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International Translation Day Spotlight: Sacagawea

International Translation Day Spotlight: Sacagawea

Created by the UN, International Translation Day highlights and pays tribute to the work of language professionals and their vital role in creating dialogue between countries and communities. It is this work that helps to foster understanding and cooperation, allowing us to work towards common goals. The language services industry encompasses many branches, from transcreation, technical work, translation and interpreting to name only a few, and plays a part wherever people from different linguistic backgrounds need to work together, whether in scientific and technical fields, the arts, or more.

This year on International Translation Day, we wanted to highlight a historical linguist whose work was carried out under incredible conditions.

In the early nineteenth century Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery set out to study the plants, animal life and geography of Louisiana, after Napoleon sold the territory to the United States. Aware that this would require a linguist to communicate with the Shoshone tribes, Lewis and Clark hired Sacagawea’s husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, after discovering that she spoke Shoshone. A chain of interpreting, from Sacagawea’s Shoshone into Toussaint Charbonneau’s French, and then from French into English led the explorers around the territory.

Sacagawea was integral to the voyage, acting not only as a guide, but as a diplomat to the Native American tribes they encountered on the way, some of whom were her own family. She was able to negotiate horses from the Shoshone, so that the explorers could cross the Rocky Mountains, she rescued their boat (filled with scientific instruments, medicines and trading goods) when it capsized, and continued to guide the explorers when they lost their technology. On top of all this, she gave birth on the journey at just sixteen years old.

Though Lewis noted in his journal that her husband was ‘a man of no peculiar merit’, the Corps of Discovery was left panicking at the prospect of his leaving, as that would mean losing Sacagawea, too.

Despite her stunning contribution to the expedition, no first-hand account of the journey from Sacagawea herself is documented, if there was one at all. Nor do we know how much choice she had to be on the expedition. Nevertheless, her talents and skills are recognised today as integral to the expedition’s success. Today, we’re celebrating Sacagawea’s achievements as a linguist, and also thinking about everything linguists do each day to pave the way to a better understanding between us all.

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