4 Famous Interpreters Who Shaped North America

4 Famous Interpreters Who Shaped North America

Learn about four famous interpreters who fundamentally changed the landscape of North America and helped build what would ultimately become the United States and Canada. 

Interpreters have served as vital facilitators of communication, connection, and growth throughout history. They’ve helped us share our ideas and find understanding in each other’s perspectives across language barriers. A quick reminder – interpreting and translating are not the same. Here, we’ll be covering the most famous interpreters throughout history.

The first record of interpretation dates back to 3rd century B.C. in ancient Egypt, on a low relief. Found in a prince’s tomb, the relief mentions an interpreter supervisor. Records were also found in Ancient Rome and Greece, where interpreters facilitated commerce, military initiatives, religion, and public administration.

Interpreters aided religious ceremonies, diplomatic meetings, military expeditions, and business settings throughout the middle ages and beyond. Interpretation began evolving around the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. This expedition played a fundamental role in shifting away from Arabic and Hebrew towards Native American languages. 

In 1919, the tides of language turned yet again as countries began rejecting French as the language of diplomacy. Subsequently, interpreters became necessary to communicating between countries at the Paris Peace Conference.

Suffice to say – our world’s interconnectedness is due in no small part to interpreters throughout history. So let’s explore the impactful, famous interpreters who shaped North America into the world we live in today.

4 Famous Interpreters Who Made History

1. Tisquantum (1580-1622)

Famous Interpreters: Tisquantum

Born around 1580 near present-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, Tisquantum (also known as Squanto) belonged to the Patuxet Tribe. Along with 24 other Patuxet and Nauset tribe members, Tisquantum was trapped by an English trader. The trader – named John Hunt – imprisoned and sold the tribesmen as slaves after transporting them to Spain. Spanish Friars who objected to the slave trade rescued Tisquantum and brought him to England where he learned Christianity and English.

While in England, Tisquantum met discoverer John Dermer. Charged with helping European merchants settle New England, Dermer immediately recognized the value in Tisquantum’s extensive cultural and linguistic expertise. Dermer asked Tisquantum to accompany him on his trip back to the ‘New World’ to help ease tensions between new settlers and Native Americans.

Tisquantum proved instrumental in facilitating Native American and Euro-American relations. He eased tensions in trade communications and even provided life-saving guidance for pilgrims from the Mayflower in 1620. Tisquantum also acted as a vital intermediary between the pilgrims and the Nauset. Here he helped forge a peace treaty and facilitate relations between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Confederacy.

2. Sacagawea (1788-1812)

Famous Interpreters: Sacagawea
Sacagawea guiding Lewis and Clark

Born in 1788 in what’s now known as Lemhi County, Idaho, Sacagawea lives on as one of history’s most important and famous interpreters of all time. The daughter of a Shoshone chief, Sacagawea was kidnapped around 12 years old and sold to a man named Toussaint Charbonneau. 20 years her senior, Charbonneau was a French-Canadian fur trader whose knowledge of French and Hidatsa helped him work as an interpreter. Sacagawea herself also held an impressive command over both Hidatsa and Shoshone. 

After purchasing the Louisiana Territory, President Jefferson put together a discovery corp. This corp would be responsible for mapping the area and developing relationships with the people already living there. He chose Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to head the expedition. The two explorers first met Sacagawea and Charbonneau in 1804 near present-day Bismark, South Dakota. The two explorers quickly recognized the value of being accompanied by skilled interpreters, and hired them as interpreters. 

Sacagawea’s knowledge and linguistic skills helped the explorers acquire horses and her extensive knowledge of herbs and plant life helped identify plants or food and medicine. Sacagawea and her baby – who she had during the expedition – also provided a reassuring presence whenever the discovery corp encountered Native Americans, as women and children didn’t typically accompany war parties.

3. Jerry Pots (1840-1896)

Famous Interpreters: Jerry Potts
Jerry Potts

Born around 1840 near Fort Mackenzie, Montana, Jerry Pots is another of the fundamental characters who shaped North American. Jerry had extensive opportunities to learn about the values and communication styles of both native and European cultures from his mother, Namo-pisi (Crooked Black), who educated him as a Kanai-Cree, and his father who was a Scottish fur trader.

Potts successfully straddled both worlds, earning his place with his mother’s people by completing the sun dance right of passage and by fighting alongside his people in violent battles. Jerry Potts many jobs throughout his life. Potts found success working as a horse trader and a guide to the vast landscapes of North America. Wherever he traveled, Potts was able to build relationships between tribes and European settlements.

Potts was incredibly valuable to anyone looking to traverse what’s now recognized as the American-Canadian border. With an impressive understanding of language, Potts was fluent in American English, Crow (Apsáalooke aliláau), and Blackfoot. Additionally, he was above average in Plains Cree (Nēhiyawēwin), Algonquin, Lakota-Sioux (Lakȟótiyapi), and Assiniboine (Nakona or A’ M̆oqazh). 

Even more beneficial was Potts’ keen ability to match his interpretation to the context and audience. Knowing that Indigenous Americans viewed long, passionate speech as a sign of respect while Euro-Americans saw long speeches as showing off, Potts would adjust his interpretation based on his audience. For instance, he’d interpret lengthy, detail-filled orations from Native Americans to short, direct sentences for Euro-Americans, and vice versa.  

4. Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891)


"FamousAlso known as Thocmectony, Sarah Winnemucca was born around 1844 near present-day Humboldt Lake, Nevada. Born into an influential Paiute family, Sarah grew up surrounded by different cultures as her community sought to create peaceful relationships between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans. Having fought alongside Anglo-Americans in the Mexican-American war, her grandfather was also a huge advocate for embracing European Americans, although Sarah remained hesitant.

After traveling to California at the age of 6, Sarah began working alongside her sister Elma in the household of civic leader William Ormsby, allowing Sarah to become one of the only Paiute in Nevada who could read, write, and speak in English. At the age of 16, Sarah returned to her father in Nevada to help ease conflict between Native Americans and European Settlers. Using her impressive command over the English language, Sarah played a crucial role in facilitating conversations between the U.S. Army and her tribe. 

Ultimately, Sarah became an activist for Paiute and Native American rights, fighting against the harsh restrictions and regulations being placed on her people by those they’d welcomed in and helped survive years earlier.

Innovation, growth, collaboration, creativity, compassion – interpreters have facilitated most of our greatest achievements throughout time. The ability to communicate our ideas and feelings across cultures helps us relate to others, helping us understand the specifics of our experiences so we can craft solutions that leave all parties happy.

And that’s our mission at Arriva Translations. With over 5,000 translators and interpreters in our network qualified in 200+ unique languages and dialects, we at Arriva Translations pride ourselves in offering bespoke, top-of-the-line, white-glove translation and interpretation services to clients in the legal, financial, and medical industries.

Reach out to schedule your interpreter today – we’re excited to meet you!


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