Before the invention and diffusion of writing, oral and instantaneous translation, called interpretation, only existed. In developed and literate communities, translation is thought of as the conversion of a written text in one language into a written text in another language. However, the modern emergence of the simultaneous translator or of the conference interpreter at international conferences keeps the oral side of translation still alive.
The tasks of the translator and of the interpreter are the same irrespective of whether the communication is oral or the text is written. Nevertheless one has to stress that translation between written texts allows more time for stylistic adjustment and technical expertise. The main problems have been identified since antiquity. They were formulated among others by St. Jerome, translator of the famed Latin Bible, the Vulgate, from the Hebrew and Greek originals.
From the semantic point of view, these problems relate to the adjustment of the literal meaning and the literary signification. On the other hand conflicts very often occur between an exact translation of each word, as far as this is possible, and the interpretation of the meaning of a whole sentence or even of a whole text that conveys as much of the message of the original as possible.
These problems and conflicts arise because of factors being inherent to the use and functioning of language: languages do not operate in isolation but within and as part of cultures. One has always to remember that cultures differ from each other in various ways. Even between the languages of communities whose cultures are fairly closely allied, there is by no means a one-to-one relation of exact lexical equivalence between the items of their vocabularies.
One may define culture as the way of life and its manifestations that are peculiar to a community that uses a particular language as its means of expression. More specifically the „cultural” element of language differs from „universal” language and from „personal language”. Several cultures (and sub-cultures) may exist in one language, which require translation within one language. For example various words meaning the same object used in Switzerland, Austria, former DDR and Western Germany. Frequently where there is cultural focus, there is a translation problem due to the cultural „gap” or „distance” between the source and target languages. One should not regard language as a component or feature of culture as in this case translation would be impossible.
In their lexical meanings, words acquire various shades of signification and associations that are not shared by the nearest corresponding words in other languages; this may vitiate a literal translation. The English author and theologian Ronald Knox has pointed to the historical connections of the Greek skandalon „stumbling block, trap, or snare,” inadequately rendered by „offence,” its usual New Testament translation. In modern times translators of the Bible into the languages of peoples culturally remote from Europe are well aware of the difficulties of finding a lexical equivalent for „lamb,” when the intended readers, even if they have seen sheep and lambs, have neither tradition of blood sacrifice for expiation nor long-hallowed associations of lambs with lovableness, innocence, and apparent helplessness.
The translation of poetry is the field where most emphasis is normally put on the creation of a new independent poem, and where literal translation is usually condemned. The better the original poem, the harder the translator’s task. This is because poetry is, in the first instance, carefully intended to express exactly what the poet wants to express. Secondly, in order to achieve this objective, the poet masters all the resources of the language, in which he is writing, matching the choice of words, the order of words, and grammatical constructions, as well as phonological features peculiar to the language in metre, perhaps supplemented by rhyme, assonance, and alliteration. The available resources differ from language to language; the translator must try to match the stylistic exploitation of the particular resources in the original language with comparable resources of the language of the translation. Due to the fact that lexical, grammatical, and metrical considerations are all interrelated and interwoven in poetry, a satisfactory literary translation is usually very far from a literal word for word rendering. The more the poet relies on language form, the more embedded his verses are in that particular language, and the harder they are to translate adequately. This is especially true with lyrical poetry in several languages, with its wordplay, complex rhymes, and frequent assonances.
At the other end of the translation spectrum technical and specialized translation is located. Technical translation is one part of specialized translation; institutional translation, the area of politics, commerce, finance, governance, etc. is the other. Technical translation seems as potentially non- cultural (but it is far from actually being it). One could call it „universal translation” as the benefits of technology are not confined to one speech community. In principle the terms should be translated. Institutional translation is cultural, unless concerned with international organizations. Technical translation usually takes place under the „umbrella” of institutional and commercial terms. One could pretend that this is probably the easiest type of material to translate, because cultural unification (in this respect), lexical correspondences, and stylistic similarity already exist in this type of usage in the languages most commonly involved, to a higher degree than in other fields of discourse.
Technical, commercial and institutional translation represents the aspect of translation to which mechanical and computerized techniques are being applied with some prospects of limited success. Machine translation, which makes it possible for a text in one language to be fed into a machine to produce an accurate translation in another language without further human intervention, has been focused on the language of science and technology. This language has restricted vocabulary and overall likeness of style for linguistic and economic reasons. Attempts at machine translation of literature have been made; nevertheless success in this field, especially in the translation of poetry, seems currently little probable.
Translation is more an art, and less a science. Guidance can be given and general principles can be taught. Ultimately the translation process is left to the individual’s own feeling for the two languages concerned. Usually, in a translation of a work of literature something of the author’s original intent must be lost. When a translation is said to be a better work than the original, an opinion sometimes expressed about the English writer Edward Fitzgerald’s „translation” of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, one is dealing with a new, though derived, work, not just a translation. The Italian epigram remains justified: Traduttore traditore „The translator is a traitor.”