Imagining a world without document translation casts our thinking back to the Tower of Babel myth in Genesis 11 of the Christian Bible. In this story, God confuses the languages of all the people building a tower to reach heaven so they can no longer communicate and work together. Understandably, they then become scattered.

From that point onward, humans have struggled to understand each other. Language is part of the human struggle, and as people of different cultures first connected, efforts to bridge the language barrier have been at the forefront of all interaction.

Enter the first birth pangs of the translation industry.

Our modern word “translation” finds its roots in a Latin term meaning “to bring or carry across.” Some document translation experts also refer to the Ancient Greek word “metaphrasis,” meaning “to speak across.” Another translation term, “metaphrase,” stems from the Greek word and means “word-for-word translation.”

All these terms are part of the known history of translation in the world. It’s fitting, as International Translation Day approaches on Sept. 30, that we look back at the history of our modern practice of document translation and its important figures!

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A Brief History of Document Translation

Before learning to communicate with actual words, people used signs and symbols to represent objects and feelings. This was the first basic communication method. Over time, sounds became sentences and then conversations. As soon as mankind could speak, attempts at writing followed.

As groups of people interacted and discovered that they spoke differently, the history of translation began.

Early forms of translation were found engraved on clay tablets and contained Sumerian vocabularies. Other writings were religious, poetic, and financial in nature.

Here’s a brief timeline that shows highlights of the history of translation:

  • Manual Translation (Approx. 2000 BC)—Partial translations of The Gilgamesh Epic from Sumerian into Asian tongues.
  • The Rosetta Stone (Approx. 1799 BC)—A recorded text that explained Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphics of that time period.
  • Xuanzang (Approx. 645 AD)—Chinese monk who translated 74 volumes on Indian Buddhist scripts into Chinese.
  • The House of Wisdom (Approx. 813 AD)—Caliph Al-Mamun began this group to train language translators and enhance translation quality.
  • The First Known Use of Block Printing (Approx. 1000 AD)—A Chinese translation of the Buddhist Tripitaka is produced in Asia with block printing.
  • The first multilingual publishing industry (Approx. 1500 AD)—The first moveable print technology was introduced for mass printing.
  • William Tyndale (1494–1536)—Executed in Holland in 1536 for translating the Bible into English for the common people to read.
  • Martin Luther (Approx. 1601 AD)—Translated the Christian New Testament into German.
  • The First Great Mass Printing (Approx. 1700)—Luther’s German translation of the Bible was one of the first great print runs in history.
  • The Industrial Revolution (Approx. 1800)—The demand for business documentation stemmed from this mighty growth of industry.
  • Constance Garnett (1861-1946)—Translated 71 volumes of Russian literary works into English, including the work of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Anton Chekhov.
  • The Electronic Computer (1950)—The electronic computer not only handled numbers, but symbols as well, including type.
  • Computer-assisted Translation (CAT) (Approx. 1960–Approx. 1990)—Using specialized translation software with translation dictionaries to facilitate language translation.

Document Translation Today

Document translation and the translation industry have played a massive role in the development of societies and culture. Historical and modern-day professional translators have made incalculable contributions to society in their efforts to unite the people of the world through language and understanding.


Translation services have evolved with the use of modern technology and specialized training, including translation memory and computer-assisted translation methods and software. The Internet has revolutionized how the world communicates and conducts business, and this has placed enormous demands on the translation industry. Never before in the history of translation has the demand been greater for professional translation services.

Subject Matter Experts

Due to the demands of business consumers for technical accuracy, the best professional translation services employ linguists who are not only native speakers of a particular language, but who are also subject matter experts in specific fields of industry. These experts are well-versed in the terminology and concepts of a particular field of business. Thus, they provide document translations with a much higher level of quality and accuracy, no matter the language or industry.


Because of growing globalization, translators must place a particular emphasis on content localization in order to accurately convey a client’s message across cultural, regional, and linguistic lines without causing confusion or insult. The larger our global community becomes, the more precise our focus must be for accuracy and understanding. This has generated a new term in translation and business circles: glocalization.


Professional document translation services have also achieved high levels of certification in order to guarantee the quality and accuracy of their finished products. Such companies are willing to undergo strenuous testing and evaluation, and make necessary changes to structure and processes, in order to guarantee the best possible document translations for their clients.

As International Translation Day approaches, modern-day translators are proud to embody the 2018 theme, “Translation: promoting cultural heritage in changing times.” Translators know their work promotes cultural heritage by building bridges of communication, understanding, and mutual respect.


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