Translators at War

Posted on August 7, 2015 · Posted in Translation History

If the aim of a military exercise is to minimize casualties – and it isn’t always – conflict between two antagonists requires effective communication. This has always been the case, and the examples of interpreters who have attempted to bridge the chasm between warring parties are numerous and often inspiring. During World War II, ATIS, or the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, was formed (at least in part) to attempt to negotiate with the Japanese government. The service was formed largely of Australian and American citizens, beginning in 1942. The US element consisted primarily of Japanese Americans, as it became clear that, at the time of Pearl Harbor, only a tiny number of US citizens of non-Japanese descent could speak the language.

Operation Z

ATIS operations were not only concerned with trying to broker peace, of course. They were also responsible for intercepting and decoding Japanese military communications. One of ATIS’s most important successes arose from these activities; the interception and translation of Japan’s so-called Z-Plan. By 1944, Japan realized that the Marianas Islands were under threat from Allied forces. Operation Z was conceived as a way to defend the islands from invasion, and, at the same time, use the country’s remaining aircraft and carriers to destroy the US Pacific fleet.

The Nisei and ATIS

The Japanese American translators were known as nisei, meaning second-generation Japanese emigrants, from the Japanese word for “two” – “ni”. George Yamashiro and Yoshikazu Yamada were nisei, working for ATIS via the Military Intelligence Service when they were handed the plans for Operation Z, and their speedy, accurate work in analysing the documents, and handing the results over to US naval command, was a decisive moment in the war in the Pacific.

Internment and the Nisei

As well as negotiation and interpretation of captured documents, ATIS operatives had a role to play in the interrogation of prisoners of war, and were also involved in war crimes trials after the conflict ended. The service was finally dissolved in the spring of 1946, and the successes of the nisei (amongst others) surely helped to dispel ill-feeling towards Japanese Americans after the war – many of whom, at least in the western part of the US, had been placed in internment camps. Few resisted, hoping to show loyalty to America, and at the time, Fred Korematsu, who challenged the system of internment in the courts, was called a traitor by many US citizens. In 1998, however, Korematsu was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton, who referred to him as a seeker after justice in the same mould as Rosa Parks.

Code Talkers: Cherokee

Translators have also been used to work the other way around, perhaps most notably the Native American “code talkers” of World Wars I and II. If the number of non-Japanese Americans who could speak the language in 1941 was tiny, the number of Europeans who could speak Cherokee in 1918 was effectively zero. During the second Battle of the Somme in September of that year, US Cherokee soldiers were serving in the trenches alongside British forces, and were successfully employed to pass messages between sections. The battle itself was hugely important, pushing the German lines back and contributing to the Armistice – just a few weeks later.

Code Talkers: Choctaw

“Code talking” is simply an example of an utterly unknown language (to the local people) being used as an untranslatable code. Choctaw speakers fighting in the US army were also key to developments at the tail end of the Great War; their success in relaying “coded” information during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in September 1918 helped to bring the conflict to an end, with US troops capturing key German strongholds and defences in France.

Comanches in Normandy

By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Hitler was in fact familiar with the US’s use of Native American code talkers in the latter part of the 1914-18 war, and had sent agents to America beforehand to learn some of the key languages. However, not only did this prove to be too tall an order for the Nazi agents, but the US government was aware of Hitler’s efforts before entering the war, and used code talkers sparingly during European operations. Some Comanche troops did however play an important role in the D-Day Landings in June 1944, among them Charles Chibitty.

Charlie Chibitty

Chibitty was born in Oklahoma in 1921, and landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, with the Allied invasion forces on June 6th 1944 at the age of just 22. At 20 years old, he’d persuaded his family to allow him to join the US Army and fight in Europe. To make life more difficult for potential Nazi interceptors, messages relayed by the Comanche code talkers in Normandy used both the language itself and a system of substitution words; for example, “machine gun” was rendered as “sewing machine” rather than as a direct translation. Chibitty died at the age of 83, in 2005, with a long list of international honors to his name, recognizing his bravery and the contribution he and other Comanche comrades made to the war effort.

Rights and Responsibilities in the War Zone

Today, interpreters are as important in conflict zones as they’ve always been, and their rights and responsibilities are recognized by bodies that include the International Federation of Translators, which represents professionals from 55 different countries and works closely with UNESCO. The responsibilities of conflict zone interpreters include accuracy and total confidentiality, as they always have. Rights, among others, include protective clothing (though not necessarily uniform) and pay that is commensurate with the danger involved. The job requirements, other than language skills, are still diplomacy, loyalty – and courage.