Published: Dec. 10, 2020


“Cultural intermediaries—namely, translators and interpreters—in contact zones turn verbal gibberish into dialogue, and they enable the clashing cultures to understand one another.”

Taylor Cozzens

“Between Nations: Language Barriers and Cultural Intermediaries in Panama”


“I have associated with some of the most accomplished translators in this country and am thus able to guarantee the strict accuracy & elegance for all translations issuing from this office.”

William Starr, Polyglot Bureau, New York, writing to the Mexican Embassy in the United States, 1867


“Interpreters were crucial players in Western history. Yet we ended up with hundreds of studies of miners, cattlemen, cowboys, and farmers, and with no systematic, book-length studies of interpreters and translators.”

Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Making the Most of Words,”

Cronon, Gitlin, and Miles, editors, Under a Western Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, 1992


AN INTRODUCTORY REMARK: Patty Limerick is usually the sole author of “Not My First Rodeo,” but today’s post breaks free of that constraint and embraces the liberation of inter-generational collaboration. Alice Baumgartner, a longtime affiliate of the Center of the American West, a history professor at the University of Southern California, and the author of the just-published, South To Freedom: Runaway Slaves and the Road to the Civil War, joins Limerick as co-author of “History’s Essential Workers.” Limerick and Baumgartner then asked Zachary Guiliano to write the conclusion to this post. A CU Film Production and International Affairs double major, Guiliano served five-and-a-half years in the United States Army as an Intelligence Analyst. Assigned to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, he was deployed to Afghanistan under Special Operations Command, and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. In Afghanistan, he worked with interpreters. If you are short on time, Limerick and Baumgartner urge you to skip the part they wrote here and go straight to Guiliano’s comments at the end.


A Familiar Story from the Past, A Fresh Approach for the Present

As Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean, the terrain they crossed presented an almost unfathomable variety of landforms. And yet the diversity of the languages they encountered proved far more difficult to comprehend.

At every stage of the trip, the expedition encountered a group that spoke a different language. On a few occasions, this required Clark and Lewis to engage in an early nineteenth century experimentation with what would later be called “the telephone game,” a chain of interpreters lined up to pass on a single message. In one episode when clear communication was of great importance, Lewis spoke in English to a French soldier from the expedition. The soldier then spoke in French to the expedition’s official interpreter, Toussaint Charbonneau. Charbonneau then spoke in Hidatsa to Sacagawea, who spoke in Shoshone to a leader of that tribe. And then the process reversed: Shoshone to Hidatsa to French to English.

Here’s an idea that we suspect no one else has proposed: this would be a good time to adopt his chain of translation and put it to use to our world today.

There is no mistaking our national dilemma: people who are firmly committed to one political position are unable to communicate with people who are firmly committed to an opposite political position.

Lewis and Clark offer us a promising technique.

A far-left progressive Democrat would speak to a centrist Democrat. The moderate Democrat would speak to a centrist Republican. The centrist Republican would speak to a far-right Republican, who could then offer his response to the centrist Republican, and that response would then move back along the chain.

After a few messages have traveled back and forth through the chain, the time would be right for a designated interpreter to step in. Asking everyone to pause, the interpreter could ask everyone a few debriefing questions: “What did you just hear? Was it what you expected to hear? Where do you agree and disagree? Were there parts that you simply did not understand and that need more explanation? Do you need to keep using this chain of indirection, or are you ready now to talk with each other?”


Missing Persons Report

In 1682, William Penn, the colonial founder of Pennsylvania, negotiated a treaty with the Lenni Lenape tribe. Ninety years later, the painter Benjamin West commemorated this event. “William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians” depicts the negotiations on the banks of the Delaware River, with the English on one side, and the Lenape people on the other. Return to the banner at the top of this post, and you will see an iconic depiction of the theoretically harmonious dealings between Penn’s Quakers and their Native neighbors. The painting sidesteps the violence that accompanied English settlement in Pennsylvania. And, in an equally striking omission, the interpreters—the people who played the key role in the negotiation of the treaty— do not appear in the painting, lounging under the trees or even canoeing in from the river.

