On Thanksgiving Day, we remember those interpreters who changed history.

November 20, 2018 § 4 Comments

Dear colleagues:

This is Thanksgiving season in the United States; a time when we celebrate the spirit of solidarity and cooperation between all who lived in our country in the seventeenth century, regardless of their ethnicity, culture, origin, and language. In the past, I have written about the crucial role Squanto played during that first Thanksgiving gathering. Beyond Squanto (also known as Tisquantum), a Patuxent Native-American who learned English, and whose interpreting services were crucial to both: Europeans and Native-Americans, Thanksgiving season reminds us of the importance of collaboration amongst all people, and how this communication is made possible by interpreters; many, individuals who were an essential part of human history.

Language interpreting dates back to Ancient Egypt during the 3rd millennium B.C. The first records of interpreting were in Egyptian low-relief sculptures in a prince’s tomb that referenced to an interpreter supervisor. Interpreters were employed throughout the middle Ages. Monks of many nationalities interpreted in monasteries; preachers of foreign lands interpreted in councils, and some individuals interpreted on business expeditions, military incursions and diplomatic meetings.

During the Age of Discovery, using new and different languages changed the way interpreting was seen. Christopher Columbus in his first voyage noted that his Arabic and Hebrew-speaking interpreters “…were not very helpful in communicating with the Indians…”  After this voyage he decided to recruit some Native Americans and teach them Spanish so they could help him as interpreters on his next expedition. Today, on the same spirit of Thanksgiving, let’s remember some men and women who showcased the importance of our profession:

Sacagawea.  Born during the late part of the 18th century in what is now Idaho, she 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. He married her. Because she was bilingual, during their famous expedition, 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 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 bought horses from the Shoshone chief who turned out to be Sacagawea’s brother. The couple traveled with the Corps of Discovery from 1805 to 1806. Sacagawea made the distinction of being the only woman in the corps.  Her legacy lives on as one of the most important interpreters of all time.

Gaspar Antonio Chi.  He was a Yucatan Indian interpreter during the latter part of the 1500s, and 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. The king wanted to gather information about the history, geography and culture of the colonies, Chi was of great help to the Mayans. He became famous not only for his linguistic skills but also for personally opining before the king. He would add his own thoughts when responding to the king’s questions.

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 exploring the Yucatán. Later, Chi was given his Christian name by the Franciscan monks who also taught him Náhuatl, Latin and Spanish. He had a natural skill for languages, playing the organ and singing Spanish cantos.

Estevanico.  Born in North Africa at the dawn of the 16th century, the man known as Estevanico was probably the first Muslim to set foot in North America. Growing up in the lush Oum er Rbia region of Morocco, the black Moor was enslaved. By 1527, he was the property of Castilian nobleman Andres Dorantes, and he was given a Christian name, Estevanico, probably to make his enslavement legal according to the laws of Spain’s Queen Isabella.

Dorantes and Estevanico joined an expedition to explore and conquer from the border of New Spain to Florida with conquistador Panfilo de Narváez. Dorantes was a captain on this expedition, which was bound originally for the Pánuco River on the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico but ended up, due to bad conditions and inept piloting, coming to shore near Tampa Bay. A five-month death march through the swamps ensued, plagued with disease and attacks by natives. After the ships offshore lost sight of the land expedition, Narvaez tried to build rafts to float to Mexico. These proved impossible to keep together, and most of the expedition drowned.

Estevanico and Dorantes were among 80 men who washed up on Galveston Island off the coast of Texas. When they went to the mainland to look for New Spain, they were captured by Native Americans and held for six years. After escaping soon after the arrival of another shipwrecked Spaniard, the group spent two years on a trek to Mexico. During this trek, the Spaniards noted Estevanico had a knack for communicating with the native population through hand signals and words. He and his companions dressed as natives, and Estevanico carried two sacred gourds and an engraved copper rattle, which gave him legitimacy as a shaman. He also dressed in feathers, bells, and turquoise he had received as gifts for his healing.

When they finally returned to Mexico, Dorantes sold Estevanico to Viceroy Antonio Mendoza, the first Viceroy of New Spain, who dispatched him to help guide another expedition in search of rumored cities of gold to the north. The expedition was led by the friar Fray Marcos, but it was Estevanico that headed it, flanked by two massive Spanish greyhounds and with feathers and bells on his arms and legs. He was disliked by the friars for his license with women and comfortable communication with the locals, and he soon fell victim to overconfidence. Marching ahead of the expedition, he offended a village of Zuni Pueblos, in what is now New Mexico, by carrying items from an enemy tribe and was imprisoned with his entourage while the Zuni elders debated whether to respect him as a wizard or kill him as a spy. Estevanico was killed by the Zuni, and the rest of the expedition slunk back to Mexico. Some, however, believe he faked his death in order to live freely among the natives, and the Zuni spirit Chakwaina, depicted with a black face or mask, is believed to be based on him.

