The History of Interpreting

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As long as Deaf sign language users have been around, there have been interpreters providing that crucial link to the mainstream world. But the nature of a sign language interpreter has changed dramatically over the years. In the first of a series looking at the history of interpreting, Anne Leahy looks at accounts from court archives which give a glimpse into the kind of interpreting used before the 1760s.

Interpreters are taught they have deep roots in the Deaf community, and their work began as volunteers from schools, churches, and social services in the 19th century. But archives from legal settings show that interpreting was used as early as the 14th century.

During the Medieval period, society held deaf people to a very different standard than we expect today in the UK and Ireland. Heavily influenced by the Roman Empire and Christian Church, the region had a number of laws that meant deaf people could not partake in society as full citizens. First, Alfred the Great (849–899) ruled that Deaf people could not confess any sins—instead, the priests would excuse any wrongdoing. As Gareth Foulkes from the British Deaf History Society discovered when researching the history of deaf people in Wales, King Hywel the Good (880–950) prohibited mute or Deaf people from participating as witnesses in any legal case. And the Brehon laws in ancient Ireland banned deaf people from leadership, and allowed only spoken testimony in court.

With laws like these, deaf people were pretty much excluded from contributing to society and any kind of decision-making that affected them. But, despite all, signing existed and history reveals several stories of creative communication between deaf people and their hearing family members, friends and neighbours – and it was this communication that made participation in the legal system possible.

John de Orleton, Edward II Patent RollsThe British Archives at Kew has a case from 1324 which is one of the earliest known examples of deaf people using interpreters in the legal system. John de Orleton was a Deaf husband and father who lived in Nottingham. He appeared before the court of Edward II so his hearing brother-in-law, Warin de Rugge, could be approved as his legal guardian. John was married to Warin’s hearing sister Isabella, who was probably the family interpreter, and had helped them make this agreement. During the meeting, John was questioned by the King’s representatives, and willingly gave his consent “by signs” to have Warin look after his lands. It is interesting that this contract required Warin to take good care of the property for his in-laws, and not allow it to fall to ruin. John also kept control over the profits himself, instead of becoming dependent upon Warin. This is a unique case, because many deaf people during medieval times were not allowed to have much legal or financial independence.

Centuries later, Cambridge law professor John Cowell (1554-1611) wrote that it was still the official law of England that a person who is mute “can neither covenant nor promise…because he who covenants ought to hear the words of him that promiseth”. However, Cowell added that if “it may be done by signes or writing”, then the Deaf person could make their case. So here we have recognition that communication by sign language was acceptable in the court system – and as it is unlikely that all lawyers and judges would have signed, we can assume that the intention was to have someone present to interpret these “signs”.

A case from 1667, published in Samuel Carter’s Court of Common Pleas 1664-1676, shows how this would have worked. A deaf woman Martha Elyot came to court to transfer her house and land to an uncle, who in return agreed to look after her. She had hearing sisters present who vouched for Martha’s intelligence, and witnessed that she understood the contract. The justices recognized past cases allowing a deaf person’s right to participate in both church and government, and requested that Martha Elyot respond for herself. To accept the property transfer, she spread out her hands in the direction of her lands, and further gestured that she agreed. The Elyot sisters shared a language more advanced than simple miming, and the meaning of their signs was not obvious to Chief Justice Orlando Bridgman. He requested an interpretation, and approved the transaction.

mary oeryen recovery case

Moving out of the medieval period and into modern history, a case heard in Westminster in February 1753 gives us an insight into the changing nature of interpreting. Lady Mary O’Bryen from County Cork, Ireland came to the Court of Common Pleas to transfer some family lands in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Berkshire. She and her sister were born deaf and did not speak, so the family paid a tutor named Henry Baker, who taught children of other rich and aristocratic families. Baker accompanied Lady O’Bryen on the trip to London, and served as the interpreter – possibly the first educator who also volunteered as a legal interpreter, like so many would do later in the 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps concerned that Lady O’Bryen had been tricked, Chief Justice John Willes asked her directly in writing, whether she agreed. Henry Baker was also properly sworn to an oath, and ‘explained the Question to her by Signs, which she answered by Signs.’ Baker testified that ‘she understood the Question, and was willing’ to make the transaction. Lady O’Bryen then wrote back, “Yes, I do know and consent” and signed the document.

For centuries, deaf people have used interpreters in court – before the British Deaf community first formed, and had their own schools or churches. From these examples and many others, it is clear that even before BSL became a language, interpreting had a strong foundation in the law, which allowed deaf people and legal authorities to communicate with each other.

Want to read more? See 19th century deaf relay interpreter and An interpreter in the missioner era.

anne leahyAnne Leahy has been an American Sign Language–English interpreter for 26 years. Returning to her academic roots of research and writing, she offers her historical work as inadequate repayment to the communities which have given her decades of rich experiences. For more information, see Interpreter History, also on Facebook.