As the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts curators note, “William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians” is “allegorical not historical.” In at least one way, allegorical figures have it easy, holding the enviable privilege of speaking to their fellow allegorical figures in any language they like. A historical figure, by contrast, has had to speak in a particular language, one which was often unintelligible to other historical figures who have had a vexing habit of speaking languages of their own.

In sharp contrast to the freedom of expression held by allegorical figures in a painting, if the historical figures who actually assembled in 1682 with William Penn had not made room for the interpreters, the Quakers and the Lenape Indians would have been unable to do anything but befuddle and confuse each other.

And now we come upon a curious twist: if well-known artists like Benjamin West chose to banish the interpreters from their paintings, a similar fate of erasure befell those interpreters in the historical record.

When it comes to leaving records of their time on the planet, interpreters prove to be an elusive group. It is nearly impossible—well, really, it is just plain impossible—to find a substantial archive where a researcher could find files and folders holding an abundance of documents written by interpreters or about them. They may have been people with a gift for languages, but they were a big disappointment when it came to creating a written record about themselves. In their passage through time, they make Hansel and Gretel, with their scattered breadcrumbs, look like a pair of methodical cartographers and surveyors.

These crucial historical figures left only hints and clues in their wake, which is quite an irritation.

But we are on their trail anyway.

Why bother?

Because there is a chance that the roles played by interpreters and translators in American history could provide valuable lessons for us today. If so, it is time to place them at the center of the picture.


History with maybe too much Relevance

As 2020 edges into 2021, the nation is in urgent need of a resilient crew of people who are willing to place themselves in the middle to convey messages between groups of Americans who are unable to communicate. The nation is divided between those who voted for Donald Trump and those who voted for Joseph Biden. But that electoral division is tied directly to divisions over everything from race to taxation, border walls to facial masks. The two groups cannot talk to each other, understand each other, or (it is beginning to seem) put up with each other.

That’s why it seems imaginable that history could give us a hand.

We feel certain that the stories of interpreters and translators hold lessons for Americans today. There is no missing or mistaking their impact on history. They held the power to make bad situations worse by scrambling and disrupting lines of communication, but they also held the power to reduce bloodshed and even to transform war into peace.

For centuries, with the presence of hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages, encounters between peoples in North America presented endless opportunities for misunderstanding and confusion, putting a premium on the services of interpreters and translators. When Europeans entered the picture as invaders and conquerors, the stakes became even higher. During centuries of struggle, people who could not say an intelligible word to each other had to depend on the services of a comparatively sparse population of individuals with real competence in two or more languages. On a scale that defies estimation, interpreters shaped the history of the invasion and conquest, and the settlement and development, of North America. In many of the situations in which they worked, the people whose words they translated were angry with each other. Often, violence was just beneath the surface, ready to burst from restraint. The patchiness of historical records places certainty out of our reach, but we will still put forward a hypothesis that we hope will someday be verified:


More often than not, the efforts of interpreters and translators reduced the rate of injury and premature death.

If there is anything to the hypothesis that these figures of the past played a major role in reducing conflict, our nation today presents an urgent need for an informal, mobile, ready-to-shift-into-action-at-a-moment’s-notice cohort of interpreters and translators. We urge everyone who is so inclined to seize every opportunity to stand in the middle, to listen closely, and to transmit messages between people who otherwise would not hear or understand each other. Our operating assumption is that well-informed disagreement is preferable to disagreement based on misunderstanding. You will soon learn for yourself whether that assumption is sound.

And now the question we ask you to join us in contemplating: What lessons could today’s aspiring interpreters and translators learn from their predecessors?

The history of interpreters is an assemblage of pieces and parts—glimpses, sightings, recognitions, scattered quotations. We will present a collection of fragments of data, and then we invite you to join in a quest for patterns of meaning awaiting discovery.


