The First “Translators” Were Interpreters

The beginnings of our profession were not easy if we consider that our colleagues of the past had to convey very sensitive messages, if not highly questionable military strategies, in their native tongue so that, at times, the message of the interpretation or translation was closely linked to political or military interests.

In these first chapters of the history of translation, the product of the work done by these forerunners of the modern translator was an “interpretation” and not a “translation,” as written documents and the people who knew how to write were scarce.

The early history of our profession dates back to the Babylonian Empire (3d century BC), by way of the conflict between the Sumerians, who used the cuneiform writing system, a binding, graphical representation of ideas, and the Semites, whose language had a phonetic base.

During the second period of the Babylonian Empire (1st century BC), interpreters acquired greater relevance not only due the military activities of the monarchs, but also because of the extensive commercial trade between East and West.

The profession received another boost with the Hittite civilization (18th to 11th century BC) as the Akkadian language, the language of diplomacy, spread and later gave way to the Centum languages. Not to mention the fact that the Hittites translated all kinds of messages to each of the languages of the peoples they conquered.

In China, the oldest translation activities date back to the Zhou Dynasty (1100 BC). These linguistic tasks were the domain of government officials who wanted to disseminate their ideology. Keep in mind that the historical period of the Zhou dynasty saw the emergence of important schools of ancient thought represented by the likes of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi (or Lao Tse) and Zhuangzi.

Later, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC), translation became a tool for spreading knowledge of foreign origin. It was in the early Han Dynasty when the oldest book of Chinese medicine was written. This text, written in the form of a dialogue, explained various physiological and pathological phenomena, for instance, it described the circulation of blood and the diagnostic importance of checking the patient’s pulse during a physical examination. Moreover, it listed treatments for over 300 ailments. During this historical period over 365 drugs were recorded in detail: more than 252 were of plant origin, 67 of animal origin and 46 of mineral origin.

Buddhism makes its appearance in China in the middle of the 1st century. Between the years 148 and 171, the Persian An Shigao translated sutras (Sanskrit aphorisms) into Chinese and introduced astronomy concepts to China. The devotion to Buddhism encouraged the birth of a translation school, producing countless translations (of increasingly better quality) of sutras. A similar evolution took root in the Catholic Church, as discussed in our previous article: “The Social Role of Translations in Centuries Past.”

One of the most famous Buddhist monks was Xuanzang, who in 629 went on a journey to look for a spiritual teacher in India. He returned with golden statues of Buddha and a collection of 124 Sanskrit aphorisms along with another 520 manuscripts. The emperor of the Tang Dynasty built Xuanzang a special pagoda so that the monk could spend the rest of his life translating Buddhist manuscripts in his sumptuous pagoda.

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