How were translations made in ancient encounters?

Back in the day, pre-“age of exploration” how did those few people who did make voyages communicate with the people they met?

How would Marco Polo speak to afghans and mongols? How did William Adams plead for his life in Japan?

These examples may not be that good, but you get the point right? In history, we often learn that so-and-so was the first european in such-and-such, and his said this-and-that, but they don’t ever really explain how he was able to say it in a manner that they understood.

NOTE: I do realize with the silk-road and things like that there is a long history of communication among cultures, but my impression is that, for instance, Zhen He didn’t speak the languages of all the people he met. You know?

Okay…have a good one.

Well, William Adams wasn’t the first European in Japan, so he simply worked with the resident Portugese translators.

Other explorers work the slow way. It’s easier when you live with someone, but I think it all begins by pointing at something and saying its name in your tongue, and hoping your companions say its name in theirs.

I guess, then, I should have used the portuguese as the example, not Adams.

In the case of Columbus, the first communication with the Indians was certainly by pointing to objects and saying their names, by gestures, etc. It’s obvious from the accounts of the voyages that initially communication was very crude. And of course, Columbus read the Indians gestures to mean what he wanted them to mean - he often interpreted things to indicate that Japan was just over the horizon, when the Indians were certainly telling him nothing of the kind.

As my last sentence above indicates, one big problem with early accounts is that we don’t actually know who said what. Usually we only have the European version of the story, so that we have no idea what the other participants actually said. The explorers account would relate his interpretation of what his hosts were trying to convey, which might have little to do with what they actually said.

A few ideas

This book is a work of fiction but the author has done his background research. He bases his story on the practice of using ‘children’, ‘orpahns’ as translators, the idea being to take advantage of the way children ‘pick up’ languages.

Where wealthy or glory seeking explorers whose names we know went, nameless fishermen or traders had often been before.

Imagine a ‘chain’ of interpretaion - colonists encounter a native of tribe A on the coast, the native knows a few words of the colonists’ language having encountered radnom fisherman in previous summers; contact with the colonists improves his level, when they want to move inland native A goes with them, he knows some words of tribe B’s language as they are from the same language group / are trading partners & is able to interpret for the colonists …

Oh and gitfiddle ? Don’t forget how much we all like to puff ourslves up and seem more important / cleverer / wittier than we are? I guess the old exploreres etc. were pretty much the same as us - so frantic gesturing by both parties got reported as flowing conversation :wink:

Re the pointing at objects, there is a (probably apocryphal) story that “kangaroo” means “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about”.

The Master Speaks

Thanks Fromage. Yeah… I think I’d seen that Cecil article a long time ago. Still, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. :smiley:

The Portuguese and the Japanese would likely have been able to communicate with each other in Chinese.

OK I’ll bite - how did the portuguese first learn chinese?

The gods cannot speak. They can only chatter like monkeys.

From the Jesuits, who had representatives and a mission in the Chinese court. And they no doubt learned Chinese the way you and I would learn Chinese.

Zheng He wouldn’t have, but there are records that the fleet carried ten tong yi fan shu jiao yu guan or “teacher who knows foreign books”, presumably to act as translators. And, as along the Silk Route, trade between locals would have spread at least some knowledge of Arabic round the coasts of much of the Indian Ocean.

Incidentally, this old thread and this recentish one also discussed various examples of how explorers managed translation.

Once they reached India, they could find traders speaking various languages (arabic, indian, persian, chinese languages…). So, after that, it was only a matter of someone learning the basics or just bringing onboard a translator. I assume the first exchanges in India were held in arabic, that some portugueses would know.

For the ultimate linguistic reference on this subject, seek no further than Kevin Costner.


Explorers sometimes brought several different translators with them, to provide a chain of translations. For instance, when Lewis and Clark wanted to negotiate with a Shoshone chief over the purchase of some horses:
Lewis and Clark spoke English
One of their men spoke both English and French, and translated into French
Sackagawea’s husband (whose name I’ve forgotten), whom they recruited in the Mandan Villages, spoke French and Mandan (a native American language). He translated into Mandan.
Sackagawea was kidnapped from Shoshone lands as a girl, and spoke Mandan and Shoshone (another native language). She translated into Shoshone.
The Shoshone chief understood only Shoshone, and got the translation from Sackagawea.

Whenever the chief responded, go through the same chain in reverse. Of course, with this many steps, there’s plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding (ever play the game “telephone”?), so you want to be careful to confirm meanings at every step of the way, and don’t make your messages too complicated. And it probably helped that the Shoshone and the Corps of Discovery were friendly towards each other (as it happened, the Shoshone chief was Sackagawea’s brother, and she presumably told him that they’d treated her and her boy well). But when your message is just “We’d like some horses, and we’re willing to offer beads, silver, and salt in exchange”, that’s quite enough.