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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Interpreters throughout History (part 2)

Por Martha Hobart, AIB

Bas-relief from the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Horemheb.
(Image credit: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden)

We continue with our overview of interpreters and translators throughout history.

The early modern era

As history continued its long march through the ages, the role of interpreters and translators kept pace with developments. From about the 15th century onward, reference to interpreters in historical documents is common around the globe. It is interesting that much of the earlier documentation referred to “intermediaries”, sometimes distinguishing between “intermediaries” and “interpreters”, while the term “interpreters” gradually became dominant in describing the profession.

We now move into a period of exploration and much movement across the globe. More documentation is also available on many of the better-known interpreters and translators who accompanied expeditions or were found on site at the destinations. There is too much information for this period to go into detail here, so we will list the most outstanding events and personalities here. If any of those mentioned strike the reader’s fancy, an online search will turn up dozens of references, including a fair amount of legend.

Let’s start our journey in Africa.

The Guinea coast,  from the Senegal River to South Angola, was the target of numerous Portuguese expeditions in search of ivory, gold and slaves in the 15th and 16th centuries. The usual method was to capture likely individuals on arrival who could be taken back to Portugal, taught Portuguese and used as interpreters whenever complex situations arose that required more than gestures in exchanging goods.

This was not always successful since there were over 400 languages spoken on the African continent. In such cases, more captives were taken back to Europe to be trained as interpreters.

The Dutch, French and English superseded the Portuguese in the 17th century and adopted their methods. Moreover, the growing British presence in the Americas led to further expansion of trade of all sorts, which extended up to the Sahara desert. Often the most trusted interpreters became guides who assisted the Europeans in local customs and etiquette for meetings with African royalty. Some were so successful in their duties that they became true professionals.

The Ottoman Empire was the scene of a very special group of people who were both interpreters and diplomats: the Dragomans. At its height the empire occupied Central Europe, Crimea, the Middle East and Africa, encompassing a mixed population speaking a variety of languages. Multilingualism and use of a lingua franca largely obviated the need for interpreters, but they were necessary for official purposes when the authorities communicated with their own people and with foreigners. The Dragomans were specially trained to fill this need.

Felix Ordeig wrote about these interpreters and diplomats in an earlier post in our blog.

The Indian subcontinent was another site of intense activity by Europeans.

The French arrived on the subcontinent in the 17th century. They established a settlement called “Puducherry”, which in Tamil means “New Town” and is now known as Pondicherry. Portuguese was a lingua franca in the area and the new arrivals needed interpreters who could communicate in Portuguese with their French employer (the Compagnie des Indes) and in Tamil, Telugu and Persian with their local connections. The Compagnie created a special post and title for the official recruited from the community who represented them and acted for them with local traders and suppliers.

The first “Broker” was Thanappa Mudaliar, who was succeeded by his son, then a young Hindu named Nayiniyappa, and many others throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

There are accounts of English travelers to the subcontinent on business for the East India Company (EIC) that include references to interpreters, such as that of Sir Thomas Roe, the first royal ambassador to the Mughal Court in the 17th century. He had been preceded by other Company representatives who were not diplomats but merchants and had little knowledge of proper etiquette at high-level meetings.

Roe himself appeared to put his own interests as a diplomat above those of the EIC. His attempts to present himself to the emperor Jahangir and his court were fraught with difficulties and obstacles, owing also to the mix of languages used by all the people involved. He frequently had to work with different interpreters for different interlocutors because of the limitations of his interpreters.

This situation endured in India until the 18th century, when EIC officials made the effort to learn the major languages needed to communicate in this part of the world. Nonetheless, more specialized multilingual brokers and interpreters were still needed to cover situations required by the various levels of communication between Indians and foreigners.

There are accounts of interpreters and translators accompanying diplomatic missions and explorers elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific.

One such interpreter was the Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon (also known as Constance). He was born in Cephalonia, largest of the Ionian islands, then under Venetian rule. He left his home at the age of 13, spent ten years in London and then in Java where he worked for the East India Company. Finally, he went to Siam, having been recommended as an interpreter to the minister of foreign trade there. He already spoke English, French, Portuguese, Malay and perhaps Italian and Greek.

Joao Rodrigues was a young Portuguese who accompanied a mission from Lisbon to Nagasaki in Japan and there decided to become a Jesuit priest. He lived in Japan for over 30 years, took his vows, learned Japanese and acted as interpreter at high-level meetings involving the Society and other Portuguese dignitaries visiting Japan.