Stories of Folks from the Past Who Would Still Like to Deliver a Message to Us

The Collapse of the Do-It-Yourself Operating Model:
A Chaotic Chat in 1602

When Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaíno landed on Catalina Island in 1602, he and his men lost themselves in over-confidence and thought that they could communicate with the indigenous people “by signs.” This produced discouraging results. “All was confusion,” Vizcaino wrote, “and there was little certainty of what was said.”



The Advantage of Home-Schooling:
The Origins of Andrew Montour

The son of an Oneida war chief named Carondawana and a Métis woman who was herself an interpreter, Andrew Montour worked as an interpreter in the Pennsylvania hinterlands during the 1750s and 1760s. Pennsylvania officials were never sure whether to classify him as an Indian or a European at treaty councils; usually they described him as “white” when representing Pennsylvania agents, and Indian when representing native tribes or nations. But his hybrid identity was what made him such an effective interpreter. His facility with Delaware, Miami, Shawnee, Wyandot, and Iroquois, as well as French and English, derived from his upbringing between his mother’s Métis world and his father’s native one. Montour not only translated words; he also interpreted cultures, mediating the cultural expectations and diplomatic protocols of each side.


A Cautionary Tale on the Short-Term Benefits of Stress Relief:

One More Visit with Andrew Montour

In what appears to have been something of a pattern in the life stories of interpreters, Andrew Montour drank frequently and heavily. In 1754, another interpreter said that an intoxicated Montour had verbally “abused” him; later, the complainant reported that Montour asked for forgiveness when “he got Sober.” Making a quick recovery from repentance, Montour did “the Same again when he was drunk again” and “damned me more then [sic] a hundred times.” “More than a hundred times” set a record that would be hard for anyone to beat (or Tweet), even in the contentious year 2020. Plus, Montour’s example comes with an ironic twist: one way that an interpreter could register in the historical record was to vex a coworker sufficiently to provoke him into writing down a grievance.


The Withholding of Trust:

Demanding a Second (or Third or Fourth) Opinion

In 1775, when Daniel Boone negotiated a treaty with the Cherokee at Sycamore Shoals, each side employed several “Indian Half-Breeds, who understood both Languages, as a check upon the Chief Interpreter, lest he should mistranslate, or leave out, through Forgetfulness any Part of what either Party should speak.”


The Bureaucrat’s Burden:

The Challenge of Turning Questionable Translations into Property Rights

After the Mexican-American War, a team of land commissioners was charged with resolving disputes over the property claims of people who had been living under the jurisdiction of Mexico. These commissioners, working along with an appointed U.S. Surveyor General, had to depend upon “such translations as they could obtain of the original title-papers and upon the oral testimony of witnesses produced in support of the same, which oral testimony had to be taken through the mediation of interpreters.” The perilous act of translation threatened to undermine the entire project of adjudicating land claims. As the Surveyor General explained, “the translations of the original title-papers were generally crude and often positively incorrect, and the correctness of the oral testimony depended on the skill and honesty of the interpreters employed to translate the same.”


An Impressive Quotation from an Unimpressive Man:

Keep This One Handy for Use Every Day or Two

Disputes over translations nearly derailed the U.S. Minister to Mexico James Gadsden’s efforts to negotiate the Treaty of La Mesilla, which ceded parts of what is now Arizona and New Mexico to the United States. At one peak point of vexation, Gadsden vented his frustration to Mexico’s Secretary of State: “Every interpretation which leads to an absurdity ought to be rejected.” Neither of us is a particular admirer of James Gadsden, but we are united in appreciation of this statement, and we were both determined to find a place for it in this essay.


Dressing for Success,

or at Least for the Historical Record

In 1867, when the Indian Peace Commission met with Southern Plains tribes at Medicine Lodge Creek, the five interpreters included a woman named Mrs. Margaret Adams. In an already noted pattern for interpreters, she came from a mixed family, with a French-Canadian father and an Arapaho mother. Mrs. Adams caused a sensation when she arrived at Medicine Lodge Creek, dressed in a red satin dress. Continuing with another already noted pattern, she continued to draw attention throughout the negotiations by arriving drunk at all the meetings.


