Translation History: From Sticks & Clay to the Internet
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Translation History: From Sticks & Clay to the Internet

Translation History: From Sticks & Clay to the Internet

The Rosetta Stone We don’t often wonder where the practice of translation originated and how the business evolved. We just accept that it exists, and it’s business critical. Translators do their best to create outstanding reproductions of one language to another.

Translation has become a huge industry – $30B by many estimates – and a true profession due to the demands of the market for accurate and thorough multilingual web pages, marketing materials, documentation like training materials, software, multi-media, and last but not least, literature.

The growth and development of the translation industry has been driven by many factors since people began to need to understand ideas in other languages. What were those factors that grew translation to its current market value?

To answer these questions I went to the internet. I found a bunch of long books about translation history. Most are VERY long – average 350 pages – and have multiple contributors. In the case of The History of Translation, fifty scholars from 20 nations labored for five years. These huge books and all the scholarship behind them tell us about the complexity and breadth of the history of translation.

But I’m not going to make you read them, and I can’t commit to doing that either. So, let’s take a quicker look: how did the translation industry evolve and what influences brought it to its current state?

There are six things that have driven the evolution of translation.


Logically, translation didn’t enter the scene until language began to show up in written form. It is generally agreed that writing was ‘invented’ in Mesopotamia around 3200 BC. (This language was pictographic – pictures representing words – written in clay with a stylus. By 2,000 BC, the Sumerians had designed wedge-shaped symbols to represent objects and ideas, known as cuneiform.) Other ‘first’ written languages came out of India, Egypt and China.

Once more than one language existed there was the need to translate between them as the peoples began to interact. Wikipedia tells me that there are meaningful translations starting about 4000 years ago; for example, partial translations of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh from ca 2000 BC, into Southwest Asian languages.

Scholarship and Philosophy

Through the Middle ages (5th to 15th century) Arabic scholars perpetuated Greek wisdom and learning (after conquering them) by providing translations of their philosophical and scientific works. Later, Latin translations of these Arabic versions were created. We can thank these translations from Greek to Arabic to Latin for driving Renaissance scholarship.


Religious texts have been a transformative influence in the history of translation, arguably the largest one, because of the compulsion each body of believers has to spread their word to others. In the 3rd century BC, 70 scholars drove one of the first attempts of the Old Testament into Greek. This Greek translation became the basis for translations into other languages. There have been many translations of the bible from that date on, as sponsored by different religious groups, each trying to outdo the other. These efforts have run over centuries: from the 4th century AD to the 1600s and beyond. People have even been martyred over these translations, and rather than providing a list, I’ll point you to the fascinating Bible timeline located here.


There were major technological advances during the same time period in which the most action took place in Bible translation. The availability of paper and the invention of the printing press spread of ideas in the 15th century across Europe quickly. The first book to ever be printed was a Latin language Bible. From here, the ongoing human hunger for knowledge and answers and intellectual hegemony drove translation into many European languages.


Industrialization transformed the world and affected all areas of people’s lives in every part of the globe. The Industrial Revolution – innovation to make human labor more efficient – began in England in the late 18th century, and spread during the 19th century to Belgium, Germany, Northern France, the United States, and Japan. Logically, industrialization led to the formalization of translation for business purposes. Starting in the mid-18th century, translation specialties became formalized, with dedicated schools and professional associations forming up and causing translation to become recognized as a specialized and valuable profession.

The Internet

The internet has increased the world-wide market for translation services because of the breadth and ubiquity of information contained within it (if the internet were to have walls) that can educate, drive business and economy, and improve lives. But because of the labor intensiveness of translation and the vast amount of content requiring translation, engineers and computational linguists have sought to create tools that would automate translation (MT) or increase the productivity of the human translator (CAT tools, like TM). As the internet spreads into underserved areas and globalization pushes us forward, the need for translation increases.

Regardless of what historians believe to be the biggest factor pushing translation theory and practice forward, there is no doubt that it is a huge industry and growing. By some estimates it should reach $123B by 2019 ($6.9B of which is Machine Translation, which actually seems low to me considering how MT should evolve in the next 6 years).   

I think the next huge influencer of translation BIG DATA, which I blogged about on April 25th here. What do you think will influence the business of translation from here?