He was known to the Japanese as “Rodrigues tsuji” (“Rodrigues the Interpreter”).

Captain James Cook’s explorations took him to numerous places in the southern Pacific where he came into contact with local inhabitants and attempted to communicate with them using gestures. Such methods naturally met with limited success and the expedition members were well aware that spoken language would be more useful.

In the course of Cook’s travels around the islands, they came into contact with Tupaia, a member of the ruling circle in Tahiti, a priest dedicated to Oro the god of war, a skilled navigator and highly knowledgeable about the geography of the islands. Tupaia assisted the expedition and eventually joined it on its return voyage to England. However, his health failed him as they visited regions such as modern New Zealand and Australia, and he died along the way. 

Enrique was a Malay speaker who was purchased as a slave by Magellan in Malacca. He was taken to Europe and accompanied Magellan in a meeting with the Privy Council of Seville. He became a trusted interpreter for the explorer and was included in Magellan’s will to be freed and receive a legacy on his master’s death.

Eventually Magellan reached what he thought was the Spice Islands but was actually what was to become the Philippines. Enrique was able to communicate with the island rulers because Malay was the lingua franca used there in diplomacy and trade.

Karma Paul was born in Lhasa in Tibet and raised by missionaries in Darjeeling after he was orphaned. He became fluent in English, Nepali and Tibetan and worked as a schoolmaster in Darjeeling and in an office in Calcutta.

When the British Himalayan Expedition was organized in 1922, its leader, General Charles G. Bruce, engaged Karma Paul as interpreter. More than merely linguistic concerns, Karma Paul was also of great assistance in smoothing relations between the British and the local population.

He was a man of two worlds: Karma the Buddhist and Paul the Christian.

The Americas

Centuries of travel between different regions of the world for exploration, trade and diplomacy had made it clear that linguistic assistance was essential for cross-cultural communication, and expeditions set out with interpreters versed in the languages that would most likely be needed.

Christopher Columbus’s experience was very different when he set sail for what he thought would be India. His expedition included Luis de Torres, a Jewish convert to Christianity who knew Hebrew, Chaldean and some Arabic, languages that were commonly used in the known world of the time. As we well know, his voyage ended in a place totally unknown to Europeans and his interpreter was of little use.

Columbus took several Caribbean people on his return to Spain from that first voyage with the intention of having them baptized and teaching them Spanish so they could interpret on subsequent voyages. Only one of them, known as Diego Colón, actually became an interpreter, but he was not of much help because the natives of the Caribbean did not share a language. It was not until his fourth voyage that Columbus succeeded in training a captive Caribbean native, known as Juan Pérez. Diego Colón, nonetheless, continued as an interpreter and was able to assist the Europeans in their exploration of the islands around Hispaniola and in making contacting with the Taíno people in Cuba. His own language was similar to that of the natives of this area.

There were other native people who were trained as interpreters but some of them ran away and many died. Apart from the European illnesses that killed many natives, Columbus’s own attitudes toward the natives and his refusal to accept that he had not reached Asia may have led to his difficulties in communication.

The 16th century was a period of numerous voyages of exploration and conquest from Europe to the Americas, and further discovery of the vastness of these lands. Plus the multitude of languages spoken there, which made communication a complicated enterprise.

The approach of these explorers tended to be improvisation. Sometimes they captured natives at one location and kept them on board as they traveled to others and took them back to Spain to learn Spanish, on the assumption that these captives would be able to understand the people the Spaniards encountered elsewhere.

But this was far from successful. Francisco Hernández de Córdoba led an expedition with some Cuban natives on board when he reached the Yucatan peninsula. However, the Maya language had no relation to the Taíno spoken by the Cubans. Hernández therefore took two local men, known as Melchor and Julián, with him when he left Yucatán, but this plan was also foiled. Melchor was a fisherman with limited knowledge of Mayan. Julián returned to Yucatán on a future expedition led by Juan de Grijalva; but because he was a Yucatec Maya, he was unable to communicate with the Chontal Maya speakers in northern Yucatán.

Grijalva resorted to the usual solution and seized four more natives to be trained as interpreters. One was renamed Pedro Barba. He spoke both Yucatec Maya and Chontal Maya, which made it possible to set up what we now know as a relay system: Grijalva spoke Spanish to Julián who interpreted in Yucatec Maya to Pedro who transmitted the message in Chontal Maya.

