The English word translator goes back to Latin, whereas its Polish  counterpart tłumacz turns out to go back to an old Turkic root. The word  dragoman has an even deeper history, stretching back at least to the word for  “translator” in Akkadian, a language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia (as illustrated by this cuneiform tablet, which preserves part of an ancient treaty in Akkadian) The English word translator goes back to Latin, whereas its Polish counterpart tłumacz turns out to go back to an old Turkic root. The word dragoman has an even deeper history, stretching back at least to the word for “translator” in Akkadian, a language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia (as illustrated by this cuneiform tablet, which preserves part of an ancient treaty in Akkadian)

What is the translator’s job really all about? The various words for “translator” used in different languages can be seen as differing historical attempts to capture the essence of this mysterious profession

Daniel Sax

Author: Daniel Sax 
University of Social Sciences and Humanities (SWPS), Warsaw, e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Daniel Sax, translator and editor of the English version of "Academia" magazine since its inception, specializes in translating research texts and teaches classes in translation theory.



To start with, let’s take the English noun “translator,” which historically goes back to the past participle translātus of the Latin verb transferre. If we adopt an etymological perspective, therefore, the underlying notion here is one of carrying something elsewhere. And indeed, amongst the oldest attestations of translate noted by the Oxford English Dictionary, alongside the meaning of “to render into another language” (e.g. þis ilk bok it es translate In to Inglis tong to rede – ca. 1300), we also find such spatial-conveyance meanings as “to bear from one place to another” (e.g. Helias was in þat siquare, Translated in a golden chiare – ca. 1300), and “to convey (esp. someone righteous) to heaven without death” (e.g. Bi faith Enok is translatid, that he shulde not se deeth – ca. 1382). The profession of translator, then, historically and metaphorically speaking, was in English originally conceptualized as a job of carrying or conveying.


To refer in English to an oral translator, in turn, we usually use the word interpreter (attested in this sense since at least 1535), which similarly goes back to a Latin verb, in this case interpretāri. The underlying, fossilized metaphor here, again originally rooted in Latin, is that of expounding upon and elucidating someone else’s statements.


In fact, the ways in which many European languages have conceptualized the act of translation apparently owe a similarly strong debt to Latin, although sometimes with different twists. Some Romance languages derive their words for “translator” (e.g. French traducteur) from an alternate Latin verb, traducere, which in turn would suggest that what a translator does is simply to lead. Other European tongues rely upon similar spatial-relocation metaphors historically influenced by Latin; for instance the word for translator in Russian, переводчик (perevodchik), is based on the verb “to take across,” again suggesting that the translator’s job is essentially that of a guide, whereas in German a translator of written texts is an Übersetzer – a word that may suggest the task is to put or resituate the original content elsewhere, or perhaps even to ferry it (e.g. across a river).


Other languages, however, in Europe and farther afield, have taken quite different tacks in this regard, offering a wealth of historical conceptualizations to explore. For instance, the general Polish word for translate, tłumaczyć, is also the normal word for to explain something – a translator is thus in Polish quite simply and literally an explainer. The old Greek term for translation μετάφρασις (metáfrasis) literally means speaking through something (for instance an obstacle of some sort?). And Estonian tõlkima “translate,” for example, seems to have close links to interpreting (e.g. a work of art).


It turns out, therefore, that the underlying cognitive metaphor by which the translator’s job has historically been conceived is not at all universal and differs quite broadly from language to language: the translator may essentially carry, convey, or otherwise resituate the author’s original ideas, lead them across various hindrances or into new territory, explain them to someone or interpret them anew, etc., etc.


Translator as language-knower


Let us now scrutinize a bit more deeply the main Polish metaphor in this regard, i.e. “translation as explanation.” The Polish word for translator, tłumacz (formerly tłomacz) has close relatives in certain other Slavic languages, such as Croatian/Serbian tumač/тумач and Czech tlumočnik, and thus seems at first glance to be of pure Slavic pedigree. Moreover, the same strong connection between translating and explaining manifests itself in other Slavic languages as well (cf. Croatian tumačiti “explain”). All of this points to a common Slavic root (tъlmačь) and a shared Slavic conceptualization of the act of translation as an act of explanation.


Interestingly, it is most likely from one of the Slavic tongues that the Germans borrowed their word Dolmetscher, today meaning “interpreter” (note the thinly-disguised similarity to Polish tłumacz, belied by the consonant-pairs d and t, l and ł, tsch and cz…). The Hungarians also use a similar word for translator, tolmács, and although certain etymologists maintain that this, too, is a loan from Slavic, others are inclined to see it as a loan from Turkic-speaking tribes, borrowed long before the Hungarians first migrated to Europe more than a millennium ago. In any case, the Slavic root tъlmačь was itself definitely borrowed from Turkic languages – just compare old Turkish dılmaç, Uzbek тилмоч (tilmoch), and Kyrgyz тилмеч (tilmech), all words for “translator” built around a proto-Turkic root tyl “language.” What lies hidden away in the Polish word tłumacz “translator,” therefore, as well as in its Slavic, Hungarian, and German counterparts, is an old Turkic word apparently meaning “knower of languages.” Interestingly, this would seem to indicate that “translate” is in fact the more primary of the meanings of Slavic verbs such as Polish tłumaczyć, with the meaning “explain” being derivative (rather than vice versa, as intuition might suggest).


