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Etymology of “Translation”

What is the origin of the word “Translation”?

It is the process of translating and adapting words or a piece of writing from one language into another. It is also a full-time career and the main source of income for many translators and interpreters all over the world.

Throughout history, civilizations have required translators and interpreters to share their culture, wisdom and works with the rest of the world. Almost every historical register, religious book, masterpiece of world literature,  invention patent, major agreement or international treaty has been through the hands and eyes of translators. The translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek in the 3rd century BC is regarded as the first major translation in the Western world.

origin of the word translation
Translator addressing his master. Unknown Flemish artist. Late 15th Century.

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In a way, translators are the bridge not only between different languages, but also between periods of history, helping people all over the world break the language barrier. Translators and interpreters spend a lot of time transferring and adapting texts and speeches from the source to the target language. So it goes without saying that the origin of the noun translation —and, by extension, (to) translate and translator—, deserves to be analyzed on this blog.

Thomas Eakins
The Translator, Portrait of Monsignor Hugh T. Henry (1902), by Thomas Eakins, American Catholic Historical Society,

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Etymological root of the word Translation

Translation derives from the Latin word Translatio, meaning “to carry across“:

trans, (“across”)

+

ferre, (“to carry” or “to bring”).

Latin> We can find the word trānslātiō in the nominative and vocative cases.

Case Singular Plural
nominative trānslātiō trānslātiōnēs
genitive trānslātiōnis trānslātiōnum
dative trānslātiōnī trānslātiōnibus
accusative trānslātiōnem trānslātiōnēs
ablative trānslātiōne trānslātiōnibus
vocative trānslātiō trānslātiōnēs

As it seems, there was an intermediate step, when English adopted the word from Old French translacion (traduction in modern French).

So, not surprisingly, the origin of Translation is Latin… But what about Greek?

The Ancient Greek term for “translation”, μετάφρασις (metaphrasis, “a speaking across”), has supplied  English with “metaphrase”, which, despite having a similar meaning, is not exactly the same. Metaphrase means a literal, verbatim translation, as opposed to a paraphrase. It is also is also the translation of poetry into prose.

origin of the word translation translate translating

With regards to the use of the word in the sense of  “rendering an expression or speech into another language”, Leonardo Bruni, a Tuscan humanist, historian and statesman, was the first to use the verb tradurre to refer to the art of translation and Robert Estienne, a 16th-century printer and classical scholar in Paris, was the first to use the noun traduction (French for translation) in the sense of rendering of a message or text into another language.

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