Doing the Hard Work

The most straightforward and most laborious way to cross the language gap is to learn another language, and translate for others who don’t speak it. History says this work is so arduous that humankind doesn’t keep it up for long.

My help in this post is a book called Empires of the Word – A Language History of the World, written by British linguist Nicholas Ostler. In this book, he studies languages that prevailed over large areas for significant periods in human history. Ostler’s book is a quest to find out why and how those languages prevailed while others didn’t, and how they lost their significance over time (if that happened).

Empires tend to need centralized administration at some level, and it is assumed that this centralized administration must happen in one single language. On the other hand, empires rule several groups of people who do not originally speak that one language. In Ostler’s words:

“There began to be a motive for communication among people over longer distances. Bilingualism would have increased in the population […].”

Bilingualism had emerged and did indeed increase.

In most empires, people often use two languages: their first (native) language, and the administrative language of the empire. Ostler shows this through the example of Spanish and Nahuatl, spoken in Mexico. Nahuatl was the language of Motecuhzoma [Montezuma] and his people, whom Cortés met when he set foot on the American shores. Today, many descendants of native Mexicans speak both languages and cherish both identities.

In his work, Ostler focuses on the ‘life’ [prevalence] of languages. He does not really consider the effect of large-scale translations and translation technology – maybe because his main topic is the story of dominant languages. However, in my experience, translation mostly helps less dominant languages [read ‘language communities’] survive and prevail.

Despite all this, there were large-scale translation efforts throughout history. Let’s look at a few examples, mostly in Europe.

The Vulgate, created between 382 and 420 AD, used to be the most prevalent Latin text of the Bible, which included the first Latin translation of the Old Testament. The work was commissioned by Pope Damasus I, and performed by St Jerome (‘Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus’), who is well known, at least to some extent, to all translators today.

The very name (‘vulgata’ in Latin, meaning ‘commonly used’) suggests that its creation was an act of language policy. The Western parts of the Roman empire – where people did not speak Greek – required a consistent text of the Bible. In a way, this meant the democratization of the Bible, at least for the Western peoples, and if we take this viewpoint, it would happen again in the Reformation, through some of the Jesuit missions, and the massive literary translations that have begun in the 19th century. On the other hand, this – and Islam’s conquest a few centuries later – eventually caused Greek to diminish as a dominant language, and gave rise to Latin to become the predominant language in medieval Europe. In Catholic territories, the Vulgate had become the official text of the Bible till well into the sixteenth century.

Jerome’s work had started off as a revision of the Old Latin text rather than a new translation. However, when he had been forced out of Rome and settled in Bethlehem, he became acquainted with the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, and embarked on its translation into Latin. I will dedicate another post to Jerome, his translation, focusing on his methods rather than the effect of the Vulgate on later history. The role of the Vulgate in history is best explained in this Wikipedia article and the readings referenced there.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the multilingual environment of the Iberian peninsula favored translation. So much so that one of the world’s first translation schools was established there, in Toledo. Members of this school and its predecessors translated Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek texts, many on science and medicine, into Latin and – later – Castilian.

Latin literacy was part of the elitism of the Catholic Church in the late Middle Ages. Access to the text of the Bible – and thus the privilege of interpreting it – was reserved for those who had been trained in Latin. Making the Bible available in vernacular languages was a main driving force of the European Reformation, where Luther set the example by completing a German translation (1522, New Testament; 1535, Old Testament). This and printing made the text of the Bible available to an unprecedented number of people, and thus gave a boost to literacy throughout Europe.

Despite all controversy, missionaries of the Jesuit order were also eminent doers as far as languages and translation are concerned. Their translation effort was not centered around the Bible, although they published a translation of parts of the Gospels in Kyoto in 1613. (It was lost after Christianity had been banned and Jesuits were exiled from Japan.) They sought to learn the languages of the peoples they visited. They translated various European works into local languages, but they also brought the knowledge of those cultures into Europe. They studied – and recorded – the vocabulary and grammar of the languages they encountered. It’s ironic that the Jesuits had started off being the iron fist of the Church in its most repressive efforts – and in the end, through the exchange of language and culture, they became the most tolerant of Catholic organizations.

