across" or "to bring across"). The modern Romance languages use words for translation derived from that source and from the alternative Latin traduco ("to lead across"). The Germanic (except Dutch) and Slavic languages likewise use calques of these Latin sources.[7]

The Ancient Greek term for translation, μετάφρασις (metaphrasis, "a speaking across"), has supplied English with metaphrase (a "literal," or "word-for-word," translation) — as contrasted with paraphrase ("a saying in other words", from παράφρασις, paraphrasis).[7] Metaphrase corresponds, in one of the more recent terminologies, to "formal equivalence"; and paraphrase, to "dynamic equivalence."[8]

Strictly speaking, the concept of metaphrase — of "word-for-word translation" — is an imperfect concept, because a given word in a given language often carries more than one meaning; and because a similar given meaning may often be represented in a given language by more than one word. Nevertheless, "metaphrase" and "paraphrase" may be useful as ideal concepts that mark the extremes in the spectrum of possible approaches to translation.[9]

A secular icon for the art of translation is the Rosetta Stone. This trilingual (hieroglyphic-Egyptian, demotic-Egyptian, ancient-Greek) stele became the translator's key to decryption of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Thomas Young, Jean-François Champollion and others.[10]

In the United States of America, the Rosetta Stone is incorporated into the crest of the Defense Language Institute.


Western theory

Discussions of the theory and practice of translation reach back into antiquity and show remarkable continuities. The ancient Greeks distinguished between metaphrase (literal translation) and paraphrase. This distinction was adopted by English poet and translator John Dryden (1631–1700), who described translation as the judicious blending of these two modes of phrasing when selecting, in the target language, "counterparts," or equivalents, for the expressions used in the source language:

When [words] appear . . . literally graceful, it were an injury to the author that they should be changed. But since... what is beautiful in one [language] is often barbarous, nay sometimes nonsense, in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a translator to the narrow compass of his author's words: ’tis enough if he choose out some expression which does not vitiate the sense.[7]

Dryden cautioned, however, against the license of "imitation", i.e., of adapted translation: “When a painter copies from the life... he has no privilege to alter features and lineaments..."[8]

This general formulation of the central concept of translation — equivalence — is as adequate as any that has been proposed since Cicero and Horace, who, in 1st-century-BCE Rome, famously and literally cautioned against translating "word for word" (verbum pro verbo).[8]

Despite occasional theoretical diversity, the actual practice of translation has hardly changed since antiquity. Except for some extreme metaphrasers in the early Christian period and the Middle Ages, and adapters in various periods (especially pre-Classical Rome, and the 18th century), translators have generally shown prudent flexibility in seeking equivalents — "literal" where possible, paraphrastic where necessary — for the original meaning and other crucial "values" (e.g., style, verse form, concordance with musical accompaniment or, in films, with speech articulatory movements) as determined from context.[8]

In general, translators have sought to preserve the context itself by reproducing the original order of sememes, and hence word order — when necessary, reinterpreting the actual grammatical structure, for example, by shifting from active to passive voice, or vice versa. The grammatical differences between "fixed-word-order" languages[11] (e.g. English, French, German) and "free-word-order" languages[12] (e.g., Greek, Latin, Polish, Russian) have been no impediment in this regard.[8] The particular syntax (sentence-structure) characteristics of a text's source language are adjusted to the syntactic requirements of the target language.

When a target language has lacked terms that are found in a source language, translators have borrowed those terms, thereby enriching the target language. Thanks in great measure to the exchange of calques and loanwords between languages, and to their importation from other languages, there are few concepts that are "untranslatable" among the modern European languages.[8][13]

Generally, the greater the contact and exchange that have existed between two languages, or between those languages and a third one, the greater is the ratio of metaphrase to paraphrase that may be used in translating among them. However, due to shifts in ecological niches of words, a common etymology is sometimes misleading as a guide to current meaning in one or the other language. For example, the English actual should not be confused with the cognate French actuel ("present", "current"), the Polish aktualny ("present", "current," "topical," "timely," "feasible"),[14] the Swedish aktuell ("topical", "presently of importance") or the Russian актуальный ("urgent", "topical").

The translator's role as a bridge for "carrying across" values between cultures has been discussed at least since Terence, the 2nd-century-BCE Roman adapter of Greek comedies. The translator's role is, however, by no means a passive, mechanical one, and so has also been compared to that of an artist. The main ground seems to be the concept of parallel creation found in critics such as Cicero. Dryden observed that "Translation is a type of drawing after life..." Comparison of the translator with a musician or actor goes back at least to Samuel Johnson’s remark about Alexander Pope playing Homer on a flageolet, while Homer himself used a bassoon.[14]

If translation be an art, it is no easy one. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon wrote that if a translation is to be true, the translator must know both languages, as well as the science that he is to translate; and finding that few translators did, he wanted to do away with translation and translators altogether.[15]

The translator of the Bible into German, Martin Luther, is credited with being the first European to posit that one translates satisfactorily only toward his own language. L.G. Kelly states that since Johann Gottfried Herder in the 18th century, "it has been axiomatic" that one translates only toward his own language.[16]

Compounding the demands on the translator is the fact that no dictionary or thesaurus can ever be a fully adequate guide in translating. The British historian Alexander Tytler, in his Essay on the Principles of Translation (1790), emphasized that assiduous reading is a more comprehensive guide to a language than are dictionaries. The same point, but also including listening to the spoken language, had earlier, in 1783, been made by the Polish poet and grammarian Onufry Andrzej Kopczyński.[17]

