Interpreter derives from the Latin interpres, a word used to design agents who moved between different parties or individuals who served as intermediaries, translators or explainers, usually in diplomatic activities. The etymology of interpres is also linked to pretium (price or value). The interpreter was therefore someone who, besides his multiple roles mentioned above, was also at the centre of a commercial transaction, being the agent who negotiated the conditions and prices.[1]The first records of ‘interpreter’ in English associate the word both to the immediate oral translation of dialogues between speakers of different languages, and the analysis of legal, religious or scholarly documents. Around 1440, the Promptorium Parvulorom (1440), the first English-Latin bilingual dictionary, translated ‘interpres’ as ‘Interpretowre or expownere’, relating this term to the precise function of explaining or commenting texts or laws.[2] Miles Coverdale’s translation of the Bible (1535) used the term ‘interpreter’ in Gen. xlii B to mention an oral translation during a dialogue: ‘They knew not that Joseph understode it, for he spake unto them by an interpreter’.[3] The same year, in his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, Thomas More used ‘enterpretors’ to identify the doctors of the Church and other scholars who commented and analysed the Bible, writing that ‘Al olde ye holy enterpretors haue construed the scripture agaynst them’.[4]

The uses of the term ‘interpreter’ in these works from the fourteenth to early sixteenth centuries reveal a perception of the interpreter as someone who facilitated communication and knowledge by deciphering words or translating foreign idioms. This often led to an overlapping use of the terms ‘interpreter’ and ‘translator’, since both terms identified individuals who facilitated communication by deciphering foreign idioms. Nonetheless, while the ‘translator’ was linguist or scholarly expert who worked with the written word, the ‘interpreter’ was often used to identify those who were not necessarily experts but employed their language skills to facilitate the communication between individuals, providing immediate oral translations. The role of the interpreter as decipher of languages was appropriate by Henry Cockerham in the title of his The English dictionarie, or, An interpreter of hard English words, evoking the role of the ‘interpreter’ to present a work which aimed to explain and standardise English for a wide audience formed by scholars, clerks, students, women and foreign.[5]

‘Interpreter’ was not strictly restricted to commentaries or the performance of oral translations, but also to a series of activities related to commercial and diplomatic exchanges. Jean Hotman’s De la charge et dignité de l’ambassadeur (The Ambassador, 1603), based on his experience as a member of the embassy of Sir Amias Paulet at at the French court from 1576 to 1579, presented the ‘interpreter’, together with the ‘secretary’ as one of the ‘necessary instruments’ of an ambassador for its important work in facilitating a dialogue between ‘those which speake not the language’.[6]The indispensable functions performed by interpreters required an element of trust. In order to guarantee the loyalty of interpreters and the accuracy of their translations, Hotman recommended that ambassadors and princes should include them ‘in the accompt of the pensions of that Nation, and receive the ordinary wages of a crowne by the day’.[7] More importantly, interpreters should also have ‘a certificate or attestation’ signed by an ambassador that defined their duties and obligations.[8]

Hotman’s recommendations indicate some features of the profile and functions of early modern interpreters involved in diplomatic and commercial exchanges. The concern with securing a contractual relation between an ambassador and an interpreter was related to the fact that most interpreters were normally employed on a temporary basis. Hotman’s observation that interpreter and secretaries were vital elements in an embassy emanated from the articulation between the functions performed by these two agents. Interpreters produced an immediate and literal translation orally or in the form of a draft that would be refined later by a translator, or a secretary with some experience with foreign languages. The initial translation could then be polished by the interpreter himself, if he possessed a scholarly background, or by a secretary, clerk, or an official translator.[9]

The expansion of English trade and diplomacy throughout the Elizabethan and Jacobean period introduced new words for the functions of the interpreter. English merchants and diplomats identified the interpreters they employed in the Ottoman Empire as ‘dragomans’, a term derived from the Greek dragoumanos, (δραγομάνος), a variant of the Ottoman Turkish tercüman and the Arabic tarjumān (ترجمان), the interpreter or transcriber of spoken conversations or speeches. The English in the Levant and the Barbary Coast also used ‘Truchman’, another variant of tercüman and tarjumān. In Southeast Asia, the correspondence of the East India Company has several references to jurebassos, a word borrowed from the Malay-Javanese jurubahāsa (literally, ‘language-master’) via the Portuguese use of the same word for local interpreters and emissaries. In India and Persia, interpreters were often identified by East Indian Company (EIC) documents as ‘linguists’, another borrowing from the Portuguese use of lingua to define South Asian and Persian interpreters, or as ‘dubash’, from Hindi ‘do-bhasha’ ([one who speaks] two languages).[10]

This adoption of different terms from European or Asian languages reveals the interpreter as someone with the capacity to live or move between different linguistic, social, cultural and political worlds. It was this element of mobility and their linguistic skills that made the dragomans, jurebassos and linguas almost indispensable go-betweens in English commercial and diplomatic activities. These interpreters not only facilitated communication, but, through their contact networks and knowledge of local practices, aided merchants and diplomats in decoding local cultural or political subtleties that were essential to ensure the success of trading exchanges, diplomatic correspondence and forms of cross-cultural communication.

