The Dark Side of Translation

Translators usually work anonymously, in the shadows. We receive a text in one language, we send back the same story in another language, and no one out there ever knows who did it, like a dark secret kept between us and the client, our partner in crime. In history, the dark art of translation has sometimes proved as dangerous as alchemy and witchcraft.

In the 14th century, William Tyndale translated the Bible from Latin into English so that even “the boy who ploughs the field” could understand. His unauthorised work was published in Europe, smuggled into England, seized by the authorities and burned, with Tyndale’s execution following in 1536.* Despite this tragic ending, Tyndale’s translation is not dead…

In 1604, King James brought together 54 scholars to translate the holy book, a project completed in 1611. In order to facilitate the popularisation of this new version, the language and style of the translation had to be made accessible to all – an ambition echoing Tyndale’s. Through their research and work, the King’s translation teams incorporated phrases the unlucky translator had already fashioned in the English tongue, such as “the powers that be”, “suffer fools gladly”, “a stumbling block”, and “the signs of the times”, and added their own: “from time to time”, “the root of the matter”, “know for a certainty”, “no small stir”… The list goes on.

Four hundred years on, these translations still have an impact on how we speak today. Many expressions and clichés in our everyday vocabulary were originally coined by anonymous, long-forgotten, sometimes ill-rewarded, yet dedicated and skilled translators who have left an undeniable legacy.

Translators are invisible, yet we are everywhere. We are the ghost-like wordsmiths who decipher unknown languages and influence the way you speak as you read the words and expressions we have created for your understanding and enjoyment.

*source: OED online

William Tyndale

William Tyndale (1494-1536)

Photo: hertford.ox.ac.uk

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