Wars, languages and the role(s) of interpreters Jesús Baigorri-Jalón, University of Salamanca Introduction

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Wars, languages and the role(s) of interpreters

Jesús Baigorri-Jalón, University of Salamanca

In a paper I wrote some time ago (Baigorri 2003), I reflected on the idea that wars and other social cataclysms in the 20th century were a source of demand and supply of interpreters, and I gave a number of examples to illustrate this point. In my professional life I have met many interpreters, including some from the Nuremberg trials, who arrived at the trade by chance, because they had a knowledge of the languages required at the right place and at the right time. Their language acquisition process was often motivated by previous social and political events that had affected their lives. For instance, many of the interpreters who had Russian as one of their languages in Nuremberg or in the early days of the United Nations were born in Russia around the time of the Soviet Revolution and the subsequent civil war, left the country with their parents and ended up in Berlin or in Paris, among other places. They grew up as polyglots in their own homes and, thus, could provide linguistic services during the Second World War (WWII) and its aftermath. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) several thousands of children were sent abroad by their parents in order to protect them from the horrors of the bombings. Most of them reunited with their parents after the war ended, often after witnessing the outbreak of the Second World War, but around 3,000 of those children stayed in the Soviet Union, unable to return due to the world conflagration and the severance of contacts between the USSR and Franco’s Spain. They became the Hispano-Soviet interpreters, as they were called, who helped Soviet advisers, engineers and armed forces in their missions to Fidel Castro’s Cuba after the 1959 revolution. They had preserved their mastery of Spanish because they had been accompanied by Spanish tutors when they left Spain, and they had learned Russian from secondary school onwards. Many other interpreters acquired their languages as a result of a forced displacement of their families for political reasons, be it the Nazi Anschluss of Austria, or a military coup in Uruguay or in Chile… These and other examples led me to conclude that wars have been and –unfortunately– continue to be schools of interpreters.
Most of those who played the role(s) of interpreters during conflicts or immediately after, were called to carry out their interpreting duties on the basis of their functional bilingualism and trained on-the-job, giving up their linguistic activity once the war and its aftermath were over. Their sociological and personal situations differed widely, but their condition of go-betweens made them often unwanted for both warring parties. In this paper I will refer to some of the roles played by interpreters at different stages in war: the preparatory process, the war operations and the post-conflict period. Examples will be taken from, among others, the Spanish Civil War, the two World Wars, the Korean War and the Cold War.
The following anecdote told by Vernon Walters in his memoirs explains the way in which he –then a lieutenant– suddenly became an interpreter of a language he did not command, driven by the sole motivation of pressure from above (a colonel):

[April 1943] (…) We were taking three groups of Portuguese officers on an extensive visit in order to impress them with the growing power and determination of the United States and to convince them we would certainly win the war. (…) Colonel Leonard told me he wanted me there the following morning at nine o’clock ready to take this group around. I said to him that I thought there must be some misunderstanding since I did not speak Portuguese. He replied, “No, but you speak Spanish, French, Italian and all of that stuff, and you’ll certainly understand what they are saying.” I protested and said, “Colonel, I love to hear Carmen Miranda’s songs, but I cannot understand what the words mean. I don’t understand Portuguese.” He then said, “Lieutenant, there is a misunderstanding. You seem to be under the impression that I am inviting you to be here tomorrow morning at nine o’clock. I am not. It’s an order. See that you are here, and see that you are speaking Portuguese.” (…) (Walters 1978: 61)

He was not the only one to be engaged for the task of interpreting at times of war. Here are the comments of someone who had to act as military interpreter in the Allied Control Authority with no previous professional training and without even knowing the situation in which he was called to interpret.

[July 30, 1945] (…) Forty-five minutes later I arrived at the American headquarters to learn that I was to be General Eisenhower’s French interpreter at the first meeting of the Allied Control Council. The latter was and remains the top organization of the Allied Control Authority, which was created by the Potsdam Conference. The ACA was to become the de facto German government.

Thus I, who had never before been an interpreter except informally between American and French friends who did not understand one another, found myself thrust into the interpreter’s role at a meeting of one the most important international political experiments ever attempted. Was I frightened? Not very much. On the other hand, I dare say, I had been so well anesthetized by my morning’s experience that I was incapable of reacting keenly to new surprises. On the other hand I felt confident that I should be able to meet the demands of the approaching meeting, although I had not the slightest notion as to the agenda. Had I not studied and taught French for some ten years? Had I not spent several months in France? Had I not been told many times: “Mais, monsieur, vous parlez très bien le français; à vrai dire, vous parlez presque comme un français.” The French are a very courteous people, you know. Certainly, in spite of my absolute ignorance of what was to be discussed, I felt that I would get along somehow.

