Translators are often the forgotten vital intelligence asset in wartime. Their role has developed considerably in the twentieth and early twenty-first century, becoming increasingly important in a globalised world that faces the challenges of terrorism and complex international relations. Today we need their skills more than ever, but the origins of translators in warfare go back further than most people imagine.
The Stone Age
The story of the human species is a story of war and conquest. From the very earliest movement of people from Africa, human beings have made war to establish new territory and gain social dominance. Since that time humans have made use of soldiers and sailors who spoke the language of their enemies, hoping to gain an insight into their opponents’ tactics and the lie of the land (or sea), and in the process gain the advantage in battle.
The Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs
One notable use of native translators in history was during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. It began in 1519 when conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico with Spanish forces. Faced with more than one local language to navigate, the clever Cortés decided to make use of the translation skills of a local woman, Malintzin, to help him make alliances with other groups hostile to the Aztecs. She quickly learned Spanish and translated between this, Chontal Maya, and Náhuatl. Malintzin also taught Cortés about Aztec culture and helped him defeat the Aztec forces. She even warned him of a planned assassination attempt. Eventually, she became Cortés’s personal interpreter and mother of his son.
British Rule in New Zealand
Translators have also played an important role in treaty negotiation. One particularly ignoble example took place in 1840 when the British government agreed to a treaty with the Maori chiefs of New Zealand. The chiefs wanted British protection from lawless convicts, traders and sailors who were terrorizing their villages. The Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up to cement the arrangement, stating what both sides could expect. But there were two versions of the treaty, one written in English and one in Maori.
The English version said the Maori people were to “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty” (that is, New Zealand would become part of the British Empire). But the Maori version, which had been translated by a British missionary, said the Maori would keep their sovereignty but be governed by the British. In other words, the Maori thought they were gaining the British legal system while still keeping the right to rule themselves. Issues around the meaning of this treaty are still being worked out today.
World War 1
An often forgotten aspect of WW1 was the important role Chinese labourers and translators played in keeping allied forces going when resources were running low. With high casualty rates on all fronts, the allied forces numbers were depleted and China responded to the call for reinforcements. From digging the trenches and repairing tanks on the Western Front to maintaining supplies of water to soldiers fighting the Ottoman Empire in Iraq, Chinese labourers made up for the dwindling resource of able-bodied men.
Those who stayed in Europe after the war ended went on to rebuild the war-torn continent and formed the basis of the “China Town” communities seen in major western European cities today.
Communication in WW1 was in its infancy compared to today. Basic radio and telegraph messages were being used by the end of the war, but both sides could tap into them, easily translating or breaking any attempt to use the code. This was a big problem until the US army joined the war in 1917 and brought members of the small Choctaw Tribe to Europe as radio operators. The operators used their own language of “Choctaws” to confuse the enemy and were referred to as “code talkers”.
Translators in WW1 were not just spies listening in to the enemy, or simple code breakers. The war placed translators in the key role of coordinating the vast international armies of both sides and the vast array of languages within their ranks. They also helped to sustain near-dead languages, because these proved so useful in providing simple codes that confused the enemy.
World War 2
The role of translators in WW2 has become increasingly well-known to the public in recent years, with the work of translators and codebreakers at Bletchley Park immortalised in the acclaimed film The Imitation Game. Associated with breaking the highly complex German Enigma code, allied translators and codebreakers also worked together to break the Lorenz cypher that was used for messages between leading members of the Nazi regime and the army. Their work was classified as “Ultra” secret, a new category ranking above the traditional “Top Secret”.
Members of British Intelligence have since claimed the work done at Bletchley Park shortened the war by between two and four years and saved thousands of lives. This is because intelligence gathered as a result of breaking the codes gave the Allies a crucial advantage in the final years of the war. For example, translators and code breakers were able to identify the location of most of the German Army Divisions before the D-Day landings.
After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the war in the Pacific continued against Japan. Here the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section (ATIS), a joint American/Australian intelligence taskforce, intercepted Japanese messages and gathered evidence on Japanese war crimes. Unlike those working at Bletchley Park, the ATIS translators worked with soldiers on the front line, joining the army as it invaded occupied islands such as Papua and the Philippines, Sadly, 17 ATIS translators died in the course of the fighting.
ATIS translators were also actively involved in interrogating prisoners in a bid to gain additional military intelligence. Their most significant contribution was the acquisition and translation of “Operation Z,” a Japanese plan to force the Allied army into a devastating and decisive naval battle that would have forced a peaceful settlement. However, with this crucial intelligence, the Allies avoided playing into their enemies’ hands.
