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 served as a mediator, negotiating terms and prices and often at the centre of a commercial transaction. The first records of ‘interpreter’ in English associate the word to the oral translation of dialogues between speakers of different languages, and to the analysis of legal, religious or scholarly documents. Around 1440, the Promptorium Parvulorom (1440), the first bilingual English-Latin dictionary, translated interpres as ‘Interpretowre or expownere’, relating this term to the precise function of explaining or commenting texts or laws. Miles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible used ‘interpreter’ in Genesis to mention an oral translation occurring during a dialogue: ‘They knew not that Joseph understood it, for he spoke unto them by an interpreter’. The same year, in A dialogue of comfort against tribulation, the humanist Thomas More used ‘enterpretors’ to identify Church scholars who commented and analyzed the Bible.
The uses of the term ‘interpreter’ in these works from the fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries reveal a perception of the interpreter as someone who facilitated communication and knowledge by deciphering words or translating foreign idioms. In The English dictionarie, or, An interpreter of hard English words (1623), The lexicographer Henry Cockerham evoked ‘interpreter’ to present a work that aimed to explain and standardize English for a wide audience formed by scholars, clerks, students, women, and foreigners. This often led to an overlapping of the terms ‘interpreter’ and ‘translator’, since both identified individuals who facilitated communication by deciphering foreign idioms. Nonetheless, while the ‘translator’ was a linguist or scholarly expert who worked with the written word, the ‘interpreter’ often identified those who were not necessarily experts but employed to provide oral translations due to their language skills, often in moments that required immediate action.
‘Interpreters’ therefore served as integral go-betweens in activities that related to commercial and diplomatic exchanges. To Jean Hotman, a member of Sir Amias Paulet’s embassy at the French court from 1576 to 1579, the ‘interpreter’ was one of the ‘necessary instruments’ of an ambassador for his or her important work in facilitating a dialogue between ‘those which speak not the language’. 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 crown by the day’. More importantly, interpreters should have ‘a certificate or attestation’ signed by an ambassador that defined their duties and obligations. 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. 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.
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 the Hindi ‘do-bhasha’, one who speaks two languages.
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 as the English sought trade and expansion abroad. 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 the success of trading exchanges, diplomatic correspondence, and other 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 allies. The Old English were Catholic English families who had first settled in Ireland in the twelfth century. Their proximity to Irish society suggested that they could be, as the author and soldier Barnabe Riche scornfully noted, ‘English with Irish hearts’. This widespread perception of degeneration when exposed to other cultures led the diplomat Henry Wotton to complain, whilst serving the Earl of Essex in Ireland in the 1590s, 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’. Wotton’s invective against interpreters echoes the anxieties caused by the capabilities of interpreters which Michel de Montaigne explored in his essay ‘Of Cannibals’. The French author lamented that his contact with the Tupinambá Indians 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 foolishness was so troubled to conceive my imaginations, that I could draw no great matter from him’.
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 member of the entourage of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600. Despite maintaining regular contacts with the Dutch East India Company, Adams incited the English East India Company (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 as Sarris recognized Adams’s crucial role as an interpreter and broker for the EIC. The correspondence of EIC employees in Japan also contained abundant complaints about local interpreters. The merchant Richard Cocks complained that the first Japanese interpreter hired by Adams for the EIC, a man named Migell (Miguel), was completely unreliable, being ‘stubborn, and loved to runne abroad at his pleasure, leaving me without one that could speak a word’. Adams replaced Migell with Juan, a Japanese Catholic boy who previously worked in a Spanish household in Manila. Although Cocks recognized the good services of his new interpreter, Juan’s Catholicism and associations with the Spanish made him an ambiguous figure. In the Levant, Sir Thomas Roe, during his time as the English ambassador at the Ottoman court, issued oaths of loyalty to the local interpreters who were employed during the negotiations of treaties with the Ottoman authorities, probably as a result of the problems he had previously encountered with his interpreters at the Mughal court.
The recurrent suspicions and doubts on the reliability and integrity of local interpreters led English trading companies to favour English boys as interpreters, which avoided 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. Savage remained with the Algonquians, where he learned their language and became a valuable go-between who maintained communication between Opecancanough and English authorities in Jamestown during its fraught early years. 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. Surviving letters and official reports from councillors in Virginia indicate that authorities showed little trust in the individual boys as they moved between English and Algonquian spaces, caught between vying interests. ‘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 general’. At the same time, these interpreters fulfilled an indispensable role in the colony: Spelman was pardoned, Rolfe wrote, and immediately ‘employed as interpreto[u]r to Patawamack to trade for corne’. Spelman died three years later in a failed trading expedition that had escalated into violent conflict.
