The Intellectual Importance of Translation

Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition, (Chp. 6)

The intellectual importance of translation is so obvious that it is often overlooked. No language, no nation is sufficient unto itself. Its mind must be enlarged by the thoughts of other nations, or else it will warp and shrivel. In English, as in other languages, many of the greatest ideas we use have been brought in through translation. The central book of the English-speaking peoples is a translation — although it comes as a shock to many to realize that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, and translated by a committee of scholars. There are many great books which none but specialists need read in the original, but which through translation have added essential ideas to our minds: Euclid’s Elements,  Descartes’s Discourse on Method, Marx’s Capital, Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

The artistic and linguistic importance of translation is almost as great as its importance in the field of ideas. To begin with, the practice of translation usually enriches the translator’s language with new words. This is because most translations are made from a language with a copious vocabulary into a poorer language which must be expanded by the translator’s courage and inventiveness. The modern vernacular languages — English, French, Spanish, &c. — grew out of spoken dialects which had little or no written literatures, were geographically limited, and were used largely for practical and seldom for intellectual purposes. They were therefore simple, unimaginative, and poor in comparison with Latin and Greek. Soon after people began to write in them they set out to enrich them and make them more expressive. The safest and most obvious way to do so was to borrow from the literary language at their side and bring in Latin words. This enlargement of the western European languages by importations from Latin and Greek was one of the most important activities which prepared for the Renaissance; and it was largely carried on by translators.

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