As long as there have been different languages and people wishing to speak or write to others from a different place, there have been interpreters and translators. Often the two terms have been used interchangeably, but they mean two very particular skills. Interpreters take the spoken word of one language (the source language) and communicate this into the target language. Translators, on the other hand, deal with the written word. Interestingly, the skills required are quite different, so a brilliant translator may not be a very good interpreter, and vice versa. These days, both disciplines are recognized as being separate, but in the past, before the advent of linguistic career paths and regulation, a person speaking two languages may have been unfairly expected to be both interpreter and translator.
Translators and interpreters have often been silent and unknown in history but have nevertheless had extremely significant roles to play, as they have often been present at the most momentous times in history. As I will discuss, their skill, or lack of, in understanding two languages holding the line between war and peace.
Although the skill must be much, much older, the first physical evidence we have for interpretation comes from ancient Egypt. There, a hieroglyph has been found which translates as ‘interpreter’. In ancient Greece and Rome, countries that ruled great empires, the aristocrats thought it beneath them to have to learn the languages of the people they conquered. Therefore they recruited their interpreters and translators from the slaves they had captured.
Throughout all of time, there have been several drivers for the need for interpretation and translation skills: religion, trade, exploration and, of course, war. Sharing literature, whether scientific or fiction, just for the love of it, has also produced some excellent works of translation. In this article, we will indulge in a bit of time travel and take a quick tour of a selection of great (and not so great) translators and interpreters throughout history.
Spreading the Word: Latin, The Bible & Middle English
Religion has been responsible for both peace and war, but for it to spread from its place of origin it needed people who could speak to the ones to be converted. This dissemination of faith also often coincided with exploration and trade, all of which required interpreters to smooth the way.
Sometimes, before the word could be broadcast, it needed to be translated into a form that was more readily understood in the wider world, in other words into a lingua franca. One of the first (and most enduring) of these was Latin, and so it made sense that the early Greek and Hebrew biblical texts should be translated so that they could be disseminated more readily by missionaries, no matter where they came from. In the fourth century AD, the man to do this was Jerome, a scholar, teacher and sometime hermit. His translations enabled missionaries to travel all over the known world, preaching and founding monasteries wherever they went.
Latin, of course, was a somewhat exclusive language – the domain of the clergy, the rich and the educated. Poorer and uneducated people, without knowledge of anything other than their own tongue, were therefore forced to rely on the church’s word alone for spiritual guidance, leaving them dependent on clerics who could be corrupt and abusive, using the word of God to further their own purposes. This began to change in 1381, when John Wycliffe, a professor at Oxford in England, and an advocate of church reform translated the Bible into Middle English. The resulting so-called Lollard movement against the Roman Catholic priesthood was subsequently declared heretical, and its followers persecuted, and if caught, executed.
New Lands, New Languages
The great age of exploration and colonialization, which lasted from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, saw an increased need for the services of interpreters who could help the explorers/conquerors speak to the inhabitants of newly discovered lands. The earliest known of these was a woman called La Malinche (also known as Doña Marina). She was a Nahua slave from the country we now call Mexico who was given to the Spaniards by her captors, the Tabascans. Her beauty and ability to speak both Mayan and Nahuatl singled her out for special treatment, and she soon became the mistress of Hernán Cortés. Doña Marina soon became indispensable to him, being interpreter and advisor, as well as the mother of his child. It has been said by some historians that the Spanish could not have achieved their conquest of that land without her. Of course, she was not lauded by everyone: her conquered compatriots considered her to be a traitor.
A century later, in North America, the newly arrived pilgrims from England were being helped by another Native American. Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, had been abducted from his tribe by an Englishman and was to be sold as a slave in Spain. However, he somehow escaped, made it to England, learned English, and through a series of opportunities, made it back to his homeland. There he found that his tribe had been destroyed by an epidemic, but he subsequently befriended the English settlers from the Mayflower, and through his interpretive skills, helped them to coexist peacefully with neighboring tribes. In addition, he advised them on local plants and showed them how to grow native crops successfully. It is thought that his advice was crucial to the bountiful harvest of 1621, which led to the first Thanksgiving.
