Digging into the life of famous translators counts as a history lesson —after all, they’ve helped shaped the world as we know it. Many of the books you love are translations. Major political events throughout history were only possible because of the existence of interpreters. Every country’s justice system relies on expert linguists who make communication possible between individuals who speak different languages.
Even some of the most popular songs out there have versions in more than one language. In the words of Anna Rusconi, “words travel worlds, translators do the driving.” Below is a list of some of the most famous translators and interpreters of all time, as well as some juicy secrets some famous interpreters have disclosed! (Yes, their ethics are questionable for violating confidentiality, but we will look past it for the sake of this article. After all, this is all stuff that happened before confidentiality agreements, GDPR, and the such. Plus, it’s fun to read!).
Famous Translators: St. Jerome (347-420 AD)
St. Jerome was a young priest who spoke Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Back in the fourth century, as Latin began to replace Greek as the most common language in many places, a Bible in Latin was an urgent need. St. Jerome translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. These translations became the official Catholic translation of the Bible and were used for one thousand years. Today, history remembers him as one of the most famous translators of all time.
Famous Translators: Gaspar Antonio Chi (1351-1610)
Gaspar Antonio Chi, also known as Gaspar Antonio de Herrera, was a Yucatan Indian who interpreted between Spanish and Mayan. He was an interpreter of King Charles V of Spain and an informant for Diego de Landa in writing his Relación de las cosas de Yucatán. Chi had a great knowledge of the Spanish, Latin, and Maya languages.
Famous Translators: Sacagawea (1788-1812)
Sacagawea was the only woman in the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805-06 into the American West. The two explorers hired her as an interpreter and guide because of her good command of the Shoshone language. She also had an amazing knowledge of the lands the expedition explored. Sacagawea interpreted during the negotiations between the explorers and the Shoshone tribe. The fact that a woman is among the most famous translators of the 18th century —a time when women did not enjoy many rights— says a lot about Sacagawea’s skills.
Famous Translators: Alexander Burnes (1805-1841)
Alexander Burnes was a British interpreter born in Scotland. He later became a spy for the British military in the early 1800s. He spoke English, Hindi, and Persian. In 1831, the British government entrusted him with a survey of the Indus River. His next adventure took him to Afghanistan, travelling in disguise, dressed as a native. For his accomplishments, the British crown knighted him in 1839.
Famous Translators: Mark Twain (1835-1910)
Mark Twain, is one of the great authors of American history. He is famously known for his novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. During his lifetime, however, he published nearly 30 books. Even though he was not a translator, there is a funny anecdote involving his translation skills. Twain is not necessarily best remembered for his contributions to the art of translation. Upon discovering a French translation of his story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, Twain decided to translate the French version back into English.
He wanted to make fun of back translation by producing an absurd word-for-word final product. He kept the French word order and grammatical structure intact, even when they made no sense in English.
Famous Translators: Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)
Jorge Luis Borges was a very famous author, but he was also a talented translator (although he did not have a degree). He translated Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince into Argentinian Spanish at the age of 9. Later in his life, he translated the works of other authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and Virginia Woolf.
Famous Translators: Valentin Berezhkov (1916-1998)
He was a talented interpreter who worked for Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov during World War II. He interpreted at many conferences, including the Tehran Conference in 1943, the first of the World War II conferences of the “Big Three” Allied leaders (the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom).
Famous Interpreting: Victor Gao for Deng Xiaoping
Luke Harding claims, in this article for The Guardian, that Victor Gao was with the Chinese Foreign Service in Beijing. He was also the United Nations Secretariat in New York from 1983-89. And, in terms of interpreting work, he was an English interpreter for the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
In the 1980s, Deng was the most important person in the world! Gao says that Deng was very small, around 152 cm tall and that he was a man of few words. His speech wasn’t sophisticated and he conveyed his ideas very clearly, which made it easy to understand him.
Gao travelled with Deng to the UK in 1985 and met Margaret Thatcher at Downing Street. He also went with him to an official lunch hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Famous Interpreting: Elena Kidd for Gorbachev
Interpreter Elena Kidd, currently course director of the MA interpreting and translating programme at Bath University, worked for Mikhail Gorbachev back in the 90s. She gave an interview to The Guardian about it.
She says Gorbachev was friendly and had an accent that was easy to understand. However, his public speaking skills weren’t great. As a result, his sentences were “long and convoluted”, which made it difficult to convey the message in English in real time.
Films and Simultaneous Interpreting in the 1970s: Nelia Nersesian
The article Listening to the Inaudible Foreign Simultaneous Translators and Soviet Experience of Foreign Cinema, by Elena Razlogova, is a great read. There, she explains that, between the 1960s and 1980s, it was Soviet simultaneous interpreters and translators who made foreign-film screenings possible. Why? Because they interpreted them live! Isn’t that amazing?
One of those interpreters was Nelia Nersesian. We’ve included her in this article about famous interpreters because people loved her! Why? Because she used to change her tone and expressions while interpreting for different characters in American films. As a result, the experience was more enjoyable. You might be wondering what secrets she had to keep. Well, she took part in the dubbing and subtitling of so-called “trophy films”.
These films were stolen from the so-called trophy fund during the occupation of Germany, and the Soviets showed them without credits. In other words, no-one could tell who had done the translation or dubbing work. Nelia was one of the few who knew who the linguists were. Unfortunately, she took the secret to the grave.
Banafsheh Keynoush: A BBC-Trained Interpreter Who Witnessed the Iran-Iraq War
Banafsheh Keynoush grew up in west London. So far, she has interpreted for four Iranian presidents. Moreover, she lived in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war, frequently witnessing air raids.
As there were no interpreting schools in Iran, she got a BA and MA in English and self-trained in interpreting. She used to listen to BBC radio every evening to practice translating the broadcast simultaneously. In 2017, she interpreted for Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, in New York.
What she has to say about him, you wonder? Apparently, he’s a very calm, even-headed person. And he paid more attention to Keynoush’s interpreting work than other presidents, which made her more self-aware. Read more here.
When Famous Interpreters Refuse to Speak
Sometimes, interpreters refuse to speak of what they have witnessed. Such is the case of Magdalena Fitas-Dukaczewska. Ms Fitas-Dukaczewska was the interpreter during a meeting between Donald Tusk and Vladimir Putin. After Poland’s defence minister accused Vladimir Putin of involvement in the 2010 plane crash which killed the Polish president, the interpreter was asked to testify about what she heard during the meeting.
However, Ms Fitas-Dukaczewska refuses to speak about it as it would destroy her credibility. Considering that confidentiality is one of the guarantees of interpreting work, it’s understandable. Read more in the article Interpreters make really lousy spies, by DW, here.