Gerónimo de Aguilar was a Spanish Franciscan friar sent to Panama as a missionary. He was shipwrecked on the Yucatán Peninsula and made his life among the Chontal Maya. When he heard of Cortés’s arrival in Yucatán Aguilar went to join him and helped out in his dealings with the local people.

Cortés soon acquired a second interpreter who was among the twenty women given him by a Chontal Maya leader. Her Christian name was Marina and she came to be known as La Malinche. She had the advantage over Aguilar in that she was the child of Nahuatl speakers and was bilingual in Nahuatl and Chontal Maya. Lourdes Ramírez told us her story earlier in the AIB blog.

England was also active in this New World but focused more on North America. There are accounts of the role of interpreters in attempts by England to establish colonies along the southeastern coast in what is now the United States. Some were of European origin who had acquired knowledge of local languages and others were native Americans.

Manteo was a werowance, or chief, of the Croatan tribe that lived on an island off the coast of modern North Carolina. He was taken to England along with Wanchese from Roanoke Island by an exploratory expedition to the area where the Roanoke colony was later founded.

The two men, both Algonquian speakers, were taught English and later accompanied the second expedition to Roanoke. Wanchese refused to collaborate with the Englishmen but Manteo acted as interpreter for the expedition’s leader, assisting in negotiations for establishing a colony on the island. The Algonquians made life impossible for the settlers and within a short time all but 15 of them returned to England with Sir Francis Drake, along with Manteo and two other natives. Manteo returned a year later with the governor John White, to find that all of those left behind, including Wanchese, had disappeared. White sought revenge and Manteo was involved in the fighting.

A second colony was founded and Manteo was given the dubious title of Lord of Roanoke. White returned to England for supplies but was unable to deliver them until three years later, only to discover that once again all the settlers, including Manteo, had vanished.

We end our tale with the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 19th century, which lasted two years and covered some 13,000 km from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific coast.

By this time there was a sizable population of people of mixed French-Canadian and native American descent around Camp Dubois in present-day Illinois where the expedition spent the winter. They were familiar with the Plains tribes and were hired for various duties, including interpreters who became vital intermediaries for Lewis and Clark.

George Drouillard was one of them. He was the son of a Frenchman settled in Canada and a Shawnee Nation woman and spoke English, French and Shawnee. He was also proficient in the Plains Indian Sign Language.

Lewis in The Journals of Lewis and Clark remarks that at first he thought this was a series of gesticulations among the tribes of the area. It was later learned it was a complete language that was actually a lingua franca among the peoples of the Plains from the Gulf of Mexico to Calgary, Canada. Drouillard was hired to interpret Lewis and Clark into Indian Sign Language and Native Americans into English.

Several more interpreters later joined the expedition. To quote Christine Adams in her article published in the “Interpreter Zero” series:

Cruzatte, along with François Labiche enlisted in May 1804; both of them were part Omaha.  In October 1804, we have Joseph Gravelines, described as “well-versed in the language of this [Arikari] nation.” A Frenchman, René Jusseaume, who had made his life with an Indian woman, was taken on as a temporary interpreter for Mandan in October 1804, when the expedition was at its winter quarters in Fort Mandan, in present-day North Dakota. Entries after November of that year refer to “our Minetaree interpreter”: Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trapper who joined the expedition along with one of his two wives, Sacagawea.

There is much uncertainty and legend about Sacagawea and her life. A native speaker of Hidatsa, she also knew Shoshone. Her husband Charbonneau spoke the language of the Aaniiih Nation and Hidatsa.

She is not mentioned often in the expedition journals but in 1902 was immortalized by novelist and feminist Eva Emery Dye in her book The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark. How this young Northern Shoshone woman became a legend in North American history is a fascinating story in itself.

More details on Sacagawea at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacagawea

Eva Emery Dye’s depiction of Sacagawea is rather fanciful and is considered to be the origin of the myth surrounding her. Many scholars agree that the author used the young Native American as a role model for later generations of women and a symbol of pioneer motherhood.
See: https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/dye_eva_emery/

And finally, a student of the University of Puget Sound wrote an interesting thesis that explores the creation of the Sacagawea legend: https://soundideas.pugetsound.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=honors_program_theses

Friday, November 26, 2021

Interpreters throughout History (part 1)

by Martha Hobart, AIB

Bas-relief from the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Horemheb. 
(Image credit: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden)

The story of interpreters around the world through the ages is a fascinating thread that runs through history since ancient times. It is far too lengthy and complex to go into detail here so I will just give an overview and encourage you to look deeper into the practitioners of our profession who came before us.

