Translation has played a role throughout history any time there has been an intersection of two cultures and languages. And each time one culture has produced a written text, translators serve as the bridge that allows literate members of one culture to be exposed to the written material the other has produced.
Perhaps the best documented example of translation history is that of the Bible, but the work of scholars and great thinkers from all over the world has also been translated. These translations have permitted the cross-germination and exposure to ideas and values that have then spread across the world because of their availability in other languages.
There are three general types of translation: literary, technical, and commercial. Most translation history that goes back centuries focuses on the former, literary translation, because of the need to transmit ideas and values from one language to another. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation by Lawrence Venutis is a seminal work tracing the translation of literary texts into English and how those translations shape translation theory and thought across cultures.
The translation of literary texts is a field unto itself, and the layperson benefits from this because it allows access to great written works written in another language. As Venutis says in his book: “I see translation as the attempt to produce a text so transparent that it does not seem to be translated.” The reader benefits from skilled translations that stay true to the style and content of a text written in the source language and rendered into his own without the need to understand the source language.
The history of machine translation may be more critical to the modern person because of its use as an aid to transmitting information as opposed to ideas and art. Technical and commercial translations can be rendered more quickly and with greater continuity when machine translation tools are utilized. Wikipedia gives a brief overview of the history of machine translation, beginning with its origins in the seventeenth century.
Because of skilled translators and their ability to bridge two languages, we have access to texts as varied as the richly detailed novels of Isabel Allende, scholarly articles, instruction manuals, and pamphlets for non-native English speakers about health resources. Each of these examples are made possible because of the craft of translation whose history dates back to the first intersection of two cultures with written texts.