The Advantages of Being the Only Person Who Knows if Anyone Should Trust You

In 1875, General Oliver Otis Howard met a “Mr. McBean,” who “had a great reputation as an interpreter” for the Umatilla Indian people in Washington Territory. “He was stout and inclined to be lazy,” Howard wrote. “Whether his interpretations were always correct was better known to himself than to anybody else.” (But thanks to a photograph in As Days Go By:  Our History, Our Land, and Our People: the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla, edited by Jennifer Karson, we were able to verify one dimension of General Howard’s description of Mr. McBean: he was indeed “stout.”)


Held for the Last: A Visit to the Bottom of the Barrel

How to Turn a Manageable Difficulty into a Full-Out Calamity

The story of Lucien Auguste is a dreadful demonstration of the power held by interpreters to take a grim toll in bloodshed, both in the short term and over the long haul.

In 1854, tensions erupted at Fort Laramie, where many Sioux were gathered for a distribution of the goods promised by treaty. A cow belonging to an emigrant party ran into a Sioux camp, offering itself as an irresistible temptation. Harvested by an Indian man, the cow provided the opportunity for a feast. The Sioux offered a horse as compensation for the cow, but the Army did not accept the offer. Instead, Lieutenant John L. Grattan set off with a group of soldiers—and the interpreter Lucien Auguste—to arrest the man who had killed the cow. The group traveled with a hearty supply of alcohol, and the interpreter led in the consumption.

When they reached the Indians’ camp, Auguste was, to use a maritime figure of speech, three sheets to the wind. He rode his horse at full speed into the camp; he waved his revolver at the Indians; he shouted that, if the Sioux didn’t believe what he told them, “the soldiers will give them a new set of ears.” Imitating the practice of the Sioux people before a fight, Auguste continued to run his horse, alternately whooping and shouting that he would eat the hearts of the Sioux before the day was over. Lieutenant Grattan tried to control him—but failed.

When the negotiations got under way, the Sioux had certainly seen enough to ask for a new interpreter. Before any such person could arrive to try to redeem this mess, Grattan gave a sudden order; shots were fired. The shooting escalated; the Sioux responded; Grattan, nearly thirty soldiers, and the interpreter Lucien Auguste died in the fight.

That was not the end of the story. The event was soon labeled “the Grattan Massacre,” even though it might be more legitimately called “the Auguste Calamity.” In 1855, the Army mounted a punitive expedition, inflicting captivity or death on a sizable number of the Sioux—because of a dead cow, an impulsive officer, and a crazed interpreter.


A Preliminary Run at Reflecting

The slogan of the Center of the American West is “Turning hindsight into foresight.” We now try to live up to that by returning to the question: what lessons could aspiring interpreters and translators today learn from their predecessors?