The translator’s special role in society is described in a posthumous 1803 essay by "Poland's La Fontaine", the Roman Catholic Primate of Poland, poet, encyclopedist, author of the first Polish novel, and translator from French and Greek, Ignacy Krasicki:

[T]ranslation . . . is in fact an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labor and portion of common minds; [it] should be [practiced] by those who are themselves capable of being actors, when they see greater use in translating the works of others than in their own works, and hold higher than their own glory the service that they render their country.[18]

Religious texts

Saint Jerome, patron saint of translators and encyclopedists
Mistranslation: horned Moses, by Michelangelo

An important role in history has been played by translation of religious texts. Buddhist monks who translated the Indian sutras into Chinese often skewed their translations to better reflect China's distinct culture, emphasizing notions such as filial piety.

One of the first recorded instances of translation in the West was the rendering of the Old Testament into Greek in the 3rd century BCE. The translation is known as the "Septuagint", a name that refers to the seventy translators (seventy-two, in some versions) who were commissioned to translate the Bible at Alexandria, Egypt. Each translator worked in solitary confinement in his own cell, and according to legend all seventy versions proved identical. The Septuagint became the source text for later translations into many languages, including Latin, Coptic, Armenian and Georgian.

Still considered one of the greatest translators in history, for having rendered the Bible into Latin, is Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translation. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church used his translation (known as the Vulgate), though even this translation at first stirred controversy.

The period preceding, and contemporary with, the Protestant Reformation saw the translation of the Bible into local European languages — a development that contributed to Western Christianity's split into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism due to disparities between Catholic and Protestant versions of crucial words and passages. Lasting effects on the religions, cultures and languages of their respective countries have been exerted by such Bible translations as Martin Luther's into German, Jakub Wujek's into Polish, and the King James Bible's translators' into English.

A famous mistranslation of the Bible is the rendering of the Hebrew word קֶרֶן (keren), which has several meanings, as "horn" in a context where it actually means "beam of light". As a result, for centuries artists have depicted Moses the Lawgiver with horns growing out of his forehead; an example is Michelangelo's famous sculpture. Some Christians with anti-Semitic feelings have used such depictions to spread hatred of the Jews, claiming that they were devils with horns.

Asian theory

Diamond Sutra, translated by Kumārajīva

There is a separate tradition of translation in South Asia and East Asia (primarily modern India and China), especially connected with the rendering of religious texts — particularly Buddhist texts — and with the governance of the Chinese empire. Classical Indian translation is characterized by loose adaptation, rather than the closer translation more commonly found in Europe, and Chinese translation theory identifies various criteria and limitations in translation.

In the East Asia Sinosphere (sphere of Chinese cultural influence), more important than translation per se has been the use and reading of Chinese texts, which also had substantial influence on the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages, with substantial borrowings of vocabulary and writing system. Notable is Japanese Kanbun, which is a system of glossing Chinese texts for Japanese speakers.

Fidelity vs. transparency

Fidelity (or faithfulness) and transparency, dual ideals in translation, are often at odds. A 17th-century French critic coined the phrase "les belles infidèles" to suggest that translations, like women, can be either faithful or beautiful, but not both.[19]

Faithfulness is the extent to which a translation accurately renders the meaning of the source text, without distortion.

Transparency is the extent to which a translation appears to a native speaker of the target language to have originally been written in that language, and conforms to its grammar, syntax and idiom.

A translation that meets the first criterion is said to be "faithful"; a translation that meets the second, "idiomatic". The two qualities are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The criteria for judging the fidelity of a translation vary according to the subject, type and use of the text, its literary qualities, its social or historical context, etc.

The criteria for judging the transparency of a translation appear more straightforward: an unidiomatic translation "sounds wrong"; and, in the extreme case of word-for-word translations generated by many machine-translation systems, often results in patent nonsense.

Nevertheless, in certain contexts a translator may consciously seek to produce a literal translation. Translators of literary, religious or historic texts often adhere as closely as possible to the source text, stretching the limits of the target language to produce an unidiomatic text. A translator may adopt expressions from the source language in order to provide "local color".

In recent decades, prominent advocates of such "non-transparent" translation have included the French scholar Antoine Berman, who identified twelve deforming tendencies inherent in most prose translations,[20] and the American theorist Lawrence Venuti, who has called upon translators to apply "foreignizing" translation strategies instead of domesticating ones.[21]

Many non-transparent-translation theories draw on concepts from German Romanticism, the most obvious influence being the German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher. In his seminal lecture "On the Different Methods of Translation" (1813) he distinguished between translation methods that move "the writer toward [the reader]", i.e., transparency, and those that move the "reader toward [the author]", i.e., an extreme fidelity to the foreignness of the source text. Schleiermacher favored the latter approach; he was motivated, however, not so much by a desire to embrace the foreign, as by a nationalist desire to oppose France's cultural domination and to promote German literature.

Current Western translation practice is dominated by the dual concepts of "fidelity" and "transparency". This has not always been the case, however; there have been periods, especially in pre-Classical Rome and in the 18th century, when many translators stepped beyond the bounds of translation proper into the realm of adaptation.

Adapted translation retains currency in some non-Western traditions. The Indian epic, the Ramayana, appears in many versions in the various Indian languages, and the stories are different in each. Similar examples are to be found in medieval Christian literature, which adjusted the text to local customs and mores.