Friday, November 27, 2020

Native American Women NPIT Interpreters


Sacagawea is a well-known heroine in United States history. She was the Shoshone woman who accompanied her French-Canadian husband on the Lewis and Clark journey of exploration to the West in 1804-1806, interpreted for them with the tribes they met and saved their lives. There are memorials to her and she has been celebrated on this blog; to retrieve the post, enter sacagawea in the Search box on the right. It turns out though, with a little digging, that she only represents the tip of the iceberg of interpretation between the native peoples and the Europeans, and that in many instances the communication passed through women. Luckily there is a magnificent storehouse of research about these women. It’s North American Women: A Biographical Dictionary by Gretchen M. Bataille and Laurie Lisa (see Source below). There isn’t room here to give more than a small sample of the riches to be found in it. Perhaps some enterprising graduate student can make a thesis topic of it. The order below is chronological and the entries have been edited.

We may notice the varied roles that these outstanding women played on behalf of their peoples, their chiefs and their cultures as well as of their languages. As well as for their own people, they interpreted for the American military, the Congress, health and medical services, schools, anthropologists and ethnologists. It is often overlooked how important NPIT interpreters have been throughout the world for these last two clienteles. In spite of the racial and anti-feminine prejudices of their age, these women succeeded in getting a good education with the encouragement of their parents, who understood where the future lay.

—Sarah Laura Winnemucca Coltelli HOPKINS [Thocmetony, Tos-me-to-ne, Shell Flower, Sono meta, Somitone, Sa-mit-tau-nee, White Shell] (c. 1844–1891), was a major figure in the history of the Paiute tribe and a spokeswoman for the plight of her tribe and of Indian peoples in the later part of the nineteenth century. Granddaughter of Chief Truckee, who had guided whites across the Great Basin, and daughter of Chief Winnemucca, an antelope shaman and leader, she became a legendary and controversial figure during her lifetime. Because Sarah’s first encounter with whites had terrified her, she did not want to travel from Humboldt Sink, in Nevada, to California with her family in 1847, but encounters with generous settlers along the way dissolved her fear. In California she attended a convent school, where she learned to write and speak English. She also learned Spanish and knew three Indian dialects. By adolescence her skill as a translator and her position in a prominent family brought Sarah the role of interpreter at Camp McDermitt in northern Nevada, and later at the Malheur Reservation in Oregon. She also became the personal interpreter and guide for General Oliver O. Howard during the Bannock War in 1878. Sarah’s skills rapidly gained her recognition as spokeswoman for her people and led to lectures in major western cities on behalf of justice for Indians. Winnemucca’s autobiography is not only a record of her own life but also a history of her tribe and a strong plea for redress, as the title indicates: Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. The intent of her autobiography was to bring her crusade for justice to a wider audience and to convince white society that the Paiutes were decent people willing to coexist with whites. Her narrative ends with a plea to Congress to restore land and rights to her people. Winnemucca’s crusade… for justice and an end to corruption in administration of reservations met with limited success… Before her death, she returned to her people to open a school for Paiute children

Susan LAFLESCHE PICOTTE (1865–1915) see photo above, was born on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska on June 17, 1865.. [Her father,] a chief of the Omaha, was half white and half Ponca; his wife was white and Omaha. The influential LaFlesche family supported bringing white education to the reservation and made certain that each of their children received a good education. Susan LaFlesche attended school on the reservation, then accompanied her elder sister Marguerite to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. Three years later, in 1882, she returned home to teach at the mission school. In 1884 LaFlesche began her studies at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, a school for blacks and Indians, graduating with honors in the spring of 1886. In October of that year, she entered the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia. She graduated at the head of her class in 1889, becoming the first American Indian female doctor of medicine. LaFlesche returned to the Omaha Reservation upon completing a four-month internship in Philadelphia and worked as a physician at the local school. A few months later, she was appointed physician for the Omaha Agency... The work was difficult, and her duties extended beyond the purely medical; she also served as adviser, teacher, interpreter, and nurse... Despite her ill health and against the advice of family and friends, LaFlesche announced her intention to marry Henry Picotte in 1894.. a Yankton Sioux... Susan and Henry settled in Bancroft, Nebraska, where she practiced medicine and he farmed… Picotte continued to serve her people during this period. She acted as interpreter and helped many families and individuals during the transition Omaha society was experiencing. After Henry’s death in 1905, Picotte was appointed missionary to the Omahas by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions… She was politically active as well, and in 1910 headed a tribal delegation to the nation’s capital, where she addressed the secretary of the Interior on the issues of Omaha citizenship and competency. But it was in the area of health care that Picotte made her biggest contribution. She insisted that the Omaha adopt modern hygienic practices… She also represented the Omahas in white society, serving, from time to time, as their representative to the government. But more often, Picotte was the one who spoke for the Omahas in an unofficial but nonetheless clearly recognized capacity. She represented them to groups from the East and from Nebraska, ranging from women’s clubs to missionary, educational, and medical organizations. Until her death in 1915, she was an effective role model for hundreds of young Omahas.

