The influence of interpreters on history

The previous post addressed the impact of translators on history. This article focuses on the special influence of the interpreters.

Unlike a translation that deals with written text, the interpreter translates orally. Today, the profession of interpreters is highly developed and divided into sub-fields and specializations – consecutive and simultaneous interpretation with business specializations, accompanying delegations, interpreting in courts, hospitals and more. Interpretation has ancient roots with evidence from ancient Egyptian reliefs from the time of the pharaohs.

Interpreting has played an important and active role throughout history in political and religious aspects, in expeditions and conquests. One of the challenges in researching the history of interpretation is that it is oral and undocumented in ancient times where the interpreters were rarely mentioned by their names. Thus, although it is obvious that interpreters have always accompanied kings, important delegations, and political events, very few documents survived to tell their stories.

All religions spread outside their original territories to places where other languages ​​were spoken, and interpreting played an important part in this. In Judaism, which is not a missionary religion, there was no active appeal to foreign cultures encouraging conversion, yet Judaism has been dependent on interpreters for centuries. This is because the Hebrew language was less spoken and familiar to the Jewish population after the Babylonians exiled the Jewish people in 586-538 BC from the land of Israel. At that time, the language spoken by the Jews was Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of that time and therefore interpretation from Hebrew to Aramaic became essential.

Between the 5th century BC and the 6th century AD, and even later, many interpreters worked in Jewish courts, Talmudic schools and synagogues in both Israel and Babylon, and interpreted the words of the Rabbis and the prayers. The Talmud documents some of the most famous interpreters named Chutzpit Hameturgeman (meaning Chutzpit the interpreter) who was one of the ten martyrs tortured to death by the Romans for violating the prohibition of teaching the Torah. The role of interpreters was mainly pedagogical, it was not a translation from one language to another, but it was more of an “interpretation”, an explanation of the Rabbi’s words in simple language understood by the audience. The Talmud discusses the subject of interpretation and describes how in the 6th century BC, Ezra the scribe amended a regulation requiring to read the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays (which were the market days of public gathering) and especially on the Sabbath in a method that the Torah reader is accompanied by an interpreter who translates the words into Aramaic. This practice lasted for centuries (and still exists today in Yemenite communities) where the interpreter repeats verse after verse following the reader, initially in Aramaic, and over the years into Greek and Arabic. The religious obligation of the Torah reading was in the Hebrew language but for the content to be understood the interpreters translated consecutively into the local spoken languages.

The interpreters also played a role in the spread of Islam in Africa. In the 7th and 8th centuries in West Africa, trade was conducted with the Arab world and with the emergence of Islam to the continent there was a need to bridge the gap between the Quran, written in the Arabic language and the local languages. Thus, the Islam was spread with the help of interpreters who translated the imams’ words into the local languages. Similarly, interpreters were used during the conquests of the Ottoman Empire, which spread Islam by sword, forcing the occupied population to convert to Islam.

Since the 15th century, Christianity set itself the goal of reaching all corners of the world as part of conquests and the discovery of new worlds. Christianity did this with a sense of cultural superiority that stemmed from the technological strength compared to the primitive conquered territories and especially due to the strong Christian belief that it is the only true faith. This led to a sense of destiny of spreading the Christianity in every encounter with a foreign culture. Christianity also spread to Africa, to East Asia and even across the Atlantic to the New World. And Christian missionaries everywhere used interpreters to convert more and more people to Christianity.

There is also evidence of failures in this spread of religion resulting from problems relating to interpreters. In the 13th century, King Louis IX sent a five-year long expedition to Asia led by William of Rubruck to the Mongol Empire. Unlike previous travels to Mongolia, the purpose of this fourth trip was primarily religious. Rubruck, the Franciscan messenger had several interpreters lead by an interpreter called Homo Dei, meaning the man of God or the servant of God (in Arabic: Abdullah). Rubruck describes great frustration in the journey following his realization of the incompetence and lack of intelligence of the interpreters which caused a sense of failure for the mission. Beyond the problem of the interpreters’ ability, he also suspected their loyalty in distorting the messages while translating. This suspicion was a common kind of racism for Saracens, a derogatory name coined by the Romans for the “savage” tribes in the East – Armenians, Arabs, Persians, Turkmens and Muslims in general, a derogatory name common among Christians at the time. This shows the critical role of interpreters and the importance of trust between them and their employers.

After the “discovery” of the New World, Europeans quickly realized the importance of good interpreters in establishing good communication with natives and with cultures that were completely different from what they had known until then. When Hernán Cortés began the process of conquering Mexico in 1519 he recruited interpreters not only to know the enemy and assist in the conquest itself but also for converting the native Indians into Christianity. Cortés heard of a bearded man captive among the Maya named Jerónimo de Aguilar.  Cortés bought him and freed him from his slavery. Aguilar learned the Mayan language and even continued to maintain his religious convictions during his captivity. When Cortés arrived at the continent, he was given as a gift of 20 female slaves, one of whom was named La Malinche, who spoke both the Mayan language as well as the Nahuatl language (a family of Aztec languages). Cortés  used both Aguiler and Malinche to translate together from Spanish into Nahuatl through the Mayan language. After a while, when Melinche learned Spanish, her status increased and she served as Cortés’ chief interpreter and partner and even was a mother to his son, Martin. The special connection between them was one of the main factors in the success of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

Aguiler’s knowledge and loyalty to the Catholic religion made him very effective in preaching against idol worship and preaching for adopting Christianity. Despite the accumulated experience, the great talent of the interpreters, and the improvement of the preaching skill, the conversion did not go smoothly. The problem was not the language, but the profound cultural and religious differences and indeed this assimilation would take many more years. First by the Franciscan Catholic order, then the Dominican, Augustinian, and at the end of the 16th century the Jesuits and others joined. In time, Christian missionaryism did not rely only on the study of the local language but mainly on studying the way of life of the Indians, their religion and culture. The French Huguenots’ voyage to Brazil in 1578 came after an earlier voyage in 1555 and used a group that preceded them both as interpreters as a well-integrated group familiar with the local culture. And, indeed, using interpreters from within the community was always preferable for conveying religious and other messages.

Interpreters played a critical role when moving to new territories, but they were not always available. The common method for recruiting interpreters was to kidnap individuals from the local population and teach them the language of the kidnappers. However, often the captured taken from their homeland to become interpreters did not cooperate. Columbus, for example, saw that most of those taken from the island of San Salvador, in the Bahamas, to learn Castilian Spanish and to be employed as interpreters, jumped ship and fled. As a result, Columbus also kidnaped their wives on board the Santa Maria ship to ensure his interpreters would not run away.

Armies in the ancient world made extensive use of interpreters. One can imagine the legions of the Roman Empire collaborating with Byzantine forces or the Swiss mercenaries in the service of European princes from different nationalities who joined together under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The best scenario was to find multilingual individuals from those armies to serve as interpreters. If such multilingual individuals were to be found then the issue of loyalty was simpler. However, sometimes the interpreters were recruited from allied or even hostile populations and then it was far more difficult to trust them. When battles ended, those same interpreters helped mediate ceasefires, surrenders or even peace agreements. This has been the case throughout history in violent or peaceful encounters between cultures. There was hardly a single encounter between empires or cultures that did not require the intensive involvement of interpreters.

Interpreting is a direct and very personal interactive activity between people who are sometimes in conflict. Throughout history, interpreting has raised quite a few issues related to trust and even ethics, but significant encounters between different nations could never take place without the involvement of interpreters, not merely as bystanders but as active factors influencing the unfolding history.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

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