Since man started using the spoken word, interpreters started to exist. Interpreters have always been vital in the relations among people of dissimilar origins.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time interpreting began to be used. However, there are Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics indicating ”interpreters” as far back as 3000 BC.
Interpreters have a unique viewpoint as they have witnessed many famous historical events. Likewise several interpreters helped change the world.
The following five interpreters’ contribution to the profession cannot be forgotten, because their achievements as well as their failures have shaped history and society.
Born around 1788 in the Lehmi County of Idaho, Sacagawea was a Shoshone chief’s daughter. A rival tribe abducted her when she was 12 and sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader.
Charbonneau, who was 20 years her senior had lived with Native Americans for many years and have adopted polygamy and made Sacagawea his wife. Sacagawea was an excellent food gatherer. She was also bilingual.
In 1803, when Pres. Jefferson bought 828,000 square miles of land from the French, he formed the Corps of Discovery, headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
The land called the Louisiana Territory was a vast wilderness and the president wanted to search for the Northwest Passage. Aside from that, the president also wanted the corps to make maps, learn about the various Native Americans in the area, and survey its natural landscape.
Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea and her husband at the Hidatsa-Mandan Settlement on November 2, 1804. It was close to the present day Bismarck in South Dakota.
They easily recognized the importance of having interpreters accompany the expedition. Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French while Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa. Her linguistic skills proved very useful because they were able to buy horses from the Shoshone chief who turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother.
Sacagawea and her husband plus her baby (she gave birth during the expedition) traveled with the Corps of Discovery from 1805 to 1806.
Sacagawea made the distinction of being the only woman in the corps. Aside from her interpreters skills, she contributed to natural history by identifying plants and root crops to use as food and herbal medicine.
She was a quick thinker and helped save important documents, medicine and supplies while securing her baby during a squall that almost capsized their boat.
Sacagawea was also a calming influence. Many of the American Natives have never seen people with pale faces before. With a mother and son traveling with foreigners, the natives were more gracious and welcoming.
She died at Fort Manuel (now Kenel, South Dakota) in 1812 at the age of 25. She received no compensation for her role in the expedition although her husband was awarded $500.33 and 320 acres of land. Yet, her legacy lives on as one of the most important interpreters of all time.
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2. Valentin Berezhkov
Politics and international relations are just two of the many societal divisions where interpreters plays a significant role. Take the case of Russian interpreter Valentin Berezhkov.
He was one of the the principal Soviet interpreters of Vyacheslav Molotov and Joseph Stalin in conferences during WWII. He was interpreting for the Soviet leaders when Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt attended a conference.
He studied German and English and received an engineering degree from the Kiev University. During the 1943 Tehran Conference, Berezhkov had a vital role as the main interpreter in the conference.
It was during this conference that the commitment of the Western Allies to set in motion the second phase of the large combat operations versus Nazi Germany was concluded.
He again was the lead of all interpreters for the Yalta Conference in 1945. This particular conference focused on peace after the war and the post-war reorganization of Europe. After the Yalta Conference, Berezhkov became a journalist instead of continuing as an interpreter.
He later had another career change, working in international relations. Berezhkov even had a stint as a professor and became a Soviet Embassy in Washington official. He taught at the Harvey Mudd, Pitzer and Pomona Colleges before moving to Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he was the Diane and Guilford Glazer Distinguished Visiting Professor recipient.
He published a book in 1994 called, ”At Stalin’s Side: His Interpreter’s Memoirs from the October Revolution to the Fall of the Dictator’s Empire.”
The book details his interpreters experiences as Joseph Stalin’s interpreter. He recalled having his image of Stalin dashed when he met the man, who was short, haggard, dark and with a face scarred by small pox.
He said that Stalin treated him indifferently like he did other people, although he would be suspicious at times.
Sergei, one of his sons from his second wife Valeria, used to work as one of the interpreters for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
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3. Thomas Pereira and Jean-Francois Gerbillon
The Qing and the West already had contact during the 17th century. Crucial to the relations were the Jesuit missionaries, serving as interpreters. The Chinese emperors valued the missionaries because of their linguistic skills and scientific knowledge.
Portuguese Jesuits arrived first in China and soon the French Jesuits came as well. Relationships between them were tense. At that time, the Russian Cossacks were infiltrating the Qing Empire’s northern borders in search of grains and fur. They clashed with the Chinese border troops and repressed the Siberian tribes that were Beijing’s tributaries.
The Kangxi emperor wanted to discuss the border tensions with the Russians and chose Thomas Pereira, a Portuguese Jesuit, to be the interpreter. Pereira was told that he could take a companion and selected Jean-Francois Gerbillon from the French Jesuits.
At that time the lingua franca between the Chinese and the Russians was Latin, which made it very convenient to choose the Jesuits as their interpreters. While the Russians wanted Thomas Pereira and Jean-Francois Gerbillon to hide the fact that they altered the treaty in their favor, the interpreters did not do as they wanted.
The new agreement, called the Treaty of Nerchinsk, was the first treaty that an emperor of China signed with any nation. In the treaty, the Russians concurred to keep north of the border from the Sayan Mountains between Siberia and Russia to Lake Okhotsk. That kept them away from the areas of the Amur Basin that were traditional homelands of the Manchus.