In spite of my intentions, the “overview” became longer that I had expected, so I will post it in two parts. The history of interpreting and translating is a long one.

You can find much more in the impressive series of articles published on the AIIC website by Christine Adams starting in 2012 and still ongoing at its new home, Looking for Interpreter Zero. It was a major source of information for this article.

Interpreters in the Bible and ancient Egypt

Human groupings have been in contact with one another since the beginning of the historical record and long before. Indeed, interpreting is likely as old as language.

Interpreters have been present since biblical times, in the story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers. He was eventually freed and became vizier to the Pharaoh.

When the Israelites’ harvest failed, the brothers travelled to Egypt to buy grain. There they encountered Joseph although they did not recognize him. However, Joseph recognized them and understood the conversation between the brothers, but spoke with them through an interpreter, as was customary in Egyptian trade relations.

In Genesis 42:23 we find this passage: “[The brothers] did not realize that Joseph understood them, since there was an interpreter between them.”

Trade was an important part of Egyptian life, as were diplomacy and captive taking, much of which was related to Egypt’s dealings in Africa and the Middle East. To this end, the ancient Egyptian bureaucracy included what they called “interlingual mediators”. Some of the earliest evidence of these interpreting practices comes from the tombs of the princes of the island of Elephantine, which date from the third millennium BCE. Their titles included “secret advisor of the southern lands of Upper Egypt” in reference to the location of the island on the border between Egypt and Nubia.

Communication with their non-Egyptian subjects and contacts was the responsibility of interpreters, whose duties were not limited to linguistic mediation but were more wide-ranging in their contacts with foreigners.

The importance of these linguistic mediators is immortalized in a bas-relief in the tomb of the pharaoh Horemheb, dating from the 14th century BCE (see the image at the top of this post). It shows an interpreter (in the middle) mediating between Horemheb (left) and foreign envoys (right). In this case the interpreter is depicted as if there were two individuals, while other archeological discoveries portray interpreters as having two heads.

Greece and Rome

Herodotus in his Histories speaks of the need for language intermediaries in ancient Greece. There was extensive contact between Greece and Egypt and there were Greek-speaking communities in Egypt. They were even entrusted by the Pharaoh Psammetichus with the teaching of the Greek language to certain Egyptian children, who subsequently became the parents of the entire class of interpreters in Egypt.

Although interpreters were essential in Greece, they were sometimes thought of as being treacherous. Herodotus recounts an incident during the Persian wars in which the Persian king Darius sent messengers to several Greek cities to demand earth and water as tokens of their submission to him. According to Herodotus, the messengers and the interpreter who accompanied them were thrown into a well to take the earth and water themselves. Plutarch, in his account, held the Athenian statesman and general Themistocles responsible for such treatment of “treacherous intermediaries” who dared to use the Greek language in the service of non-Greeks.

The Romans treated interpreters differently, perhaps because their empire covered a vast amount of territory that included many different languages. Interpreters were essential in the Senate since most of the ambassadors from far-flung territories did not speak Latin.

But interpreters are rarely mentioned in documentary sources, perhaps because they were simply taken for granted, or their presence was ignored by officials who mastered other languages but preferred to speak in Latin to mark the prestige of Latin. Even from its early days, Rome was surrounded by peoples who spoke different languages or Latin dialects; as the empire expanded to other nations, the need for linguistic assistance became greater.

Cicero’s letters and Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul often mention interpreters, especially in the Senate. They also commonly appear in contexts other than formal meetings and oratory. The term interpres included roles such as messenger, mediator, envoy or military adjuvant.

There are mentions of a few individuals who were sent by Caesar to replace what he called “ordinary interpreters” because he felt more the need for other skills in addition to language in particularly delicate situations.

The Middle Ages

The known world continued expanding and became more and more complex, as evidenced in documented accounts of the activities of interpreters after the Norman conquest in 1066. Prior to this period there is little information available.

One early event stands out: the Strasbourg Oaths of 842. The Frankish historian Nithard gives an account of three rivals for power in Carolingian Europe who competed for power in the 9th century. Charles the Bald and Louis the German fought against Lothar and won but Lothar would not concede defeat. After a bloody battle and much loss of life, Charles and Louis felt the need to ensure their followers’ loyalty in the lengthy war that was to follow. They gathered their forces in Strasbourg to renew their alliance in a highly structured event that became known as the Strasbourg Oaths.

