Translators, Interpreters and Cultural Mediators in Late Medieval Eastern Iberia and Western Islamic Diplomatic Relationships
By Roser Salicru Lluch
Paper given at the 10th Mediterranean Research Meeting, in Florence, Italy (2009)
Abstract: The wealth of records of the former Crown of Arago have for years allowed extensive studies of its late medieval relationships with Granada and North Africa, mainly focused on commercial and diplomatic contacts. But hitherto no special attention has been paid to the individuals who made it possible to achieve these links, nor to their helpers and assistants as translators and interpreters. Many of these characters are anonymous, and their real involvement and commitment in contacts, as well as their language and inter-cultural skills and the achievement of their linguistic competence, seem difficult or even impossible to establish.
Nevertheless, a careful analysis of already known data, together with supplementary research and findings, provide some guidelines to be taken into account, not just from the Christian point of view – where comparisons between Castile and Arago are possible – but also from the Islamic one (as far as the widespread outlook of the Christian records permits).
It is clear that cross-cultural characters like Muslim Mudejares or merchants living or dealing with Islamic lands (and even Jews when considering earlier periods) were appointed by the Catalano-Aragonese and by Muslim powers as diplomatic interpreters. In many cases they must be considered cultural mediators, not merely language translators. Relating to the importance of the mission and to the faithfulness devoted to them, they could play the role of true ambassadors as well. However, when supposedly acting just as language translators, interpreters could spontaneously arise as cultural mediators as well. They could try to help diplomats to act right and proper when crossing cultural boundaries, and to prevent rulers from misunderstanding their counterparts.
Although linguistic competence and language knowledge were essential, rulers often looked for the cultural aptitudes of their official translators to guarantee the success fo the diplomatic missions. Nevertheless, as shown by travelers and pilgrim writings, the awareness of the importance of good translators was everywhere and in any case recognized.
The learning of the ‘the Other’s language’ is not easy to be illustrated, but some practical examples can be shown. Even if in the Crown of Aragon some Arabic schools seem to have been encouraged by rulers and by the Church, little is known about them. However, far from bilingual boundary-characters like Mudejars, some examples of the real and practical learning of merchants, captives, slaves and other boundary-crossing men can be provided, showing that desire or necessity could teach them in very short periods of time.