Wars, languages and the role(s) of interpreters



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Wars, languages and the role(s) of interpreters

Debate and conclusions
If according to the standard scientific method, researchers look for the rule in a situation characterised by its complexity or heterogeneity, it seems clear that after showing a good deal of cases of war interpreters, the rule we would arrive at is that there is no rule that can be applied to all the situations. Or we should perhaps say that the norms governing the interpreting trade in situations of conflict are precisely the absence of solid rules that define interpreters roles. Their rules of engagement are established by their principals on the basis of the perception the latter may have of the needs of linguistic exchange with allies or enemies. The nature of the idea of an interpreter in conflict situations is so polysemic that we can hardly speak of a single profession, for two reasons 1) because those who played the role of interpreters were more often than not accidental linguists, and 2) because they did not identify themselves with the notion of a profession, or even a trade. It would not have been easy even if they had tried, when we consider the different tasks they were called to perform. Sometimes they were guides, others they were cultural brokers or liaison officers or interrogators or court interpreters. But they also juggled with their languages in the spheres of intelligence, counterintelligence, propaganda, diplomacy, etc. Most of those who appear as interpreters in records of all types were mobilised only temporarily just like their fellow citizens who were conscripted for military service Photo 7: Imperial War Museum Collection. REFERENCE NUMBER MH 17454. (1946)
Kaltenbrunner in the dock at Nuremberg. Kaltenbrunner was head of the Reich Main Security Office
(RHSA) and was hanged at Nuremberg. Link http://www.iwmcollections.org.uk/dbtw-wpd/exec/dbtwpub.dll?AC=GET_RECORD&XC=/dbtw- wpd/exec/dbtwpub.dll&BU=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.iwmcollections.org.uk%2FqryMain.php&TN=Unca t&SN=AUTO23421&SE=6403&RN=0&MR=25&TR=0&TX=1000&ES=0&CS=1&XP=&RF=allResult s&EF=&DF=allDetails&RL=0&EL=0&DL=0&NP=1&ID=&MF=WPENGMSG.INI&MQ=&TI=0&DT
=&ST=0&IR=161971&NR=0&NB=0&SV=0&BG=0&FG=0&QS=

and demobilised immediately after the hostilities were over. Interpreters, like anybody else in war situations, in carrying out their tasks are moved by the principle of survival. The language weapon seems to produce fewer casualties than conventional let alone atomic weapons, but, as we have seen, it can also be quite influential in the development of operations. Practitioners enrolled in the military interpreting service were and are usually quite close to their military commanders or principals and, therefore, the job entails life risks, as unfortunately we are nowadays seeing almost daily in areas such as Afghanistan or Iraq.
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Translation and interpreting always consist of an adaptation to local needs and local ears. If the military system is made up of a complex network of subsystems we can expect that interpreters were required to adapt to that complexity. With no theoretical preparation they utilised the tools that, according to their commonsense, could help approach people from different languages as well as cultures. Interpreters were the gatekeepers in the communication sequence and, under military command but also based on their self social control, they alternated codes and strategies depending on circumstances, always trying to avoid getting drowned in an ocean of words or lost in translation.

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