It is not known exactly how the linguistic aspects were managed in the proceedings but what stands out is the recognition by all parties for absolute clarity in communication. Charles spoke to Louis the German’s men in Old High German (or Frankish) and Louis in regional Romance (or Proto French) to address Charles’s followers. The texts of the each lord’s oath were preserved in Nithard’s Historiae, which has survived until today.

If you are interested in details you can find more here.

The need for interpreters is rarely mentioned in accounts of the Norman Conquest but the linguistic situation in Britain at the time was already complex. English, Welsh, British, Scandanavian, Pictish, Scottish, Cornish and some Irish were spoken, while the clergy used vernacular and Latin. To this was added French by the Normans.

Old English literature gives clear evidence of professional interpreters who acted as intermediaries and translators between all the different linguistic groups. Because of the exclusive nature of their work, they were given a special name: Wealhstod.

Other records speak of latinarius (a corruption of “Latiner” which meant “interpreter”) and interpres.

The Byzantine Empire was another multilingual area characterized by sometimes fraught relations with surrounding peoples. It was a land that depended heavily on mercenaries in its military ventures and had a large immigrant community. Communicating with strangers was part of the structure of Byzantium. There was a body of interpreters who interpreted at diplomatic meetings and translated correspondence into and out of Greek. There were Nordic, Turkish and Frank contingents in the imperial army, plus guards, who needed intermediaries. Likewise, many foreigners served in the fleet that protected Constantinople and the naval bases in the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, whose commanders needed linguistic assistance.

Byzantium was constantly threatened by depredations and conquest by numerous peoples on all sides. The emperor Alexios I Komnenos was open to foreigners and willing to engage in diplomacy throughout his reign, in addition to dealing with the split between the eastern and western churches and conspiracies against Alexios in Constantinople. All this required the assistance of translators and interpreters.

After the death of Malik-Shah, Sultan of the Seljuk Empire, who had been his close ally, Alexios sent an embassy to Pope Urban II to appeal for Christian solidarity, cleverly focused on ways in which the Pope could help him rally support for the victims of Muslim incursions into the Holy Lands in a broad sense. Thus began the Crusades.

In western Europe the dominant group were the Latin Christians. Educated Christians used Latin and in this part of the world regional languages and dialects coexisted with elite vernaculars; the fighting men were divided into regional contingents with shared languages. There was no apparent need for interpreters as linguistic difficulties could be overcome by other means.

However, the elite Crusaders were accompanied by rank-and-file fighters who were peasants or townspeople who had never had need of communication outside their locality. Furthermore, when tensions arose between leaders, there was a natural tendency to support one’s own linguistic group. Much stress was laid on common purpose but this could be outweighed by regional affiliation and individual ambition.

It was during the siege of Antioch when the Latin Crusaders joined forces with the Byzantines. Alexios I had provided intermediaries for them but the stresses of the prolonged siege and the negotiations that followed the fall of the city made it necessary to find people who could communicate in the various languages involved.

The ultimate destination of the Crusaders was Jerusalem and along the way they recruited Christian intermediaries to negotiate with local Muslim rulers. They were also assisted by these impromptu interpreters during the siege of Jerusalem.

The Caliphate of Córdoba on the Iberian Peninsula was another scene of multilingual activity. The Umayyad Caliph of Cordoba, Abd ar-Rahman, worked extensively with intermediaries, who were mostly Jews or Christians, in the tangle of hostilities and alliances between Muslins and Christians in the politics of al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula and elsewhere.

The most common languages used in these exchanges were Hebrew, Arabic, Andalusi Romance (the dialect descended from Late Latin) and Latin. But now and then other languages were involved. On one occasion a delegation from Constantinople presented Abd ar-Rahman with a copy of a work on the medicinal properties of plants, On Medicine, by Dioscorides. It was written in Greek, which no one could read, so the Caliph appealed to Byzantium for help. A Greek monk was dispatched to translate the text, with the assistance of a Greek-speaker from Sicily who also spoke Arabic.

After the fall of the Córdoba Caliphate there was a period of some two centuries in which culture and politics were in constant flux as succeeding rulers ascended and fell, until by the mid-thirteenth century only the Muslim kingdom of Granada remained, along with a few Muslim communities in the Christian kingdoms. Throughout the entire period of Muslim, Jewish and Christian coexistence on the Iberian Peninsula, there was an ongoing demand for translators, interpreters and intermediaries, and today we have a legacy of many words of Arabic origin in the Spanish language.

Part 2 of this series will cover what is generally described as the early modern era and take us up into the 20th century.