Discussions of the theory and practice of translation reach back into antiquity and show remarkable continuities. The distinction that had been drawn by the ancient Greeks between "metaphrase" ("literal" translation) and "paraphrase" would be adopted by the English poet and translator John Dryden (1631-1700), who represented translation as the judicious blending of these two modes of phrasing when selecting, in the target language, "counterparts," or equivalents, for the expressions used in the source language:
When [words] appear... literally graceful, it were an injury to the author that they should be changed. But since... what is beautiful in one [language] is often barbarous, nay sometimes nonsense, in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a translator to the narrow compass of his author's words: 'tis enough if he choose out some expression which does not vitiate the sense.
Dryden cautioned, however, against the license of "imitation," i.e. of adapted translation: "When a painter copies from the life... he has no privilege to alter features and lineaments..."
This general formulation of the central concept of translation — equivalence — is probably as adequate as any that has been proposed ever since Cicero and Horace, in first-century-BCE Rome, famously and literally cautioned against translating "word for word" ("verbum pro verbo").
Despite occasional theoretical diversities, the actual practice of translators has hardly changed since antiquity. Except for some extreme metaphrasers in the early Christian period and the Middle Ages, and adapters in various periods (especially pre-Classical Rome, and the 18th century), translators have generally shown prudent flexibility in seeking equivalents — "literal" where possible, paraphrastic where necessary — for the original meaning and other crucial "values" (e.g., style, verse form, concordance with musical accompaniment or, in films, with speech articulatory movements) as determined from context.
In general, translators have sought to preserve the context itself by reproducing the original order of sememes, and hence word order — when necessary, reinterpreting the actual grammatical structure. The grammatical differences between "fixed-word-order" languages (e.g., English, French, German) and "free-word-order" languages (e.g., Greek, Latin, Polish, Russian) have been no impediment in this regard.
When a target language has lacked terms that are found in a source language, translators have borrowed them, thereby enriching the target language. Thanks in great measure to the exchange of calques and loanwords between languages, and to their importation from other languages, there are few concepts that are "untranslatable" among the modern European languages.
In general, the greater the contact and exchange that has existed between two languages, or between both and a third one, the greater is the ratio of metaphrase to paraphrase that may be used in translating between them. However, due to shifts in "ecological niches" of words, a common etymology is sometimes misleading as a guide to current meaning in one or the other language. The English "actual," for example, should not be confused with the cognate French "actuel" (meaning "present," "current") or the Polish "aktualny" ("present," "current") or Russian "актуальный" ("urgent, topical")
The translator's role as a bridge for "carrying across" values between cultures has been discussed at least since Terence, Roman adapter of Greek comedies, in the second century BCE. The translator's role is, however, by no means a passive and mechanical one, and so has also been compared to that of an artist. The main ground seems to be the concept of parallel creation found in critics as early as Cicero. Dryden observed that "Translation is a type of drawing after life..." Comparison of the translator with a musician or actor goes back at least to Samuel Johnson's remark about Alexander Pope playing Homer on a flageolet, while Homer himself used a bassoon.
If translation be an art, it is no easy one. In the 13th century, Roger Bacon wrote that if a translation is to be true, the translator must know both languages, as well as the science that he is to translate; and finding that few translators did, he wanted to do away with translation and translators altogether.
The first European to assume that one translates satisfactorily only toward his own language may have been Martin Luther, translator of the Bible into German. According to L.G. Kelly, since Johann Gottfried Herder in the 18th century, "it has been axiomatic" that one works only toward his own language.
Compounding these demands upon the translator is the fact that not even the most complete dictionary or thesaurus can ever be a fully adequate guide in translation. Alexander Tytler, in his Essay on the Principles of Translation (1790), emphasized that assiduous reading is a more comprehensive guide to a language than are dictionaries. The same point, but also including listening to the spoken language, had earlier been made in 1783 by Onufry Andrzej Kopczyński, member of Poland's Society for Elementary Books, who was called "the last Latin poet."
The special role of the translator in society was well described in an essay, published posthumously in 1803, by Ignacy Krasicki — "Poland's La Fontaine", Primate of Poland, poet, encyclopedist, author of the first Polish novel, and translator from French and Greek:
[T]ranslation... is in fact an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labor and portion of common minds; [it] should be [practiced] by those who are themselves capable of being actors, when they see greater use in translating the works of others than in their own works, and hold higher than their own glory the service that they render to their country.