  1. The very same power that permits interpreters to reduce conflict also empowers them to increase it. While you will not have full control over impact, you may well determine whether conflict expands or contracts.
  2. Many of the interpreters in the past came from mixed families. Therefore, if you grew up in a family of conflicting political allegiances, difficult episodes in your childhood could give you a big advantage in your work. If, for instance, you endured dinners with family members pointlessly at odds, you were probably never asked to take on the role of a “child prodigy” interpreter or translator. But now your time has come, and those memories will serve as a source of fuel and motivation in your new role.
  3. Many interpreters in the past, even those of Indian ancestry, turned out to be essential workers in the conquest and removal of Indian people. If you do not keep a close watch on the context and the implications of your work, you can end up serving causes that you do not actually support. You may, for instance, begin to suspect your efforts as an interpreter are simply positioning one group to prevail over another. If so, you are not on a fated and inevitable course, and you can adjust your conduct to a higher level of fairness.
  4. Never forget that your isolation is inescapable. Remember that people need your services precisely because they cannot understand the “others.” Those who rely on your services know that they are dependent on you, and that makes them constantly aware of their vulnerability. They are quick to doubt your trustworthiness precisely because they are stuck depending on you, a state of affairs that can feel equally like necessity and vexation.
  5. Even if you feel certain of your own integrity and admirable intentions, you will still face distrust. With the steadiness and reliability of your conduct, you can create trust—but you will almost certainly have to keep regaining and reclaiming it. The people you see as your beneficiaries may well demand to have your translations verified. This comes with the job and should not be taken personally.
  6. If you wanted to be noted and renowned, you should probably consider other ways to invest your time. There is a very good chance that no one will remember you, and an even better chance that no one will thank you. Historical evidence would, in fact, indicate that the best measure of efficacy, for interpreters and translators, was that no one paid any attention to them. They functioned as vehicles or channels for communications, and the very fact that they were taken for granted and not mentioned might register as a measure of their success. The familiar phrasing, “It’s not about you,” is a necessary first principle for the aspiring interpreter.
  7. It is beyond doubt that humorous misunderstandings figured in the work of interpreters in the past. But that is the dimension of their lives that seems to be entirely lost to history; no one seems to have felt impelled to take pen in hand and record occasions when moments of misunderstanding became moments of merriment. Here’s where we need the help of the people working today in the profession of interpreting and translating. Please take a moment to tell us about the reasons that led you to take up this profession. And please take a few more moments to tell us about the best moments where the convergence of languages opened the door to hilarity and merriment!


The English Language as a High-Performance Medium for the Propagation of Misunderstanding

If time travel were judged to be safe during a pandemic, interpreters who played consequential roles in the past might look at us and wonder, “Why would they need interpreters and translators when nearly all of them are speaking the same language?”

That’s easy to answer.

The omnipresent, taken-for-granted use of English in American public life often works effectively to aid, facilitate, and perpetuate misunderstanding and miscommunication. Essential words—“justice,” “freedom,” “government,” “democracy,” “ education,” “opportunity,” “equity, “wealth,” “privilege,” “fairness,” “values,” —carry incompatible, contested, and highly charged meanings. Disguised by their familiarity, English words are actually fonts of confusion and contention.

Aspiring interpreters and translators who speak only English will never lack for opportunities to exercise their skills.


Firsthand Experience:

Zach Guiliano  Reflects on His Work with Interpreters in Afghanistan

The mixture of trust and distrust toward interpreters in military settings is a heady cocktail. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq stagnated, U.S. strategy (such as it was) increasingly emphasized rapport with local populations. This meant the success or failure of a given unit’s mission rested on the performance of the interpreters, or “terps” for short. This led to mixed results based on the quality of the interpreter and, more importantly and often overlooked, the diplomatic qualities and patience of the American(s) working with an interpreter.

If you’re looking for an icebreaker to open a discussion with Afghanistan or Iraq veterans, ask them about their experiences with interpreters. Some will report pleasant, “nothing-special” experiences. Others might have a funny story about a cultural or linguistic understanding. Others may still show resentment: they had been forced to trust and rely on someone who failed them.

An important consideration with any interpreter-interpretee relationship is the origin of the interpreter. In today’s U.S. military, interpreters come in three categories: natural-born U.S. citizens (subdivided into native and non-native speakers of a given language, such as Pashto); immigrants turned U.S. citizens; and local nationals. Generally speaking, interpreters are preferred in that order. The less like “us” an interpreter is, the less likely military personnel are to trust an interpreter to relay accurate information. Sometimes the mistrust is earned, and other times it is entirely irrational. It always runs deep.

I’ve witnessed and taken part in the full spectrum of interpreter-interpretee interactions. Every interpreter on the compound I worked on while deployed were U.S. citizens. Yet it seemed to me that everyone who regularly worked with interpreters had a “favorite” or preferred interpreter, sometimes based on criteria outside of professional credentials. I found myself beset by nightmares and anxieties that one of our interpreters would slit my throat in my sleep. Why?  Because he rattled me by relaying  poor interpretations with an anti-social attitude. He was also a notorious “hijacker,” and would speak for both parties rather than serve as the channel for their communication. At the same time, I preferred another interpreter because of his jokes; I was reminded several times that he relayed poor information, but it never occurred to me to see him as a threat to my life.

