Origins of Translation

"Translators barely receive a mention,
but they deserve a Nobel prize"

Daniel Weissbort

Translation is an art as well as a medium for communication. Without translators, relations amidst numerous nations would have been impossible. Since ancient times, the states used the services of translators – people who mastered two or more languages and conveyed the words of parties meeting on good and bad occasions. Translation is also a culture: by translating an original work into another language, it becomes accessible to people of other cultures and turns into a particle of their own culture. The contribution of translators in diversifying the outlook of peoples and promoting relations among different countries is invaluable.

In Armenia, the origins of the art of translation date back to the years of invention of the Armenian alphabet. The first Armenian translator was the founder of the Armenian alphabet - Mesrop Mashtots. In 431-439 AD, Mesrop Mashtots, together with his disciples and the then Armenian Catholicos Sahak Partev endeavoured and completed the translation of the earliest and most vital - in terms of historical-cultural and scientific significance - monument of the Armenian translational literature, i.e. the Holy Bible, thus becoming the originators of translational literature and founders of the art of translation in Armenia.

In the mentioned era the importance of Armenian writing and speech was tremendous, which - given the fact that Armenians lacked a statehood - played a role of a weapon for preserving the identity of an Armenian. Thankfully, the movement of translation unfolded quickly, which proved to be a broad and long-term process of elucidation and education (including establishment of Armenian schools throughout the country, extensive translation work, creation of Armenian literature, armenisation of the church and preaching, establishment of Armenian language centres and libraries). Finally Armenians got a chance to hear liturgies in Armenian and read the ideas of great thinkers in their native language.

The significance of Armenian translations of ancient and medieval works is not limited to Armenological considerations: it encompasses a great value in terms of studying the world culture, since many originals of Greek and Assyrian ancient literature are lost, yet preserved as a property of the world’s civilisation exclusively in Armenian translations. These include Eusebius of Caesarea's (died in 339 AD) "Chronicle" (translated in Armenian in the fifth century), "The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching" by Saint Irenaeus of Lugdunum (died in 203 AD) which was translated from Greek, an essential collection of theologist Philo of Alexandria (also known as Philo Judaeus) works (Greek originals of eight out of 15 works translated in Armenian have been lost), the interpretation of the Book of Isaiah by Byzantine chronologist Saint John Chrysostom (died in 407 AD), which is the second after the Bible in terms of its volume, the Armenian translation of "Commentary on the Book of Job" and the speech for Saint John by Hesychius of Jerusalem (died after 450 AD), famous paper on repudiation of the canons of the Council of Chalcedon by Timotheus Aelurus (died in 477 AD) and a number of others.

Translation works in Armenia continued also in the medieval centuries, resulting in numerous translated works from Georgian, Persian, old French, Turkish, Russian, English, Italian, Polish and Spanish.

The translated works played a significant role in the development of the Armenian literature, broadening of Armenian readers’ outlook and enrichment of the Armenian language. Achievements of antique philosophy and humanitarian sciences, Christian theology, belletristic literature and oriental medical sciences have come to the possession of Armenians through translation, serving as a basis for developing indigenous values.

The works of world’s leading writers of the 20th century have been translated by Armenian eminent writers, namely Hovhannes Tumanyan (Guy de Maupassant), Vahan Teryan (Charles Baudelaire, Valery Brusov), Hovhannes Masehyan, Khachik Dashtents (Shakespeare), etc. Among successfully translated foreign works are Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems by renowned Armenian cultural figures H. Tumanyan and A. Chopanyan, first translation of Walter Scott’s works by M. Mamuryan, and Heinrich Heine’s poems by H. Tumanyan, V. Teryan, H. Hovhannisyan, Charents and others.

It is worth to note that St. Translators’ Day is celebrated as a holiday in Armenia. It is a religious holiday dedicated to Mashtots and his disciples as well as other eminent cultural figures that translated the Bible and other works of world culture, engaged in scientific activity, educated and elucidated the people. Since 1979, upon the initiative of the Writers’ Union of Armenia, the St. Translators’ Day is celebrated as a national holiday on the second Saturday of October. Celebrations relating to St. Translators' Day are also held in end-June or early July – parallel to the holiday dedicated to Mesrop Mashtots and Sahak Partev.

Moreover, an International Translators Day is celebrated worldwide on September 30. It is mainly associated with St. Jerome - a Christian Roman scholar of 4-5 centuries, who was canonised by Roman Catholic Church for translating the Bible from Hebrew into Latin. The mentioned translation is deemed to be the closest to the original Hebrew script, as St. Jerome, to secure utmost accuracy of the content, made use of numerous original sources during the process of translation (the translation was completed in about two years). On the International Translators Day various celebrations and events are held worldwide by linguistic and translation associations, congratulating each other on the commemorative occasion.