Posted by: patenttranslator | November 2, 2014

History of Translation During the Last 10,000 Years According to Mad Patent Translator, Part I – Early Beginnings


Translation has always been with us, ever since languages were invented by people living in caves who discovered that it is much more fun to keep creating new words to communicate with fellow cave dwellers instead of just using a few grunts and hand gestures.

Different languages were thus developed by people living in isolation in different regions on planet Earth in the prehistoric age. Cave and hut dwellers were at first completely monolingual, although they were already able to communicate over relatively large distances by using a system of smoke signals, or drums called tom-toms in Africa, predecessors of more recent communication systems such as radio, Morse code, TV, Internet and car navigation.

A few thousand years ago, during Stone Age, Bronze Age, and even in Iron Age, being monolingual was not much of a problem because most people never met anybody who would speak a different language.

Neither was being monolingual much of a problem for instance for Vikings who did not need to learn another language in order to do what Vikings were so good at: pillage and burn down villages, kill the men, rape the women and steal everything in sight.

Many occupations and certain lifestyles thus did not require knowledge of foreign languages, which is true to this day. James Bond, who was very good at martial arts, shooting and driving very fast fancy cars, may have picked up few phrases in Chinese or Russian here and there, but he was monolingual for all practical purposes.

Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University, and former Secretary of Treasury, according to many one of the geniuses who caused the Worldwide Financial Crisis which started in 2007 and for all practical purposes is largely still with us, is also proudly monolingual, as I write in this blog post. This is not very surprising to me as he is coming from the same Anglo-Saxon tradition as James Bond.

However, being monolingual was a big problem already for intrepid travelers who dared to travel to far away destinations on horseback or on camelback, or to sail the sea on tiny and fragile wooden ships many centuries ago.

When the Italian explorer Marco Polo traveled at the end of the thirteenth century to Asia, he had to learn several languages, probably as many as four of them based on the spelling of foreign words in his book, a guidebook called in Italian “Million”, which is now more than 700 years old (Persian, Mongolian and Uigur, although scholars cannot agree on whether he also learned Chinese).

This guidebook served for centuries as a model for the way guidebooks should be written, whether the authors of modern guidebooks are aware of it, or not. One can see its influence for example in my favorite series of guidebooks called Lonely Planet Guidebooks, which served me well when I was planning my escape from America to Japan almost 30 years ago, and then again more recently when I was planning my escape from California to East Coast 14 years ago.

Of course, foreign languages were also learned by educated people in ancient civilizations, including in Greece and in Rome (although not so much in isolated, navel-gazing China or Japan). The works of Greek philosophers, playwrights and authors were studied by Latin writers and intellectuals in ancient Rome and eventually had a major influence on the birth of a cultural movement in Italy that became known as Renaissance.

Perhaps the best known translator of all times was a biblical scholar who was born in Dalmatia, whose real name was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus and who later became known as St. Jerome after he translated the Bible into Latin (which was not his native language as I noted in this post on my blog).

However, although translation has been with us for millennia, it was only after the invention of the printing press by the German inventor Johannes Guttenberg in 1440 that translation became a much more important means for dissemination of information than during the centuries when every book had to be reproduced manually by a scribe, often a monk who had to have a neat and clearly legible handwriting.

Technical translation and translation of patents, which is what I have been doing for almost three decades now, was not really required during the Middle Ages for two important reasons:

1. There was no patent system, at least not a unified and internationally recognized and enforceable system of patent rights, although some patents (letters patent) were granted locally to inventors in England already in the fourteenth century, in Venice in the fifteenth century, and in France in the 16th century.

2. The second reason why technical translation did not really exist during Middle Ages was that just about every book dealing with sciences such as astronomy, mathematics, botany or geography was written in Latin. Up until about the year 1500, Latin was the common medium for communication in Europe not only during Middle Ages, but in some cases up until the nineteenth century and beyond. Although I was born a few years after the Middle Ages, I had Latin for 3 years in high school and for 2 years at Charles University in Prague (where the language of instruction was naturally Latin when it was founded in 1348 by “the Holy Roman Emperor” Charles IV), which is clear evidence of how ancient I am.

As a teenager I even had a pen pal in Italy with whom I corresponded in Latin (her name was Antonia and she loved to dance), but that would be a story for another blog post.

Although Nicolaus Copernicus was fluent in Latin and in German, as well as in Polish, Greek and Italian (we don’t know whether he spoke German or Polish at home), he wrote his book called De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres [or Bodies]” in Latin for obvious reasons. Had he written his boon on astronomy in German or Polish, the chances are that the Sun would have be revolving around the Earth, at least in the minds of his contemporaries, at least for a few more decades.

The logistics of what is now called “the translation business”, to the extent that it at all existed in ancient times and Middle Ages are not clear, although we do know a few facts here and there.

We know for example that St. Jerome worked for the pope when he was translating the Bible into Latin. It is likely that he had only one customer, namely the pope, for more than half a century, who probably paid his invoices on time and at a good rate too.

However, having only one customer is not something that I would recommend to a modern translator (unless your customer is somebody with pockets as deep as those of the pope and the translation is at least as long as the Bible).

Literary works were in more recent centuries often translated into other languages by writers who were fluent in more than one language, and it can be assumed that for example letters or articles and excerpts from foreign newspapers, to the extent that these things were translated at all, were simply translated by people who “knew a foreign language”.

A new profession of “a translator” was then slowly established sometime in the 20th century, when mass communications (telegraph, radio, TV, and most importantly Internet in the 21st century) completely changed, for better in some respects and for worse in other respects, the character and the nature of what later became known as “the translation business”.


  1. Benedict XVI? Maybe Damasus I. Come on, you definitely could do better when copying.


  2. […] […]


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  4. “Many occupations and certain lifestyles thus did not require knowledge of foreign languages, which is true to this day. James Bond, who was very good at martial arts, shooting and driving very fast fancy cars, may have picked up few phrases in Chinese or Russian here and there, but he was monolingual for all practical purposes.”

    Wrong. All true Bond fans know he took a first in Oriental languages (or not.)


    Liked by 1 person

  5. I beg to differ.

    I heard him “speaking Russian” and I could not understand a single word.

    And I am sorry to say that his “German” was almost equally incomprehensible.


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