The first important translation in the West was that of the Septuagint, a collection of Jewish Scriptures translated into early Koine Greek in Alexandria between the 3rd and 1st centuries BCE. The dispersed Jews had forgotten their ancestral language and needed Greek versions (translations) of their Scriptures.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Latin was the lingua franca of the western learned world. The 9th-century Alfred the Great, king of Wessex in England, was far ahead of his time in commissioning vernacular Anglo-Saxon translations of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Meanwhile the Christian Church frowned on even partial adaptations of St. Jerome’s Vulgate of ca. 384 CE, the standard Latin Bible.
In Asia, the spread of Buddhism led to large-scale ongoing translation efforts spanning well over a thousand years. The Tangut Empire was especially efficient in such efforts; exploiting the then newly invented block printing, and with the full support of the government (contemporary sources describe the Emperor and his mother personally contributing to the translation effort, alongside sages of various nationalities), the Tanguts took mere decades to translate volumes that had taken the Chinese centuries to render.
Large-scale efforts at translation were undertaken by the Arabs. Having conquered the Greek world, they made Arabic versions of its philosophical and scientific works. During the Middle Ages, some translations of these Arabic versions were made into Latin, chiefly at Córdoba in Spain. Such Latin translations of Greek and original Arab works of scholarship and science helped advance the development of European Scholasticism.
The broad historic trends in Western translation practice may be illustrated on the example of translation into the English language.
The first fine translations into English were made in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer, who adapted from the Italian of Giovanni Boccaccio in his own Knight’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde; began a translation of the French-language Roman de la Rose; and completed a translation of Boethius from the Latin. Chaucer founded an English poetic tradition on adaptations and translations from those earlier-established literary languages.
The first great English translation was the Wycliffe Bible (ca. 1382), which showed the weaknesses of an underdeveloped English prose. Only at the end of the 15th century did the great age of English prose translation begin with Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur—an adaptation of Arthurian romances so free that it can, in fact, hardly be called a true translation. The first great Tudor translations are, accordingly, the Tyndale New Testament (1525), which influenced the Authorized Version (1611), and Lord Berners’ version of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles (1523–25).
Meanwhile, in Renaissance Italy, a new period in the history of translation had opened in Florence with the arrival, at the court of Cosimo de’ Medici, of the Byzantine scholar Georgius Gemistus Pletho shortly before the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453). A Latin translation of Plato’s works was undertaken by Marsilio Ficino. This and Erasmus’ Latin edition of the New Testament led to a new attitude to translation. For the first time, readers demanded rigor of rendering, as philosophical and religious beliefs depended on the exact words of Plato, Aristotle and Jesus.
Non-scholarly literature, however, continued to rely on adaptation. France’s Pléiade, England’s Tudor poets, and the Elizabethan translators adapted themes by Horace, Ovid, Petrarch and modern Latin writers, forming a new poetic style on those models. The English poets and translators sought to supply a new public, created by the rise of a middle class and the development of printing, with works such as the original authors would have written, had they been writing in England in that day.
The Elizabethan period of translation saw considerable progress beyond mere paraphrase toward an ideal of stylistic equivalence, but even to the end of this period, which actually reached to the middle of the 17th century, there was no concern for verbal accuracy.
In the second half of the 17th century, the poet John Dryden sought to make Virgil speak “in words such as he would probably have written if he were living and an Englishman”. Dryden, however, discerned no need to emulate the Roman poet’s subtlety and concision. Similarly, Homer suffered from Alexander Pope’s endeavor to reduce the Greek poet’s “wild paradise” to order.
Throughout the 18th century, the watchword of translators was ease of reading. Whatever they did not understand in a text, or thought might bore readers, they omitted. They cheerfully assumed that their own style of expression was the best, and that texts should be made to conform to it in translation. For scholarship they cared no more than had their predecessors, and they did not shrink from making translations from translations in third languages, or from languages that they hardly knew, or—as in the case of James Macpherson’s “translations” of Ossian—from texts that were actually of the “translator’s” own composition.
The 19th century brought new standards of accuracy and style. In regard to accuracy, observes J.M. Cohen, the policy became “the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text”, except for any bawdy passages and the addition of copious explanatory footnotes. In regard to style, the Victorians’ aim, achieved through far-reaching metaphrase (literality) or pseudo-metaphrase, was to constantly remind readers that they were reading a foreign classic. An exception was the outstanding translation in this period, Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859), which achieved its Oriental flavor largely by using Persian names and discreet Biblical echoes and actually drew little of its material from the Persian original.
In advance of the 20th century, a new pattern was set in 1871 by Benjamin Jowett, who translated Plato into simple, straightforward language. Jowett’s example was not followed, however, until well into the new century, when accuracy rather than style became the principal criterion.