—Flora Jay Ann Cox ZUNI (1897–1983), was born into the Badger clan of the Zuni, who live in a New Mexico pueblo. Her father was a member of the Bear clan and an accomplished artist, and her mother was an accomplished potter. The Zuni are famous for their jewelry. They speak a language which is unrelated to the languages of the other pueblo peoples and continue to practice their traditional shamanistic religion with its regular ceremonies, dances and mythology. Flora received her education at the boarding school at Black Rock and became one of the few Zuni of her time who could speak English. Later, this skill allowed her to become an interpreter for several different groups, including anthropologists, Bureau of Indian Affairs employees, Public Health Service employees, missionaries, and teachers. Noted as an interpreter and storyteller of great skill, Zuni worked with the anthropologists Alfred L.Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Ruth Bunzel, and Elsie Clews Parsons in collecting Zuni folk tales, prayers, and linguistic material. Bunzel said of Zuni, “Flora had excellent command of English and translated her own texts and interpreted for her father, mother, and sisters and helped with the revision and analysis of all texts.” She also became an entrepreneur and saleswoman who took in boarders and sold turquoise on commission to help support her family. Zuni remained a traditional Zuni throughout her lifetime; she strongly believed in the importance of passing traditions from one generation to the next.

The range of these biographies, which extend to the present day, emphasizes once again the universality of NPIT interpreting.


Laura M.  Bataille and Laurie Lisa. Native American Women: A Biographical dictionary. or click [HERE]. There’s a wealth of other references in this work.


Susan Picotte

Source: Nebraska Studios

Friday, November 6, 2020

The Third Way of Translating is Recycling


It used to be that all translating was done by humans. Then – for better or worse – came MT and so now there are fundamentally two kinds of translator, human and computer, though there are many sub-types, especially on the human side.

How many ways of translating are there fundamentally? There used to be two. One of them is by linguistic transformation, in which words and phrases in the target language (TL) are substituted for those in the source language (SL) and the grammar of the SL is modified to adapt it to that of the TL. It was the strategy used in early MT with only very limited success but humans use it too. The other way is less direct but gives better results. It consists of decoding the SL input into the ideas and feelings that it represents and then recoding all that in the TL. The two methods aren’t mutually exclusive; indeed, as Brian Mossop pointed out (see Sources below) they may operate in parallel simultaneously. And what is the SL decoded into? The influential French  teacher Danica Seleskovitch developed what is called the interpretive theory of translation in which she maintained that it is the form in which things are stored in long-term memory (see Sources), but what that form is remains an unknown.

With the advent of automatically segmented and aligned bilingual texts (or bitexts) in the late 1980s, a third way emerged. With bitexts, finding any segment of text in SL brings with it its translation in TL. It only remained to match any segment of a new SL text to its nearest repetition in the bitext. This was achieved by statistics by 1988, using not a single bitext but an enormous corpus of them. The corpus was the proceedings of the Canadian parliament, which are always written in English and translated into French or vice versa. We thus entered the era of statistical machine translation (SMT) which fuelled a generation of popular MT applications like Google Translate. The relatively slow and imperfect alignment of texts for SMT has to some extent been replaced by more sophisticated matching using the neural networks of artificial intelligence (AI). Furthermore AIMT can be applied to parallel texts, texts that are not translations but are about a similar subject and in a similar register. One of the first theses on AIMT was presented by a graduate student of mine in Ottawa, Bruce McHaffie, in 1997 (see Sources).

Now we come to the point of this post. SMT and AIMT both feed on translations and other texts that already exist. They aren’t translating anything anew, only piecing together collages. In other words they are recycling, as surely as old bottles are broken up and recycled into new. There’s nothing new about recycling old translations; a classic example is the ever-popular Authorised Version of the English Bible, which drew heavily on the previous translation by William Tyndale:

A recent computerised study has revealed that about 84% of the AV New Testament and about 76% of the Old Testament is verbatim Tyndale.”

When whole works are recycled it's called retranslation

What is new, however, is the fragmentation of the original texts and the automation of matching the pieces. Its limitation is that it cannot be of better quality or more understanding or more up to date or more empathetic to authors and readers than the material from which is composed. But with the popularity of MT it has become established as the third way of translating.



Danica Seleskovitch.  Langage, Langues et mémoire, étude de la prise de notes en interprétation consécutive. Preface by Jean Monnet. Paris : Minard, 1975. 273p.


Brian Mossop. An alternative to 'deverbalization'. 2003. or click [HERE].


Brian Harris.  Bitext, a new concept in translation theory, Language Monthly,  54.8-1O, March 1988. Available at or click [HERE]


Bruce McHaffie. The Application of Neural Networks to Natural Language Translation. Advisers Brian Harris and Mario Marchand. MA dissertation, School of Translation and Interpretation, University of Ottawa, 1997. 91 p. or click [HERE].


Jonathan D. Moore. The Authorised Version: the influence of William Tyndale’s translations. or click [HERE].