Saturday, June 25, 2022

Can There Be A Universal History of Translation?


When I was a history student (see About Me on the right) I had already read H. G. WellsThe Outline of History, subtitled "The Whole Story of Man", chronicling the history of the world from the origin of the Earth to the First World WarThen I read chunks of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, which was much in fashion in the late 1940s. Toynbee was an admirer of another universalist historian, Ibn Khaldun, part of whose Muqaddima (Preface) I had to read in my Arabic programme. I learned from these to admire their explicative power while remaining suspicious of their generalisations. Anyway I learned that whatever the drawbacks, an enlightening  universal history could be attempted by great minds.


This brings me to one of the latest developments in translatology, namely an explosion of interest in the history of translation. There have been studies of that history in the past. My first acquaintance came from a book by my erstwhile colleague at the University of Ottawa, Louis G. Kelly. His The True Interpreter is still worth reading. It's as much a history of ideas about translation, i.e. translatology, as it is about its practices. It makes no claim to being universal; on the contrary, as its subtitle says, it’s only a history of translation “in the West”. Nonetheless it covers a large slice of universal history. From it some of the recurring themes can be adduced; for instance the eternal opposition of free and literal, summed up in the famous saying of St Jerome,

“For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek I render sense for sense and not word for word, except in the case of the Holy Scriptures, where even the order of the words is a mystery.”


The blossoming current interest in translation history has led to the formation of an organisation, the History and Translation Network. Its headquarters are under Christopher Rundle at the University of Bologna, a university that has established itself as a leader in translatology research in the past decade. In May it held its first major conference, in Tallinn, and the response was amazing: over a hundred papers. I hope to say more about it in another post.


For the moment I want to draw attention to another of its productions: its Manifesto. For the most part it’s unexceptionable. However,  there is one item in it that sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s the statement that there is no such thing as a universal history of translation.”


To say that “there is no such thing” goes beyond saying that we don’t yet have a universal history to implying that such a history is impossible. Yet my earlier training recounted above leads me not only to think that one possible but to look around for attempts at it.


A universal history must begin at the beginning. The best-known universal  history, the Bible, opens with “In the beginning…” The beginning of translation is lost in the mists of time, but we can make some suppositions. First, it didn’t begin with written translation. Spoken language long preceded the written, and therefore the history of translation must begin with interpreting. We have evidence of interpreting going back four thousand years. The earliest image of an interpreter is that of Shu-Ilishu, an interpreter of the Meluhhan language (generally held to be a language of the Indus civilization) from ca. 2020 BCE. (For more on him, enter shu-ilishu in the Search box on the right.) Certainly the invention of written translation, which must have accompanied he invention of writing, was a very important next step.

“It is known that translation was carried out as early as the Mesopotamian era when the Sumerian poem, Gilgamesh, was translated into Asian languages. This dates back to around the second millennium BC. Other ancient translated works include those carried out by Buddhist monks who translated Indian documents into Chinese.”


A universal history must also have an end, which is usually the present day because histories are not predictions. For translation the end is more visible than the beginning. It’s computerisation. The evidence is everywhere on the internet.


That leaves a large gap to be filled in.


One thinker who proposed a model to do it was my mentor in translatology, the Bulgarian semiotician Alexander Lyudskanov. In the early pages of his magnum opus Human and Machine Translation (see Sources below) he linked the evolution of written translation to the development of texts. Certain text types being much in demand at certain periods, he said, the manner of translating varied to match them. In chronological order, religious, legal, literary and technical texts had this effect. It was a good try, but like Kelly he was bound by the Western tradition though he included Soviet Russia.


One constant wavering that we ourselves have noticed in connection with our Natural Translation Hypothesis is the tendency towards trained professional translators versus the prevalence of untrained translators. It’s far from modern.


A universal history cannot be just a chronological listing of events and people; there wouldn’t be room for them all. Rather it must deal in  

trends – long-term trends – and  underlying  forces. Some of them can be discerned in translation history. Therefore the confection of a universal history may be difficult but it’s not impossible. To deny it is a failure to see the wood for the trees.



H. G. Wells. The Outline of History. London: Newnes, 1919.


Arnold J. Toynbee. A Study of History. 6 volumes. Oxford University Press, 1946.


Ibn Khaldun. Wikipedia, 2022.


Louis G. Kelly. The True Interpreter: A History of Translation Theory and Practice in the West. New York: St Martin’s, 1979.


St. Jerome. Letter to Pammachius on the best method of translating. In Kelly.


