Wars, languages and the role(s) of interpreters

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Wars, languages and the role(s) of interpreters

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Submitted on 10 Jun 2011
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Wars, languages and the roles) of interpreters
Jesus Baigorri-Jalon
To cite this version:
Jesus Baigorri-Jalon. Wars, languages and the roles) of interpreters. Les liaisons dangereuses:
langues, traduction, interprétation, Dec 2010, Beyrouth, Lebanon. p. 173 - 204. �hal-00599599�

Wars, languages and the roles) of interpreters Jess Baigorri-Jalón, University of Salamanca

In a paper I wrote sometime ago (Baigorri 2003), I reflected on the idea that wars and other social cataclysms in the 20
th 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 roles) of interpreters during conflicts or immediately after, were called to carryout 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 betaken 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. Its 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 interpreters 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 daresay, I had been so well anesthetized by my mornings 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 area 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: 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 colonels 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 That statement was made several decades and quite a few American military missions and wars after the moment in the early s 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 testis sacred and cannot always betaken 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

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