I did get along somehow, but I assure you that it was not without considerable trouble. (…) (Archie 1949: 250)

Lastly, Richard Sonnenfeldt, who became chief interpreter for the American interrogators of Nazi leaders, illustrates his sudden metamorphosis in the army thanks to his potential linguistic skills.

Now just twenty-two, by a combination of natural gifts, hard work to acquire an American accent, and a series of chance events, I had been spotted as a bilingual soldier in the exact right place and moment. I was being plucked from utter anonymity as a motor pool private to be thrust onto the stage of postwar history: the trials of the Nazis. (Sonnenfeldt, 2006: 2-3)

These three quotations confirm the ordinary perception by would-be users of interpreters that anyone who knows the two languages involved –something those users can certify only for the language they share with prospective interpreters, but this is largely overlooked– or even a cognate language if need be, they are immediately qualified to interpret or translate between them. As if languages were abstract concepts and self-contained repositories that you command entirely and perfectly, irrespective of your educational background, your origin (and that of your interlocutors), or the subject you are dealing with, and as if the professional skills necessary to perform the task (code of ethics, moral stature, neutrality, self-confidence, etc.) were innate. These ideas differ from the rules and norms that regulate the professional functioning of translation and interpreting as we know it. We will see how military interpreters operated according to the best of their knowledge, which was not always adequate to meet current professional standards. This leads to the controversial issue of quality and user satisfaction –two separate concepts which often have blurred contours– but that goes beyond the aim of this article. The instruction received by Walters falls into the category of a military order which has to be obeyed on the basis of the chain of command, not on the logic or intrinsic value of the actual duty to be performed. Would the same colonel have ordered, with the same authority, a mobilised nurse to practice surgery on a severely wounded soldier? What if the soldier were the colonel’s son? Knowledge of languages by the military should be considered as important as the “development of a weapon, as important as the training of a man to fight in hand-to-hand combat”, as American Congressman Leon Panetta put it in 1981.1 That statement was made several decades –and quite a few American military missions and wars– after the moment in the early 1940s when the military branch realised how important it was to have language experts in their ranks.
It seems there are some particular features that can be attributed to military interpretation tasks. First of all, the military hierarchical chain of command can interfere in the appropriate performance of a professional duty, such as interpreting. When national security and the lives of many people are at risk, the loyalty test is sacred and cannot always be taken for granted. This is particularly delicate for interpreters working in the military intelligence service, but also for those who were recruited among groups of people who could be perceived as potential enemies. Suffice to mention the case of Japanese-Americans who were conscripted to perform linguistic duties directly from the detention compounds. These circumstances entail an element of additional stress and perhaps also an increased amount of self-censorship when translating.
Secondly, the reliance that high-rank officials may have on lower-rank personnel specialised in languages may bring with it a reversion of hierarchy (including that of age, gender and social class). Sonnenfeldt gave up his blue-collar duties in the truck pool to rub shoulders with generals and officers, with whom he was soon on first-name terms.2 Something unimaginable in the normal circumstances of a military career. By the way, military interpreters were given military ranks and uniforms and they often had distinctive symbols to identify their corps. The hierarchical asymmetry among ranks was also subverted when encounters with enemy forces took place. Sonnenfeldt mentions an example in which he did not abide by German military practice when he participated in the detention of a group of Germans, including a high-ranking officer of the Nazi army and the latter complained of the fact that his status was not being respected when he was put in a truck with rank-and-file soldiers. Only the interpreter’s thirst for revenge for the atrocities the Nazis had perpetrated can explain his failure to perform his cultural brokerage abilities in this case, where he trespassed the non-intervention and neutrality line and perhaps also the rules applicable to prisoners of war. This asymmetry, quite unthinkable except in war situations, can also be observed in photograph no 1 in which a British captain is talking with less martial demeanour than that shown by his interlocutor, a Japanese admiral. 3 The little we can see of the interpreter in the photo shows that he surely stands in presence of his principals, as a result of his perceived lower position and, possibly, of his Japanese courtesy customs.
And thirdly, military interpreters were called to work at times of war in a great variety of situations which ranged from intelligence and counter intelligence activities (carried out from relatively comfortable military intelligence centres, sometimes located at the home front) to combat areas, including remote outposts and behind-the-enemy-line zones, where their services may have varied from regular liaison with allied troops to logistical dealings with local civil populations (photo no 2),4 and from interrogation of war prisoners to surrender of enemy units (photo no 3). 5 The variable of the added stress of risking their lives should always be taken into account when considering their performance.

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