The History of Translation History
ATA Chronicle, September, 1996
By Alex Gross
By my count, nine useful books about translation history, specialized works aside, have been published over the last thirty years. It must say something about where this field is going that six of them have come out during the last seven years (and four since 1992). The latest such work, Translators through History, edited and directed by Jean Delisle and Judith Woodsworth, appears under the very highest auspices, being co-published by John Benjamins and Unesco. The combined effort of fifty scholars from twenty different nations, this volume has been five years in the making and is now published simultaneously in French and English with assistance from several Canadian sponsors and the F.I.T. The editors have set out to create "a selective and thematic overview" rather than "an exhaustive study of the history of translation,...without compromising ...standards of scholarship...they have sought to make the book readable and accessible to as wide an audience as possible." The volume is divided into nine chapters, each covering one of the roles played by translators over the ages: inventors of alphabets, developers of national languages, creators of national literatures, disseminators of knowledge, accessories to power, religious proselytizers, transmitters of cultural values, authors of dictionaries, and interpreters as the middlemen of history. To their outstanding credit, the editors and their collaborators make a truly impressive showing in each of these fields, no small achievement within the limitations of a few hundred pages. The work is supplemented by 24 illustrations, two appendices, a bibliography, and an index. Perhaps most important, this is the first general work on translation history to abandon a purely Eurocentric perspective (though a pending ATA exhibit proposal also favors this approach). This work is almost overwhelming in the sheer number and richness of strands, episodes, and anecdotes it embraces, moving with seeming effortlessness from the Seventh Century Chinese monk Xuanzang to modern Cameroon to the creation of the Cree syllabary in the early Nineteenth Century. As we visit Baghdad, we learn that the master translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq was paid in gold for his work according to its weight (and hence tended to use thick paper!), that Gerard of Cremona wandered from Italy to Toledo in 1157 simply because he wanted to find a copy of Ptolemy's Almagest for himself, that Doña Marina's ghost still lurks along the edge of Mexico City's zócalo, that French Canadian translators protested in vain against politicians, who insisted "Dominion of Canada" must be translated "Puissance de Canada." This book is certainly an indispensable tool for anyone interested in translation history. But it should perhaps also be admitted at the same time that no single book in this field can be considered a model of clarity or accessibility. Of these works (see bibliography at end), perhaps Rener's and Kelly's should receive the lowest grades for their overall meaning-to-verbiage ratio, though both certainly have useful insights to offer. Even for someone familiar with the material, the current work also leaves something to be desired. Parts of it read even more drably than most history texts, and sentences like the following are all too common: "In the twentieth century, as in the nineteenth, the United States was divided by conflicting ideological tendencies, some of them conservative and others more liberal." "In fact, religion was only one of several motives for the many expeditions from the Old World to the New; missions were also carried out for the purposes of commerce, power and territorial expansion." Wooden language abounds, and the chapter on dictionaries reads remarkably like a laundry list of such works through the ages, though such a list will surely be valuable to...
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