Foreign interpreters were also present in London, often in merchant households. Coree the Saldanian (d. 1627) was a member of the Khoikhoi people of southern Africa, taken by an EIC merchant and placed in the household of the EIC merchant Thomas Smith. According to the EIC chaplain Edward Terry, there was ‘none ever more desirous to return home to his Countrey than [he]; For when he had learned a little of our Language, he would daily lye upon the ground, and cry very often thus in broken English, Cooree home goe, Souldania goe, home goe’. Having returned to South Africa, however, Coree continued to serve as an interpreter, conducting negotiations between the English and African traders. Several North Americans lived in Walter Ralegh’s London household from the 1580s, where they assisted the mathematician Thomas Hariot in compiling his Algonquian dictionary, now lost. In his voyage to Guiana in 1595, Ralegh navigated Greater Amazonia ‘by my Indian interpreter, which I caried out of England’, in order to conduct negotiations with local groups, where his interpreter communicated that ‘I [Ralegh] was the servant of a Queene, who was the great Casique [ruler] of the north, and a virgin, and had more Casiques under her then [sic] there were trees in that Iland’. ‘I confesse’, Ralegh wrote, that it was difficult ‘to keep the meaner sort from spoile and stealing’, and ‘I caused my Indian interpreter at every place...to know of the losse or wrong’. In this way, the indigenous interpreter became a mediator between English, Spanish, and Tupi or Carib interests, but also assisted in cases of restitution. This may have been one of the interpreters who returned with Ralegh to London, and visited him after Ralegh’s imprisonment in the Tower after 1603.
Non-European women linked through marriage, concubinage or enslavement to European mercantile and colonial agents were frequently employed as interpreters. One of the most illustrative cases is Malintzin, alias La Malinche, the Nahua interpreter and mistress of Hernán Cortés in Mexico. Another similar case for the English colonial experience was that of Mataoka or Pocahontas, who was often employed by the English as an interpreter in their interactions with the Algonquian tribes of Tsenacommacah. The knowledge on local societies and languages possessed by these women, as well as their ability to infiltrate and navigate indigenous spheres often barred or unknown to Europeans, made them extremely valuable in diplomatic and commercial dealings. These cases expose the overlapping functions or multiple roles of the interpreter. Besides facilitating oral communication, interpreters often acted as de facto brokers and go-betweens. By operating in a ‘middle ground’, to borrow Richard White’s words, and possessing a unique linguistic and practical knowledge, interpreters rapidly became crucial intermediaries between different political and cultural worlds, having the ability to initiate or maintain contacts, as well as influence their outcomes.
By the 1670s, building on their experiences in the early seventeenth century, trading companies conducted several experiments to end their dependence on foreign interpreters. The EIC encouraged its employees to learn South Asian languages in a controlled environment to minimize the risk of influence from local cultures. These measures included the appointment of teachers, monetary rewards for Englishmen learning local languages, and 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 in Virginia, the EIC sent three 14-year-old boys to the Bencoolen factory in Sumatra. 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. Abraham Navarro, a Sephardi Jew of Portuguese descent, served as an interpreter in China, Siam, and Mughal India between 1683 and 1690, being eventually appointed to the office of Pursuer Mariner at Surat. Nonetheless, Navarro’s Jewishness impeded him from becoming a member of the Bombay council. 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’.
As the cases of Adams, Spelman, or Navarro reveal, the roles of interpreters involved a series of activities related to commercial and diplomatic exchanges. This element of mobility forced interpreters to have a peripatetic life and a chameleonic identity which often had to be negotiated or redefined to ensure their employability and their personal safety. 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 with the ability to understand and explain cultural or social traits. John Cotgrave’s Wits Interpreter (1655), a miscellanea of ancient and contemporary quotes, trivia and epigrams, evoked this specific feature of the interpreter as someone who used language to decipher cultural nuances. Whether in debates around biblical interpretation or around the translation of meaning across cultures and languages, the status and legitimacy of the interpreter involved issues over authority and power, the balance continually shifting.