Due to the loyalty to China that the interpreters showed, they were given a land route to China from Europe. The interpreters were able to avoid the sea route where Dutch ships often showed hostility.
Thomas Pereira and Jean-Francois Gerbillon also earned the prince’s trust. Prince Songgotu credited the Jesuit interpreters and the religious order in general for helping end China’s war with Russia.
The gratitude of the Manchus led to the creation in 1692 of an imperial degree whereby Christians in China should always be accorded tolerance.
4. Gaspar Antonio Chi
Another on our interpreters list who helped change the world was a Yucatan Indian, Gaspar Antonio Chi. An interpreter during the latter part of the 1500s, he was very influential in the communications held by Spain and the Mayans.
Chi understood the Spanish language and was chosen as one of King Charles V of Spain’s interpreters. At that time, the king wanted to gather information about the history, geography and culture of the colonies, Chi was of great help to the Mayans.
Gaspar Antonio Chi became famous not only for his Castilian/Mexican/Mayan linguistic skills but also for providing his personal opinions to the king. He would add his own thoughts when responding to the king’s questions.
He gave the king information about the changes that were brought about since the Spanish arrived in the Yucatán Peninsula, informing him that things have become worse.
Gaspar Antonio Chi will be forever remembered as the Mayan people’s principal voice during the Spanish invasion of the peninsula and one of the world’s most famous interpreters.
Many of his replies to the questions of King Charles were preserved. They provide important insight to America’s post-colonial era.
Chi was a son of a Xiu Mayan noble. His father met a group of Spaniards who were exploring the Yucatán. He was with them when they went on a pilgrimage to Chichen Itza for the rain rites, but they were massacred by the Nachi Cocum, a rival tribe.
Later, Chi was given his Christian name by the Franciscan monks who also taught him Nahuatl, Latin and Spanish. He had a natural skill for languages, playing the organ and singing Spanish cantos.
He became one of the most valuable interpreters for the Spaniards and shared his knowledge of Mayan culture. He was also important to the Mayans as he organized petitions for Mayan interests and defended them against lawsuits.
In 1557 Chi attended the summit between the Xiu and Cocum that was mediated by the Spaniards. In 1562 he became the interpreter during the extirpation campaign of Bishop Diego de Landa. He later became one of the interpreters of the new Bishop of Yucatán.
According to American Anthropologist (Volume 30, Issue 2, Version of Record online: 28 OCT 2009), Gaspar Antonio Chi made several other accomplishments, both for the Spanish conquerors and the Mayan civilization.
The publication mentioned Chi being among the most important interpreters for several other Spanish court officials sent to the Yucatán. It also mentioned that he wrote a book in Spanish.
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A Native American belonging to the Patuxet tribe, Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, was a guide and interpreter. He was valuable to the English Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth when they spent their first winter in North America in 1620.
Tisquantum was born in 1580 in a place close to present day Plymouth, Massachusetts. It is believed that he was abducted in 1615 along the coast of Maine. Tisquantum, together with 24 Patuxet and Nauset tribesmen were lured by Thomas Hunt, an English trader who promised them work in trading beaver pelts.
They were imprisoned below deck and were to be sold as slaves in Malaga, Spain. Hunt came aboard the commercial fishing and trading ship of Captain John Smith.
Spanish friars got wind of the attempt and were able to rescue those who remained. Tisquantum was one of those rescued and the friars taught them Christianity. There were no accounts on how Tisquantum was able to escape from Spain and how he reached England.
He landed in London and managed to stay with a merchant, John Slaney who was involved in the exploration and settlement project in Newfoundland. While in England, Tisquantum learned English. Slaney employed Tisquantum and due to his local knowledge and linguistic skills, he was sent to Newfoundland to become one of the most famous interpreters in history.
Later he met explorer and navigator Thomas Dermer, who was an associate of Capt. John Smith. Dermer was then acting in behalf of the London merchants working on settling in New England. He brought Tisquantum with him to New England to talk with the Native American tribes in the area.
Tisquantum’s knowledge of English and his Native American language helped in normalizing the tense relations between the Europeans and the Native Americans. Interperters like him were invaluable for easing tensions. While Dermer continued his peace mission, Tisquantum stayed with the Wampanoag Confederation.
The Mayflower pilgrims arrived in 1620. Already wary of foreigners, the native tribes, especially the Nauset, were still very upset by the abduction of their tribesmen before.
The pilgrim relocated to the abandoned Patuxet (Plymouth) territory that was annihilated by an epidemic. The pilgrims were spending the winter in unfamiliar land and through a native called Samoset, learned of Tisquantum.
Tisquantum became instrumental in forging a peace treaty with the Nauset and linked the Wampanoag Confederation and the Pilgrims. He stayed with them for 20 months, acting as their intermediary, guide and trade advisor. He taught the English Pilgrims many things, including how to plant and fertilize native vegetables, catch eels and engage in fur trade.
The Mayflower Pilgrims owed their survival during the first two years since their arrival to the skills, intercession and knowledge of Tisquantum.
Interpreters, like translators facilitate communication. These five interpreters made a great contribution to society and even altered the course of history.
Interpreting is a noble profession and interpreters carry many responsibilities. It’s serious work that requires you to have control of your senses and be adept at harnessing your skills to make a difference.