Even more intriguing is the notion that when Poles, some other Slavs, and Hungarians speak of translation (and even Germans when they speak of interpreting), they use words with a common history stretching back around 2,000 years, words encapsulating the great diversity and interdependency of ancient societies at the confluence of Europe and Asia, back in the days when translators (i.e. quite simply “knowers of tongues”) acted as intertribal intermediaries, traders, guides...


Translator as guide


Now let’s turn our attention to this latter metaphor, that of the “translator as guide.” In English (and other European languages) there is another word, dragoman, which denotes someone who acts as an interpreter and personal guide in the Middle East. This word, which can occasionally be encountered in Agatha Christie’s novels in English or in Sienkiewicz’s epic works in Polish, has a particularly interesting origin, having come to English by a circuitous route, via early French dragoman, Italian dragomano, and Greek δραγομάνος (dragomános), ultimately from early Arabic ترجمان (tarǧumān).


In the Semitic languages, like Arabic, a word’s meaning is largely determined by the string of consonants it contains. The four-consonant radical in early Arabic ترجمان  (tarǧumān) is t-r-g-m. If we look at the consonants in the words for “translator” in modern Middle Eastern languages (Semitic and otherwise), it is evident that this root is still in widespread use there: as modern Arabic and Persian مترجم (mutarjim), Hebrew מתרגם (metargem), even modern Turkish tercüman. The same radical also appears in the word for “translator” in ancient Semitic languages: as targemana in Aramaic, the language spoken in Israel in Biblical times, and as targumannu in Akkadian, an even older Semitic language of ancient Mesopotamia, one of the earliest tongues ever to have been written down.


And so it turns out that dragoman is a word still in use today whose history can be traced back nearly 4,000 years! Moreover, it enables us to conjecture a bit about how people used to conceptualize the work of a translator in those ancient days, suggesting again possible traces of an ancient link between translation and explanation. The Akkadian word targumannu “translator” is derived from the root ragamu “speak” or “call,” and according to certain etymologists (e.g. prominent Polish-American Assyroliogist Ignace Gelb) it may be linked to the root targummai “proclaim, explain, translate” in Hittite, another ancient Middle Eastern language. One needs to be extremely cautious while even attempting to reconstruct word senses in such a distant era, but there seem to be indications that what lies deeply buried in the ancient root t-r-g-m may be an image of the “translator as herald,” as one who proclaims the ruler’s will and thereby explains it to the people.


In fact, it is not out of the question that these two etymological threads might actually be interrelated. Some researchers (e.g. de Lagarde) have seen the Semitic root t-r-g-m as being related to the old Balto-Slavic root tŭlkŭ, meaning “interpretation, sense of reason,” which in turn has been seen by some others (e.g. Aleksander Brückner) as being linked to Slavic tъlmačь “translator”. We are of course deep within the realm of conjecture here, but if such etymological suggestions are borne out they would mean that both English dragoman and Polish tłumacz, as well as such words for “translator” as Hungarian tolmács, German Dolmetscher, Turkish dılmaç and tercüman, Arabic  مترجم (mutarjim), and even Akkadian targumannu perhaps all have some kind of very ancient common denominator, barely discernible through the mists of time, which might perhaps also be shared by Russian толковать (tolkovat’) “interpret,” Latvian tulkotājs “translator,” and even Estonian tõlk “translator.”


Translator as explainer


One conclusion to be drawn from all this is that different languages have historically built up different frameworks for conceptualizing what a translator does: the words we use – whether we realize it or not – speak volumes about the provenance and history of those conceptualizations. A second is that the “translator as explainer” metaphor evident in Polish tłumacz might not be so esoteric after all, appearing in various languages in various millennia, and therefore may have quite solid cognitive foundations.


A third and final conclusion is that many of the European words for “translator” that do not go back to Latin (including for instance Polish tłumacz) could potentially be incarnations of the very same ancient Eurasian Wanderwort (a term that spreads across numerous languages/cultures) dating far back into prehistory, back to the very birth of human civilization – a civilization that surely could hardly have developed without the help of translators, however we may explain to ourselves what they actually do.



Further reading:

Kasparek C. (1983). The Translator’s Endless Toil. Polish Review XXVIII no. 2, 83–87
Gelb I. (1968). The Word for Dragoman in the Ancient Near East. Glossa 2. 93-104. 

© Academia nr 2 (38) 2013

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