Nowadays, interpreters play an essential role at high-level international political summits, but the need for communication between different countries has always been there. As far back as the historical record goes, there are many, many instances of interpreters. In the past, communicating in a foreign language was more the exception than the rule. Over the course of history, interpreters have played an important role in the communication that took place within major civilisations:

1. The ancient Egyptians

Some of the oldest references to interpreters date back to the time of ancient Egypt. Bilingual residents of the border area between Egypt and Nubia, known as ‘Dragomen’, interpreted for the Pharaohs and played an important role in Egyptian affairs of state. The Pharaohs also sent Egyptian boys to the Nile delta to learn Greek. In spite of the fact that interpreters were of great importance in the day-to-day administration of Egypt, they did not have a positive image. Interpreters were seen as ‘speakers of foreign languages’.

2. The Greeks

In contrast, the ancient Greeks saw interpreters as virtually ‘divine’. Interpreters conducted linguistic activities associated with the god Hermes, the god of eloquence. The rulers of ancient Greece held diplomacy and eloquence in very high regard. That’s why interpreters were considered to be talented, highly trained orators, and they were entrusted with a great deal of responsibility. For example, rulers would prefer an experienced interpreter to convey a message rather than trying to do it themselves and risk not getting their message across.

3. The Romans

The manner in which the ancient Greeks assigned interpreters with so much responsibility was not exactly a unique approach. It was a general trend in the ancient world and the medieval world. The Romans also used the services of interpreters. In fact, Julius Caesar even allowed his interpreters to conduct negotiations with delegates representing rulers of other countries. The Magister Officiorum (comparable to the modern-day Ministry of Foreign Affairs) hired interpreters to translate ‘barbarian languages’ as a way of expanding the empire. As a result, many interpreters held important diplomatic posts.

Roman rulers also hired Greek interpreters. Not because they couldn’t speak Greek: the late Roman empire was bilingual, and educated Roman citizens were fluent in both Greek and Latin. The Romans used Greek interpreters because they wanted to emphasise the superiority of the Latin language and Roman culture. There has always been a strong rivalry between these two peoples, and this is expressed in this example.

Countless other examples could be given from the age of the Crusades and the colonialism era, but after this period, international dialogue in Europe slowly became more common. The first lingua franca, Latin, was later replaced by French, and finally English. Even though English is nowadays the international language of communication, interpreters remain essential. That’s where HearHear can assist you when you need an interpreter..