Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors

Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors

Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors

Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors


Spanning the globe and the centuries, Frances Karttunen tells the stories of sixteen men and women who served as interpreters and guides to conquerors, missionaries, explorers, soldiers, and anthropologists. These interpreters acted as uncomfortable bridges between two worlds; their own marginality, the fact that they belonged to neither world, suggests the complexity and tension between cultures meeting for the first time. Some of the guides were literally dragged into their roles; others volunteered. The most famous ones were especially skilled at living in two worlds and surviving to recount their experiences. Among outsiders, the interpreters found protection. sustenance, recognition, intellectual companionship, and employment, yet most of the interpreters ultimately suffered tragic fates. Between Worlds addresses the broadest issues of cross-cultural encounters, imperialism, and capitalism and gives them a human face.


This is a book about individuals, many of them women, who have served as interpreters, translating their languages and also their cultures for outsiders. Some were guides and scouts who worked, voluntarily or involuntarily, for soldiers and explorers. Others had careers as assistants to missionaries and as professional civil servants, while others worked as what anthropologists and linguists call "native informants." They functioned as conduits through which information flowed between worlds in collision, translating more than just words and bringing comprehensibility to otherwise meaningless static.

As the twentieth century draws to a close, the language of international aviation is English. I recollect seeing the same bright yellow "Follow Me" sign on the back of little vehicles guiding aircraft to their gates in Helsinki, Moscow, Mexico City, Barcelona, Frankfort--regardless of the national language or its writing system. I feel certain that in Tokyo and Cairo and Bangkok it is the same cosy "Follow Me" that precedes the anxiety of baggage claim, the wariness of customs inspection, and the ultimate hubbub of the street and negotiation of taxi fares.

It has not always been so. In the grand scheme of human history it was just a little while ago that some of us learned to use the oceans as thoroughfares and initiated what is known as the Age of Discovery. On the shores of the Canary Islands and the west coast of Africa, in the Caribbean and on the mainland of the Americas, and finally on islands across the Pacific, the lack of a common language reduced voyagers and local folks to crude pantomime as they sought to communicate. Inland, as newcomers traversed continents, matters were no better. Everywhere guides and interpreters were needed, and we will see how some of them were literally dragged into the role.

Incompetent and wholly unwilling interpreters didn't last long. Given the least opportunity they fled for their lives, or lost them in violent encounters when negotiations failed. The famous ones are the individuals . . .

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