The history behind the practice of translation is still being unravelled today. As such, a pinnacle question amongst many scholars is, what is the first documented translation? The answer to this question provides valuable information concerning the development of translation as an art and as a profession.
It is important to note that translation has always played a crucial role in harmonising communication between countries where cultural and linguistic divides exist. Even thousands of years ago, translation was often used to encourage trade as well as to spread popular religious beliefs. Unfortunately, due to the impracticality of documentation back in the day, some translations may have been lost or destroyed. As such, it is difficult to know, for sure, as to what the first documented translation actually is.
However, history and research show that the two earliest “known” works of translation are believed to be, the Epic of Gilgamesh in 2100 BC, and The Bible Translation by St. Jerome. Although the latter is perhaps more widely recognised, there is evidence to suggest that the poem, Gilgamesh, was translated even centuries before the Bible.
Furthermore, it is known that translation was practiced as early as the Mesopotamian era (approximately 4000 BCE). Although at this time, the majority of stories were passed down orally, there were appearances of attempts at translation. Around 2000 BC, the Sumerian poem, Epic of Gilgamesh, was translated from Akkadian into a variety of Asian languages. This text is one of the oldest surviving works of literature.
Meanwhile, St. Jerome is best known for his influential translation of the Bible into Latin that was released in the 4thcentury. Initially, St Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to revise the Vetus Latina Gospels that were used by the Roman Church. St. Jerome decided, however, to revise and translate most of the Bible too. This version later became known as the Vulgate and was declared as the official translation of the Bible from the 16thto the 20thcentury.
Which one came first is often disputed… However, the Western world takes the stance that the Bible Translation is, indeed, the first official documented translation. Without a doubt, there would have been translations that took place before the two outlined in this blog post. It’s just tragically unfortunate that we may have lost our access to them.