Aleksander Lyudskanov. Превеждат човекът и машината (Human and machine translation). Revised and expanded edn., ed. Elena Paskaleva. Preface by Miroslav Yanakiev. Sofia: Narodna Kultura, 1980. There are German, French and Italian translations.

Christopher Rundle.



Sikh message of universality at Parliament of World’s Religions, 2021.



Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Young Interpreters Asks for Your Help



Over the years this blog has reported several times on Young Interpreters (YI). To retrieve some of the posts, enter emtas in the Search box on the right.


YI is outstanding because it consists not just of a single institution but of a widespread movement in British schools and even beyond them. It lives up to its name by providing interpreting by the bilingual children themselves when needed; but it goes beyond that by helping to integrate newly arrived immigrants through a buddy system. Its success has been due in no small measure to the dynamism of Astrid Dinneen.


Now Hampshire EMTAS, the regional education authority in southern England that is the sponsor of YI,  is in the process of revamping their leaflet which aims to support parents in bringing up their children bilingually, and asks for your help. The team would also like to create a brand-new publication for children and young people growing up in more than one language and is interested to hear what Young Interpreters think this publication should include. Should it explain the importance of maintaining your languages? Should it show you how you can use your languages to help you with your learning? Should it tell you more about heritage language GCSEs? You tell us. Contributions in the form of photos, artwork, videos, audio recording etc. are welcome from Young Interpreters of all ages in Hampshire and the rest of the world. The most outstanding entries will receive a prize. Please contact Astrid Dinneen at with your ideas and examples by the end of the Summer term. Pictures of children must be carefully reviewed by each participating school to ensure all have permission from their parents/guardians,


Astrid Dinneen. Your latest edition of the Young Interpreters Newsletter. Basingstoke: EMTAS,  June 2022.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Updates on Cuneiform, Fixers and the Booker


Update on cuneiform


Last year there was a post on this blog about George Smith, the first decoder and translator of cuneiform writing. To retrieve it, enter george smith in the search box on the right. Now the BBC has produced a video about the significance of his work; it’s elementary but good for school use. To view it, go to


or click [HERE].


Update on fixers

Fixer is a term that came into fashion during the Afghan war. It designated interpreters for the military and for journalists, and whose tasks went well beyond language translation. To find our several posts about them, enter fixers in the Search box on the right.  With the demise of Western intervention in Afghanistan the term has become less common, but it will surely persist.


Now a French documentary film about them has come out.


"The local helpers known as fixers are vital for journalists working in countries where there is conflict and political instability. A documentary by a French reporter highlights the dedication of his contacts in Afghanistan, Mexico, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ukraine. French reporter Charles Villa’s documentary Fixers is a tribute to those behind the scenes. Fixers are the “bridge” between the many actors in the field and journalists, providing anything from contacts, translation, transport, even, sometimes, accommodation."

For more, go to

or click [HERE].


Never without my fixer: French documentary a shout-out to hidden colleagues. 

Yahoo News, 12 June 2022.

Update on Indian literary translation


A bee that has been buzzing around this blog for years is the lack of attention paid in the West to Indian literary translation, even in academic circles, notwithstanding the enormous amount of such translation due to the number of live Indian languages and the persistence of English as a lingua franca.  For examples of our concern, enter india in the Search box on the right.


But now attention has momentarily exploded because the English translation of an Indian novel has won the coveted International Booker Prize. The novel is Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand.


The publicity for Tomb of Sand is very welcome. Nevertheless it has some quirks. Pavan Varma’s article referenced below discusses the reaction in India itself:

“I am proud and very happy for Geetanjali. She fully deserves this belated recognition. But I would have been even happier if her creativity was more befittingly recognised in her own country before the Booker Prize.”

There is a danger that Westerners unacquainted with India may jump to the conclusion that Hindi is the country’s most important literary language and remain ignorant of other riches like Tamil. One surprise is that the translator, despite the ready availability of English translators in India, is an American. This is not to downplay the quality of the translation, which has been widely praised; and no doubt its quality was a factor in the Booker decision. Nevertheless, it is sometimes said that a translation should sound as if the original author were speaking.  So we may wonder whether the work might not sound more genuine in the voice of an Indian translator using the slightly nuanced dialect of Indian English. Just wondering.



Geetanjali Shree. Tomb of Sand. Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell. Haryana: Penguin, 2022.

Pavan K. Varma. A publishing wasteland: India needs translations. The Asian Age, 12 June 2022.