However, the terps’ performance varied. As a 21-year-old who thought he knew everything, I was quick to bemoan having to tolerate what I felt was sub-par interpretation. I never considered how demanding and difficult the work of a terp could be, especially for someone who was not a native speaker of both languages.

A year ago, at the old, wizened age of 27, I realized my folly while struggling in my third semester of Arabic. I had picked up German quite easily as a child, and French as an adult “bored” me, leading me to study Arabic. Hunched over my textbook, trying to make “interpretations” of my own for an A, I finally appreciated how hard interpreting must be when lives are on the line.

If I had to guess, I would say the ghosts of interpreters past, wandering from sites of tension, conflict, and combat planetwide, must watch in silent agony as time and again the same mistakes are repeated. Oftentimes, interpreters find themselves in the midst of uncomfortable social situations where both sides heap unfair expectations upon them. An unfortunate fact of being an interpreter means having to deal with becoming an avatar for the other party. Interpreters often draw the ire of one or both parties under moments of stress, frustration, or incompetence. During a role play in a training scenario, I watched as an interpreter struggled to convey a message phrased in complicated military jargon to Afghan military commanders. Rather than noting the density of the jargon, the U.S. officer involved in the conversation spoke down to the interpreters as an adult would to wayward children. We often failed to notice how interpreters were affected by their relationship to and the expectations of their interpretees. More tragically, the interpreters of Afghanistan and Iraq are in danger of being forgotten, like their 19th century brethren; despite a provision of the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act giving them priority, thousands of Afghans and Iraqis spend years waiting for their “special” visas to be approved, languishing in warzones with targets on their backs for helping people communicate. By remembering the ghosts of interpreters-past, perhaps we can learn how to treat the interpreters of the present with greater humanity.

photo of Alice Baumgartner

Alice Baumgartner

photo of Zach Guilliano

Zach Guilliano

An Advertisement

TO: Enterprising people of any age who want to see their nation in a better state of civic health.

The co-authors wish to engage several thousand people to launch into today’s river of conflict and to ascend to its source, embracing the roles of interpreter and translator to navigate the perilous rapids ahead.*

*As people who hang out in Western history circles will realize, this “advertisement” echoes the famous notice played by William H. Ashley in 1822 in the St. Louis Missouri Gazette & Public Advertiser: “TO Enterprising Young Men:  The subscriber wishes to engage ONE HUNDRED MEN, to ascend the Missouri River to its source . . . “

Sources in order of appearance in the essay:

  • James Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (New York: Norton, 1999)
  • Paul Mapp, The Elusive West and the Contest for Empire, 1713-1763 (Chapel Hill: Omohundro, 2011)
  • Margaret Connell Szasz, “Faithful, Knowing, and Prudent’: Andrew Montour as Interpreter and Cultural Broker, 1740-1772,” Betweeen Indian and White Worlds: The Cultural Broker (1994), 44-60.
  • John Mack Faragher, Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer (New York: Henry Holt, 1992)
  • Paul W. Gates, Land and Law in California: Essays on Land Policies (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991)
  • Gadsden to Bonilla, September 9, 1853, Despatches from U.S. Ministers to Mexico
  • Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)
  • O.O. Howard, My Life and Experiences Among Our Hostile Indians (Hartford, CT: A.D. Worthington & Company, 1907)
  • Lloyd E McCann, “The Grattan Massacre,” Nebraska History 37 (1956): 1-25


Patty Limerick's signature

If you find this blog contains ideas worth sharing with friends, please forward this link to them. If you are reading this for the first time, join our EMAIL LIST to receive the Not my First Rodeo blog every Friday.


Photo Credit: Banner The Treaty of Penn with the Indians image courtesy of: Wikipedia