Translators always risk inappropriate spill-over of source-language idiom and usage into the target-language translation. On the other hand, spill-overs have imported useful source-language calques and loanwords that have enriched the target languages. Indeed, translators have helped substantially to shape the languages into which they have translated.
Due to the demands of business documentation consequent to the Industrial Revolution that began in the mid-18th century, some translation specialties have become formalized, with dedicated schools and professional associations.
The word translation derives from the Latin translatio (which itself comes from trans- and fero, together meaning "to carry across" or "to bring across"). The modern Romance languages use words for translation derived from that source and from the alternative Latin traduco ("to lead across"). The Germanic and Slavic languages likewise use calques based on these Latin sources.
Discussions of the theory and practice of translation reach back into antiquity and show remarkable continuities. The ancient Greeks distinguished between metaphrase (literal translation) and paraphrase. This distinction was adopted by English poet and translatorJohn Dryden (1631–1700), who described translation as the judicious blending of these two modes of phrasing when selecting, in the target language, "counterparts," or equivalents, for the expressions used in the source language:
Dryden cautioned, however, against the license of "imitation", i.e., of adapted translation: “When a painter copies from the life... he has no privilege to alter features and lineaments..."
This general formulation of the central concept of translation — equivalence — is as adequate as any that has been proposed since Cicero and Horace, who, in first-century-BCE Rome, famously and literally cautioned against translating "word for word" (verbum pro verbo).
Despite occasional theoretical diversity, the actual practice of translation has hardly changed since antiquity. Except for some extreme metaphrasers in the early Christian period and the Middle Ages, and adapters in various periods (especially pre-Classical Rome, and the 18th century), translators have generally shown prudent flexibility in seeking equivalents — "literal" where possible, paraphrastic where necessary — for the original meaning and other crucial "values" (e.g., style, verse form, concordance with musical accompaniment or, in films, with speech articulatory movements) as determined from context.
When a target language has lacked terms that are found in a source language, translators have borrowed those terms, thereby enriching the target language. Thanks in great measure to the exchange of calques and loanwords between languages, and to their importation from other languages, there are few concepts that are "untranslatable" among the modern European languages.
Generally, the greater the contact and exchange that have existed between two languages, or between those languages and a third one, the greater is the ratio of metaphrase to paraphrase that may be used in translating among them. However, due to shifts in ecological niches of words, a common etymology is sometimes misleading as a guide to current meaning in one or the other language. For example, the English actual should not be confused with the cognate French actuel ("present", "current"), the Polish aktualny ("present", "current"), or the Russian актуальный ("urgent", "topical").
The translator's role as a bridge for "carrying across" values between cultures has been discussed at least since Terence, the second-century-BCE Roman adapter of Greek comedies. The translator's role is, however, by no means a passive, mechanical one, and so has also been compared to that of an artist. The main ground seems to be the concept of parallel creation found in critics such as Cicero. Dryden observed that "Translation is a type of drawing after life..." Comparison of the translator with a musician or actor goes back at least to Samuel Johnson’s remark about Alexander Pope playing Homer on a flageolet, while Homer himself used a bassoon.
If translation be an art, it is no easy one. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon wrote that if a translation is to be true, the translator must know both languages, as well as the science that he is to translate; and finding that few translators did, he wanted to do away with translation and translators altogether.
The translator of the Bible into German, Martin Luther, is credited with being the first European to posit that one translates satisfactorily only toward his own language. L.G. Kelly states that since Johann Gottfried Herder in the 18th century, "it has been axiomatic" that one translates only toward his own language.
[T]ranslation . . . is in fact an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labor and portion of common minds; [it] should be [practiced] by those who are themselves capable of being actors, when they see greater use in translating the works of others than in their own works, and hold higher than their own glory the service that they render their country.
One of the first recorded instances of translation in the West was the rendering of the Old Testament into Greek in the third century BCE. The translation is known as the "Septuagint", a name that refers to the seventy translators (seventy-two, in some versions) who were commissioned to translate the Bible at Alexandria, Egypt. Each translator worked in solitary confinement in his own cell, and according to legend all seventy versions proved identical. The Septuagint became the source text for later translations into many languages, including Latin, Coptic, Armenian and Georgian.
A famous mistranslation of the Bible is the rendering of the Hebrew word קֶרֶן (keren), which has several meanings, as "horn" in a context where it actually means "beam of light". As a result, for centuries artists have depicted Moses the Lawgiver with horns growing out of his forehead; an example is Michelangelo's famous sculpture. Some Christians with anti-Semitic feelings have used such depictions to spread hatred of the Jews, claiming that they were devils with horns.
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