Although useful, the in-betweenness of interpreters generated anxieties about their true intentions. In Ireland, the Elizabethan authorities had serious doubts about the allegiance of their Old English collaborators - the Catholic English families who had first settled in Ireland from the twelfth century - since their proximity to Hibernian culture suggested that they could be, as Barnabe Riche scornfully noted, ‘English with Irish hearts’.[11] This widespread perception of degeneration when exposed to other cultures led the diplomat Henry Wotton, while he was serving the Earl of Essex in Ireland, to complain that ‘whatsoever we have done, or mean to do, we know what will become of it, when it comes amongst our worst enemies, which are interpreters’.[12] Wotton’s diatribe against interpreters echoes the anxieties caused by the capabilities of interpreters which were also explored by Michel de Montaigne on his essay ‘Of Cannibals’, where the French author lamented that his contact with the Tupinambá brought from Brazil to Rouen for the royal entry of Henry II were undermined by ‘so bad an interpreter, and who did so ill apprehend my meaning, and who through his foolishnesse was so troubled to conceive my imaginations, that I could draw no great matter from him’.[13]

The uneasy trust between mediators was even more acute in places like Japan. William Adams, an English merchant who first served the Barbary Company before joining the Dutch East India Company, became a relevant member of the entourage of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600. Despite maintaining regular contacts with the Dutch East India Company, Adams incited the EIC merchants based at Bantam to trade with Japan. Although Adams rapidly assumed a pivotal role in the English trading activities in Japan, the correspondence of the first English factor in Japan, John Saris, is full of suspicious remarks on Adam’s real intentions and loyalty, even though Sarris recognised that Adams’ role as an interpreter and broker was crucial for the EIC.[14] The correspondence of the EIC employees based in Japan has also abundant complaints about local interpreters, who were often regarded as a necessary evil. Richard Cocks complained that the first Japanese interpreter hired by William Adams for the EIC, a man named Migell (or Miguel), was completely unreliable, being ‘something stubborne, and loved to runne abroad at his pleasure, leaving me without one that could speake a word\'.[15] Adams replaced Migell with Juan, a Japanese Catholic boy who previously worked in a Spanish household in Manila. Although Cocks recognised the good services of his new interpreter, Juan’s Catholicism and associations with the Spanish made him an ambiguous figure.[16] In the Levant, Sir Thomas Roe, during his time as the English ambassador at the Ottoman court, probably based on the problems he previously faced with his interpreters at the Mughal court, issued oaths of loyalty to the local interpreters who were employed during the negotiations of treaties with the Ottoman authorities.[17]

The recurrent suspicions and doubts on the reliability and integrity of local interpreters led the English trading companies to use English boys as interpreters to avoid the dependence on non-English individuals. The career of the first English-born interpreter in Virginia, Thomas Savage, began around 1608 at the age of thirteen, when the captain Christopher Newport offered the boy as a hostage to the Algonquian chief Opecancanough (Powhatan). Savage remained with the Algonquians, where he learned their language and became a valuable go-between who maintained communication between Opecancanough and the English authorities at Jamestown at a fraught moment in its early history. The success of Savage’s experience as an emissary led John Smith to send another newly-arrived teenager, Henry Spelman, to the camp of Parahunt, one of Opecancanough’s sons. Savage and Spelman’s roles as translators, along with another boy, Robert Poole, at a time when few Englishmen knew Algonquian dialects, placed them in positions where they needed to carefully balance English and Algonquian interests. This made them ambivalent figures in both societies.[18] Surviving letters and official reports from councillors in Virginia indicate that ‘interpreter’ was fundamentally a problematic - and potentially highly subjective - role, and authorities showed little trust in the individual boys as they moved between English and Algonquian spaces. ‘Captaine Henry Spelman’, reported the planter John Rolfe to the MP Edwin Sandys in 1620, had been brought before the council for ‘being accused by Rob[er]te Pools (one of the interpreto[u]rs of the Indian language) of many crimes, w[hi]ch might be p[re]iudiciall to the State in generall’.[19] At the same time, these interpreters fulfilled an indispensable role in the colony: Spelman was pardoned, Rolfe wrote, and immediately ‘ymploied as interpreto[u]r to Patawamack to trade for corne’.[20]

Building on their experiences in the early seventeenth century, by the 1670s the East India Company (EIC) had conducted several experiments to end the company’s dependence on foreign interpreters, and to ensure its employees learned South Asian languages in a controlled environment to minimise the risk of influence from local cultures. These measures included the appointment of teachers, monetary rewards for Englishmen learning local languages, or the forced isolation of young employees from their colleagues in order to guarantee they would rapidly learn a new language. In 1688, following a similar strategy to the one adopted by in Virginia, the EIC sent three 14-year-old boys to the Bencoolen factory in Sumatra.[21] In spite of these efforts, the EIC continued to rely on foreign interpreters who mastered the lingua francas of the Indian Ocean – Persian, Arabic, Malay and Portuguese. Some of these interpreters became relevant servants of the company like Abraham Navarro, a Sephardi Jew of Portuguese descent who, after serving as an interpreter in China, Siam and Mughal India between 1683 and 1690, was appointed to the office of Pursuer Mariner at Surat. Nonetheless, Navarro’s Jewishness impeded him to become a member of the Bombay council as it was initially. The board of the EIC in London barred Navarro’s promotion informing the Bombay Council that the inclusion of ‘a professed Jew is quite contrary to His Majesty\'s Charter to the Rt. Honorable Company for Bombay which is to govern the same as near as possible conformable to the laws of England and you know it is against the law that any Jew have any authority in Government’.[22]