Sarah Winnemucca.  Born around 1844 to the Paiute tribe in eastern Nevada, Sarah Winnemuca’s real name was Thoc-me-tony, meaning “Shell-flower.” Her grandfather, Truckee, believed in peaceful coexistence with the whites, while Winnemucca herself had misgivings. But she accompanied her mother and grandfather to California, where she worked for white families and picked up English and Spanish, and an understanding of white culture. She and her sister Elma attended a Roman Catholic school until the parents of other students objected to their presence. They were forced to leave, but Sarah continued to develop her linguistic skills.

In 1866, she went with her brother, Natchez, to Fort McDermit, either at the request of the Paiutes to help stop white raiding, or on the orders of the Army to explain Paiute unrest. Winnemucca would become an intermediary between the military and the Paiutes, convincing her father’s band to settle on a reservation and serving as a liaison during the 1878 Bannock War.

She once said: “Is there not good reason for wishing the Army to have care of the Indians, rather than the Indian Commissioner and his men? The Army has no temptation to make money out of them, and the Indians understand law and discipline as the Army has them; but there is no law with agents. The few good ones cannot do good enough to make it worth while to keep up that system. A good agent is sure to lose his place very soon, there are so many bad ones longing for it.”

After the end of the Bannock War, Winnemucca became enraged by mistreatment of Pauite captives and launched a campaign of lectures in San Francisco, Nevada, and the East Coast, even traveling to Washington, DC, to plead with the government to reform the system of corrupt agents, callous missionaries, and failing policy. Despite meeting with Secretary of the Interior Schurz and President Hayes, the government delivered no assistance, and a movement to discredit her emerged despite support from the military, the Unitarians, and some sympathetic officials. She died in 1891, having spent some of the last years of her life working in a school in Nevada, where she taught Paiute children to respect their native traditions while learning the language and culture of the whites. She left behind a legacy as one of the most significant fighters for Native American rights in the 19th century.

Felipillo. Born on the island of Puna off the coast of the Inca Empire, the young man known as Felipillo was captured by the Spanish and employed as an interpreter for the conquest of Peru. This was unfortunate, as he was not fluent in the Quechua language of the Incas nor in Spanish, though he picked up both languages rather impressively with no formal instruction by listening to people speak.

He made frequent mistakes, including botching a description of the Holy Trinity by translating “God is three in one” as “God said ‘three and one is four,’” which is true but rather less profound. What’s worse, the only way he knew how to express the concept was by reference to quipu, Inca knot record-keeping, as there were no Quechua words for Christian concepts like trinity, faith, or holy spirit, or if there were, Felipillo wasn’t likely to pick them up from listening to traders haggling in port markets. He was said to be such a bad interpreter that the Inca Atahualpa was said to have needed to speak slowly and in short sentences to be understood, using the Chinchasuyu dialect, rather than the Cuzco dialect, which Felipillo was less familiar with.

Felipillo is said to have arranged the death of Atahualpa, after falling in love with one woman from his harem, Cuxirimay, whose name meant “very fair skinned and beautiful.” When Atahualpa complained of not being set free by the Spanish even after paying a ransom, and that he should at least be able to eat and drink with his subjects, Felipillo told the Spanish that Atahualpa was planning to escape and join forces with his last remaining general, Ruminavi, at Quito to lead a new campaign against the foreign occupiers. Pizarro, fearful of rebellion, had Atahualpa baptized, garroted, and burned at the stake. Whether Felipillo made off with the fair Cuxirimay is unknown.

Malintzin.  La Malinche (meaning the captain’s woman), known also as MalinalliMalintzin or Doña Marina, is an important figure in the history of Mexico, and she played a pivotal role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador who participated in Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico, Malinche was of noble birth. Malinche is best-known, however, for her role as Cortés’ interpreter. Prior to encountering Malinche, the chief interpreter for the Spanish was a Franciscan friar named Gerónimo de Aguilar, who learnt Mayan whilst he was held captive by the locals. De Aguilar spoke Mayan and Spanish. Malinche spoke Mayan and Náhuatl. The two worked together to translate for Cortés, until Malinche picked up Spanish.

It was Malinche’s abilities as a linguist that allowed the meetings and negotiations to be arranged between Cortés and the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma. Additionally, Malinche communicated with the tribes whose territories they had to march through saving the conquistadors from hostile attacks. Alliances with indigenous tribes hostile to the Aztecs were made, thanks to Malinche. She significantly contributed to the successful Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. Some say that due to Malinche’s presence as an interpreter at the negotiating table between the Aztecs and the Spanish, more bloodshed was avoided.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I invite you to learn more about these interpreters essential to the encounter of Europe and the Americas, not just for the Thanksgiving episode with Squanto, but for many other interactions throughout the so-called “new world”. I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, and I invite you to share the story of any other interpreters you may want to add to the list above.

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