Wars, languages and the role(s) of interpreters


Wars, languages and interpreters



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Wars, languages and the role(s) of interpreters


Wars, languages and interpreters
Languages can be used as weapons and they certainly also go to war in conflicts where combatants cannot understand each other or cannot understand the people they make contact with, for example, local civilians. People who participate in wars as interpreters respond to the rules of supply and demand. They are rarely professional interpreters and end up playing that role by chance, simply because they have a functional knowledge of the languages involved. When I say functional knowledge I mean that they are able to keep open, tant bien que mal, the communication channel. In an overwhelming majority of cases, the day before they started interpreting they were not interpreters, translators or linguists. They had their civil job or their occupation in the military or elsewhere and they happened to possess a certain command of the demanded foreign language, which they had acquired fora variety of reasons (seldom learned as an academic subject. Most of the times they accept the new functions either because they cannot reject it, for reasons of the chain in the military command, or because it means an improvement in their military or social status and, often, better conditions of work and pay. Ina quick overview of the different settings in which interpreters are called to participate in war situations, I will present very broadly different stages of the course of action. The preparatory process of war requires interpreters in diplomacy and intelligence, and the recruitment of interpreters for these functions is done through selection, training and mobilisation. Warfare entails many complex arrangements and operations on land, at sea and in the air. Each of them can have different proportions of interpreting services, but, as a general rule, any campaign may require communications among military personnel who speak different languages (this is common in international conflicts, interactions with local civilians, propaganda activities (so-called psychological warfare, contact with prisoners of war, control of occupied territories, evacuation of noncombatants, etc. The official end of hostilities requires interpreters to work in peace negotiations, in the management of mass population movements, the demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration of combatants in civilian life, the resistance or the liberation movements, etc. After the establishment of peace, there is a need for translation and interpreting services for the armistice negotiation and signing.

In some cases, occupation of territories ensues, with the sequel of reparations. And, finally, there is the settlement of responsibilities in military tribunals. Without trying to be exhaustive, I will present examples of cases in which some of these interpreting situations took place. The development of events makes it difficult to make a clear distinction among different stages in wars.
Preparatory stage
If war is only the extension of diplomacy by other means, as Clausewitz said, it seems clear that diplomatic negotiations (even between two different warring parties in internal conflicts) usually precede the outbreak of hostilities. Ministries of Foreign Affairs use professional interpreters in their dealings with other counterparts. Those interpreters, staff or freelance, have to pass a loyalty test before being employed. Loyalty applies both to their principals and to the transfer between languages. In diplomatic negotiations it is essential to trust the interpreter, the only person at the negotiation table who understands the two languages and cultures. When Churchill was visiting Stalin at the Kremlin, at a certain moment he needed to go to the restroom, obviously on his own. His interpreter, Birse, waited in the meeting room answering
Stalin‟s questions on how he had learned Russian, etc. When Churchill returned and saw them speaking he looked perturbed and Birse immediately reassured him with an explanation of the contents of his conversation with Stalin (Birse 1967: 104). A few years later, with the Cold War developing at full steam, George Sherry, a UN interpreter who was personally inline with the anticommunist Western positions, was accused by radio listeners of being a Soviet agent because of his vehement rendition of Vishinsky‟s bombastic speeches against Western capitalism at the United Nations (Mehta 1962:
128). The fact of being faithful to the contents and to the tone of the original speech is what made him suspect of being one of them Trust or a clear alignment with the dominant ideology was a key factor in the recruitment of interpreters for negotiations throughout the period of the Cold War (Baigorri-Jalón & Fernández-Sánchez,
2010). And it was not a trivial issue, particularly in historical episodes such as the period of McCarthysm. The issue of faithfulness to the principal is the subject of an ongoing debate on whether interpreters should act from within or from between (see for instance De Manuel et al. 2004, Baker 2006, Pöchhacker
2006, Baigorri 2007, Inghilleri & Harding (eds) 2010).

Even though war has been the rule rather that the exception throughout the history of humankind, there always seems to be a sense of surprise when hostilities erupt and a frantic search for translators and interpreters has to be launched.
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We have all read articles in the press on how the demand for Arabic-speaking personnel skyrocketed in the United States after the beginning of the successive wars in the Gulf and Iraq, as if the US/Allied armed forces did not know beforehand that Arabic was the language spoken in that part of the world. This may confirm the idea that wars and other social cataclysms trigger the demand and supply of interpreters and other language experts. States with a well developed foreign service have professional interpreters for their diplomatic relations (Roland 1982), and they also have linguistic experts in their intelligence service, but the moment the war starts those services are utterly inadequate. Governments in need resort to anyone who masters the languages even those perceived as enemies, as well as to the initiation of language teaching programmes, but the immediate war needs may force them to cut or stop that training effort. In the scramble for scarce language resources, there is an understandable penchant for hiring local personnel who have at least minimal facility in English. In Korea, we made use of 1,800 Korean Army officer-interpreters and numerous enlisted personnel and civilians. Of 228 Korean civilians working for the US. Eighth Army in June, 1953, 100 were subject to induction into the Korean Army. (Müller, 1984: 86-87) The idea of the scarcity of language resources, as pointed out by Müller, has to do with the exchange value of language as a commodity that can be sold and bought. Its value would appear to depend on supply and demand. There is, however, an important modifier to normal market laws.
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In times of war, armed forces are invested with exceptional powers, which can be used to alter the normal trade relationships between seller and buyer. The examples of mobilisation of persons with linguistic skills goes from a standard announcement of the needs and a selection process to the specific training for military purposes and to the use for the war effort of forcibly interned potential enemies with the right linguistic skills. Beach (2008) refers to the mobilisation of educated British civilians to use them as interpreters and intelligence experts (over 300 hundred in the British Expeditionary Corps) in World War I. As an example of this, I can mention document Gijón KC, exp. 3, F. 1524 located at the Spanish

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