Roughly two centuries ahead, the late 18th and the early 19th century saw the birth of nationalist movements throughout Europe, at a large scale. One of the focal points of these movements was the language of the community that the movements perceived as the nation. In fact, language was a key defining factor of the national identities. Of course, these movements didn’t originate in the 18th or the 19th century: the foundations were laid in the Middle Ages, at least according to Patrick J. Geary.

With a few exceptions – with France as a notable one –, nationalist movements sprang into life in territories that were fragmented (for example, Italy or Germany), or occupied by greater powers of foreign origin (for example, Bulgaria, Hungary, Norway, Poland, and so on). The administrative language of occupied territories was – quite naturally – different from the language spoken by its inhabitants. Thus one of the main points of nationalist leaders was to preserve, or in some cases, reconstruct the language of the nation, and make it the administrative language.

One of the most efficient methods of resurrecting a language is to create literature. No wonder that, for example, Hungarian schoolchildren are taught to treat poems from the early 19th century with the highest reverence, although their language is quite alien to what we speak today, and kids have a hard time understanding them.

When your identity is defined by language, the dignity of your language is always at stake. Nationalists had set off to prove that their language was just as powerful as the ‘great’ languages of the time. How do you acquire such proof? You translate something, and show that speakers of your language can enjoy it the same way as the audience from the original language can. For example, no wonder that almost every Hungarian poet or writer tried their strength at translating plays of Shakespeare, and these translations were actually put on stage. I think it’s safe to say that large-scale literary translation began with the ascent of nationalist movements. That’s a huge amount of doing.

We all know the downsides of nationalism – I don’t respect nationalist movements much myself –, because nations, in the wake of their pride, shunned and often oppressed other communities on their territories. This caused painful conflicts when those other communities woke up to their nationalistic pride. In some way, most of these conflicts persist even today.

In my view, the trauma of the two world wars and the Holocaust brought about the bright side of nationalism (although you can argue it can no longer be called nationalism). In some areas, mostly in Europe and North America, it became a custom – often a rule – to respect the individual, including the identity of the individual. If you respect the national identity of someone, you should make sure they can communicate in their own language – to the police, the court, or other administrative bodies. In addition, this gave birth to an era that sees diversity – diversity of species, cultures, beliefs, and languages – as a value in itself, worth preserving and protecting.

As a result, most international organizations at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century are multilingual. For example, the European Union – where I am sitting right now – made every official language of its member states an official language of itself (although painfully lacking out in minority languages not recognized by some member states). This means it’s obligatory to translate every EU document into all official languages. Other international organizations – like the UN, or some churches – also make efforts to be accessible in as many languages as possible.

International companies also recognized that they can expect more commercial success if their products are available in the local languages of as many territories as possible. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, some international players started immense projects of what we now call localization. Localization concerns mostly software products and websites, and as such, it involves a good deal of translation. The reason we don’t call it translation is that successful localization also requires a lot of engineering work, so that the localized product fits the local culture rather than the language only.

These days, appliances and chemicals are also produced by international companies, and sold in virtually every country of the world. This again means a lot of translation because consumer protection laws in most countries require that user manuals and safety instructions be available in the local language or languages if multiple ones are in use.

International organizations and companies now perform an unprecedented amount of translation, which would not be possible without the help of technology, even when there are a huge number of translators and translation companies, working with several thousands of pages every day. No wonder that translation-related technology saw more progress in the last forty years than through the entire human history before that.

There is a non-commercial side of translation and localization – we may call it pro bono translation. For example, if the usage of a water purifier is explained in a local language in Africa, thousands of people can get pure drinking water – without the water purifier and the translation, many of the same people would die from infection. Jost Zetzsche and Nataly Kelly make the case for such translation in their enjoyable and enlightening book called Found in Translation.

This results in a democratization of languages – a non-dominant language is preserved and is evolving precisely because international organizations, a lot of them originating in a dominant-language area, translate or localize content into them. This clearly shows that the respect for various identities has become part of the common mindset. It would be interesting to see how this will affect the future of dominant (in Nicolas Ostler’s words, ‘top-twenty’) languages.

Today, there is an amazing crowd of amazing people doing the hard work of crossing the language gap. Some of them also fear the day when the dream of translation technology comes true. This is – of course – fully unattended machine translation, making all translation effortless, and the profession of the translator obsolete. But I doubt if it can ever be achieved. Until then, we have the reality of translation technology that relies on translators and groups of translators, making translation possible and achievable in situations where no-one would’ve thought of translation only a few years ago.

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