Conquerers and explorers- translation question

I’m an amateur history buff and I love reading stories of exploration and conquest. Some books I’ve read recently include:
The Last Voyage of Columbus
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Guns, Germs and Steel
And a history of Pizzaro’s conquest of the Incas.
(All highly recommended)

And a recurring theme in these stories is how quickly they procured a translator. In many cases these two cultures weren’t even aware of each other’s existence until they literally ran into each other.

I’ve tried to learn a foreign language in the past. With a system, with tapes and books and practice it’s not an easy thing. And that was languages with a common enough base. It’s not like I was trying to learn Cherokee of Incan.

Now I realize the translators didn’t master the language and probably only had a working knowledge of how it worked but still some of the negotiations described would seem to require a more nuanced understanding than “where’s the bathroom?”.

So how did explorers so quickly obtain someone on either side who could negotiate for them?

They didn’t. Usually the translations would go through several people and stages, ie Spanish to Native Language 1 to NL 2, etc. If it was truly First Contact, then there was a lot of pointing and naming, with very little nuance until years later.

A couple of things to keep in mind: people back then had much, much better memories than we do today. They were used to living in a pre- or barely literate world, so memory was King. Makes it a lot easier to learn vocabulary. The other thing to remember is that Japan got nuked because someone missed a nuance in translation. So even pros today aren’t perfect.

First you kick the Aboriginals/Indians/Africans off their land, then you take the most intelligent and teach them English/Portuguese/French/whatever. If a man with a gun gestures strongly and shoots or beats anyone who fails to get the message, they will soon learn enough to get by.

I doubt that most early settlers made much effort to learn the local language beyond a few words that could be used as orders.

That’s not true at all. Appalling treatment of the natives did not preclude serious study of their languages. The comment has been made (in North America at least) that the Europeans treated Native American languages with far more respect than they treated the actual Native Americans (as demonstrated by the fact that there are lots of places in the US with Native American names, very few places with lots of Native Americans)

Also keep in mind that, while it’s not “where’s the bathroom”, you still don’t need all that much mastery of a language to meet an explorer’s needs. You can get an awful lot of mileage out of just learning the word for “trade”, and then pointing at the things you have and that they have that you’d like to negotiate over.

Often Trade was established between neighbouring tribes/ nations. So a native from Tribe 1 who could speak with the foreigners but could also speak Tribal 2 would go with them to tribe 2 territory, where they would acquire a new guy, who spoke tribe 2 and tribe 3, and so on. E.g. Lewis and Clark expedition (there was a column once on Secegawa’s translation/ diplomacy work.)

I think in Guns Germs and Steel, Diamond also mentions that Squanto, the native who helped the Pilgrims survive the winter, was not only one of the few survivors of a recent plague, but more important spoke English because he’d been kidnapped as child and brought to England, growing up and learning the language before returning home.

So stealing people as slaves - or natives getting lost at sea and drifting to a foreign coast* - would also help later conquerors/ explorers.

  • I read somewhere that some Native Americans getting lost this way and drifting to some European islands were used as support and proof by Columbus when collecting funding for his trip.

As an example, Hernan Cortes, who pretty much conquered the Aztec empire, used two translators. Jeronimo de Aguilar was a Spanish sailor who was shipwrecked among the Mayan people for 8 years before Cortes’ arrival; Malinalli (widely known as La Malinche) was a native nahua girl who was given as a slave to the Mayans. So, Aguilar would translate from Spanish to Mayan, and Malinalli would in turn translate from Mayan to Nahuatl (the Aztec language).

Here is a cool video from NativLang, a YouTube Channel I subscribe to:

How Interpreters Helped Topple the Aztec Empire


Wow, interesting video. Thanks for posting.

(bolding mine)

Sign language alone works pretty well when there’s a common interest. And it’s the start of learning the words, as simple as “Me Tarzan, you Jane”, which doesn’t work very well without the chest thump and point.

Books, tapes, and/or an hour long class a few times a week are not quick ways to learn a language. In Antigua, Guatemala there are immersive language schools where the students spend four to eight hours a day one on one with a tutor. In a week the students know enough Spanish to get around, in three weeks they are, for practical purposes, fluent.

I figure the early explorers used a similar system, having some members of their group spend all day every day learning the local language.

Squanto was kidnapped as an adult and first taken to Spain. He escaped to England and was then taken back to New England. The plague that destroyed his people happened while he was in Europe. He was not needed as a translator since trade had been happening for a hundred year by that point and translators were relatively common. Massasoit first chose another Indian, Samoset, to be his translator at first. Squanto was very important politically.