As the cases of Adams, Savage, Spelman or Navarro reveal, their role was not strictly restricted to interpreting, but involved a series of activities related to commercial and diplomatic exchanges. This element of mobility forced interpreters to have a peripatetic life and a rather suspicious chameleonic identity which had often to be negotiated or redefined to ensure both their personal safety and employability. Their multiple roles and capacity to cross frontiers made them relevant cultural informants, a function that made the term ‘interpreter’ associated not only with language or linguistic skills, but also with the ability to understand and explain cultural or social traits. John Cotgrave’s Wits Interpreter (1655), a miscellania of ancient and contemporary quotes, trivia and epigrams, evoked this specific feature of the interpreter as someone who through language was able to decipher cultural nuances.[23]

Idealised depiction of William Adams meeting Tokugawa Ieyasu[24]
1. Dario Tessicini, ‘Introduction: Translators, Interpreters, and Cultural Negotiation’, in Translators, Interpreters and Cultural Negotiators: Mediating and Communicating Power from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era, ed. by Federico M. Federici and Dario Tessicini (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 1-2.
2. Anglicus Galfridus, Promptuarium paruulorum clericorum quod apud nos Medulla grammatice appellatur scolastici (London, 1512; STC 20437), sig. F1.
3. Miles Coverdale, Biblia the Bible, that is, the holy Scripture of the Olde and New Testament, faithfully and truly translated out of Douche and Latyn in to Englishe (Cologne, 1535; STC 2063.3), sig. D1r.
4. Thomas More, A dialogue of comfort against tribulacion (London, 1553; STC 18082), sig. C3v.
5. Henry Cockerham, The English dictionarie, or, An interpreter of hard English words (London, 1623; STC 5461).
6. Jean Hotman, The ambassador (London, 1603; STC 13848), sig. D8v.
7. Ibid., sig. K5v.
8. Ibid., sig. K5v.
9. Dario Tessicini, ‘Introduction’, in Translators, Interpreters and Cultural Negotiators, pp. 5-6.
10. Henry Huyle and A.C. Burnell, Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive (London: Kegan Paul, 1903), pp. 327, 473-4, 517-8; Samuli Kaislaniemi, ‘Jurebassos and Linguists: The East India Company and Early Modern English Words for “Interpreter”’, in Selected Proceedings of the 2008 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis, ed. by R. W. McConchie, Alpo Honkapohja, and Jukka Tyrkkö (Sommerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project), pp. 60-73.
11. ‘A looking-glass for Her Majesty, May 1599’, in Calendar of State Papers Ireland, Vol. VIII: 1599—1600, ed. by Ernest George Atkinson (Nendeln: Kraus, 1974), p. 50.
12. ‘To John Donne [?], 1599’,The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, Vol. I, ed. by Logan Pearsall Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), p. 308.
13. Michel de Montaigne, Essays (London, 1613; STC 18042), sig. K3r.
14. Alison Games, Web of Empire: English Cosmopolitans in an Age of Expansion, 1560-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 97.
15. ‘Relation of Master Richard Cocks’, in The Voyage of Captain John Saris to Japan, ed. by Ernest M. Satow (London: Hakluyt Society, 1908), p. 144.
16. Games, Web of Empire, p. 99.
17. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, ‘Frank Submissions: The Company and the Mughals between Sir Thomas Roe and Sir William Norris’, in The Worlds of the East India Company, ed. by H.V. Bowen, Margarette Lincoln and Nigel Rigby (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2002), pp. 69–96; Games, Web of Empire, p. 166.
18. J. Frederick Fausz, ‘Middlemen in Peace and War: Virginia’s Earliest Indian Interpreters, 1608-1632’, in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 95.1 (1987), pp. 41-64.
19. 'John Rolfe to Edwin Sandys, [January 1620?]', Ferrar Papers, FP 151, Virginia Company Archives [accessed 23 September 2016].
20. Ibid.
21. Anne Winterbottom, Hybrid Knowledge in the Early East India Company World (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 60.
22. Walter J. Fischel, ‘Abraham Navarro: Jewish Interpreter and Diplomat in the Service of the English East India Company (1682-1692)’, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 25 (1956), pp. 39-62; Walter J. Fischel, ‘Abraham Navarro: Jewish Interpreter and Diplomat in the Service of the English East India Company (1682-1692)’, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 26 (1957), 25-39 (pp. 34-6)
23. John Cotgrave, Wits interpreter, the English Parnassus (London, 1655; Wing C6370).
24. Idealised depiction of William Adams meeting Tokugawa Ieyasu by Pieter van der Aa (1707)
Usage Examples
'Interpretowre or expownere’