In the end, translators played an important role in Japan’s eventual surrender. Conventional wisdom states that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Japanese to end the war. However, before these attacks, reporters asked Japanese Premier Kantara Suzuki how he felt about the Allies’ request that Japan surrender. He replied with the word ‘mokusatsu’. This was translated at the time as “not worthy of comment”, but it should have been translated as “no comment”, indicating that the Japanese government had not had a chance to properly consider the request. The first of the atomic bombs went off 10 days later.
The Cold War
The Cold War led western intelligence to focus on eavesdropping and decoding messages from the USSR. At the same time, both sides engaged in a technological battle for superiority, as seen in the Nuclear Arms Race and the Space Race, with huge demand for advanced skills such as engineering, science and foreign languages.
One way the USA tried to improve its defence capabilities was the National Defense Education Act (1958), which aimed to enable American students to reach higher education by offering loans to students who showed promise in these in-demand curriculum subjects, especially those who had excellent language skills.
Although they had used second-generation Japanese Americans as translators for the US Military during World War 2, there was a sense of unease about the trustworthiness of foreign-language speakers with connections to an enemy nation, and the NDEA aimed to provide enough American translators so that this was no longer necessary.
Those gifted and talented students who qualified as translators had not only to translate the language in front of them but also to apply it their knowledge of the schematics and scientific theories presented. This proved costly and time-consuming so in the 1950s, building on the work on early computers begun at Bletchley Park, the US government invested in the creation of an automated translator.
The automated translator machine had some success, but its inaccuracy and huge cost meant the project was closed down in the 1960s and the government returned to using traditional translators.
The Cold War was a tense period with the persistent threat of nuclear war. In 1956 translators inadvertently helped to heighten the tension when they translated the discussion at a meeting of the Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev and some western diplomats. When talking of the tensions, Khrushchev said “Мы вас похороним!,” which was translated as “we will bury you!” The Russian Premier later clarified his comment, explaining it wasn’t meant as a threat, just a common Russian saying, meaning “we shall outlive you” – but the damage was done.
It wasn’t until the personal computer revolution in the 1980s that governments returned to the idea of computerised translation, which was now backed up by faster processing speeds. These technologies laid the foundations for the Google translate service and other machine translation technologies that are used online around the world.
Today modern warfare in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan involves guerrilla tactics, with insurgents hidden and hard to identify within local populations. This fact has led to a breakdown between the perceived “us” and “them” seen in older conflicts. Because of a shortage of translators in Arabic languages, local translators/interpreters were recruited and attached to army units to help facilitate effective communication with local people. Just as in Cortés’ time, translators not only eavesdrop and translate information but also operate as a cultural liaison between foreign army units and the local populace.
Many translators risked their lives for a high salary and the hope of being granted citizenship in the west. Local insurgents saw them and their families as traitors and important military targets. Because of this threat, the British Government set up the Locally Engaged Staff Assistance Scheme (LESAS) to relocate translators and their dependents within the UK.
Although there is often strong support for relocation from the armed forces who serve alongside foreign translators, some politicians are uneasy about resettling translators and their families in the UK. Those who have been given citizenship have often criticised the living conditions and job prospects they are left with upon arriving in the UK.
Others, like 29-year-old Afghan Nangyalai Dawoodzai, find that their requests for asylum are denied even after receiving death threats from the Taliban. Mr Dawoodzai’s story reached prominence in May 2016 after he allegedly committed suicide when his asylum application was rejected. He had been staying in a hostel in Birmingham after paying people-smugglers to reach the UK but was faced with deportation to Italy because he had been fingerprinted on his arrival there.
Former soldier and Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Ashdown said: “Given the way they have been treated, who in the future will ever offer to be an interpreter to help British soldiers do their job when we treat those who have served our troops so scandalously?” At least three other interpreters who served with UK forces in war zones are also facing deportation.
Today, the US Government is the world’s largest employer of translators through its various intelligence agencies. It hires skilled linguists who are able to not only translate but to read the nuances in the voice of the vast array of tapped communications they now have access to in the post-9/11 world.
In addition to human translators, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued a call in April 2011 asking tech companies to design a robot interpreter that can perform sight translations and interpret local gestures. While it’s unlikely that the military will abandon human interpreters anytime soon, this type of machine may be increasingly used in future space travel.
Today the scarcity of competent translators working in anti-terror organisations has been addressed, but now there is the issue of allowing government access to data and encrypted information that will prevent terrorists plotting, organising and carrying out attacks. Security experts know that terrorists are using the latest anonymising messaging apps and networks to spread information. Just as at Bletchley Park, decryption experts and translators work together in cyberspace to detect and prevent the repetition of attacks such as those that occurred in Paris in November 2015.
It’s clear that the role of translators has developed and changed significantly over the last century, but their importance in military intelligence and defence has never been more important for military success or national security.