In 1555, aware of the value of native interpreters to trade negotiations, merchant John Lok brought back five Africans from Ghana in order to teach them English so that they could help him on future trips to Guinea to buy gold and pepper. Subsequently, four of them were considered good enough to return to the West African coast and act as interpreters and mediators. In one case, one of the men persuaded what had been a hostile group of African natives into a peaceful trade negotiation with Lok. Of course, such valuable trading ties later paved the way for the English to engage in the slave trade.
War and Peace
In his paper ‘From Wars, Languages, and the Role(s) of Interpreters’, Jesús Baigorri-Jalón theorizes that “wars and other social cataclysms trigger the demand and supply of interpreters and other language experts.”1 This does indeed seem to be right; even some of the examples above were associated with times of conflict and change. Throughout the centuries interpreters and translators have been engaged throughout every possible stage of war – and peace – in varying roles.
Interpreters are needed to understand a foreign enemy, talk to and even interrogate prisoners of war, communicate with local populations of occupied territories and assist with negotiating surrenders or peace treaties. Translators have been vital in preparing propaganda, translating enemy communications (often alongside code breakers), and preparing treaty documents.
The majority of wartime translators and interpreters up until the current time were not professionals in their field. In fact, often the only requirement was that they spoke and understood two languages. Some were immigrants, or children of immigrants from the enemy country, as was the case during America’s war with Japan 1941-45. Already in internment camps in the States, many wanted to prove their loyalty to their new country by helping to interpret. Even so, they were still mostly distrusted by those in the military. During the Spanish Civil War, thousands of children were sent to Russia for safety but ended up being stuck there when the relationship between the USSR and Franco’s Spain deteriorated. Nevertheless, their skill with two languages later became useful after Russia began to give aid to Fidel Castro in Cuba. Others were prisoners of war, their lives at risk if they did not cooperate.
Being a wartime interpreter or translator could sometimes be a miserable experience. While some, such as those who aided the code breakers at Bletchley Park in the Second World War, did their work in relative comfort and safety, others spent time in the field, risking capture and death. Many linguists spent their entire time at war being mistrusted and disliked by those around them, especially if their first language was that of the enemy. There was always the chance that they might turn out to be traitors. In addition, court interpreters and interrogators had moral issues to deal with: the accuracy with which they interpreted the answers of a prisoner of war during a court trial or interrogation could lead to that prisoner’s death.
Sometimes, too much was expected from those with a second language. This was especially true if the second language was learned, instead of native. Up until the last few decades, when interpretation and translation have become professional careers with regulation and standards, those in command seemed to think that just knowing a few words of a second language was enough to get the job done. In fact, the operators they depended on could lack fluency as well as cultural knowledge, but even if they protested the point, their misgivings were dismissed, and they were told to get on with the job.
At the end of the war, erstwhile interpreters and translators often found themselves at significant risk. No longer needed by one side and despised by the other, their lives were frequently in danger. For example, after World War II ended, 173 Taiwanese, some of whom had been working as interpreters for the Japanese army, were convicted as war criminals. Thirteen of these were executed. And during the past few decades of war in the Middle East, several Iraqi and Afghan interpreters acting for western forces were driven to seek asylum in the West due to threats on their lives from compatriots.
Deceit and Costly Mistakes
Working with two languages is always tricky, especially if words can be taken in more than one way. Most of the time this may cost just a little embarrassment or a misunderstanding that can be quickly cleared up. However, in some cases, misinterpretations have led to more serious consequences.
For example, in 1945, the allies proposed surrender terms (The Potsdam Declaration) to Japan’s premier Kantara Suzuki. When asked by reporters what he thought about the terms, he replied with “Mokusatsu” (黙殺). What he meant was that he had no comment, as he had not had the time to think about it. However, it was translated by the West, as “Not worthy of comment”, and so it was thought that he had dismissed the idea of surrender out of hand. He had not. The first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima ten days later. While historians argue whether the mistranslation led to the dropping of the Atomic bomb, it did heighten the already tense situation of the moment. Perhaps this was one of the most deadliest mistakes in the history of translation?
During the Cold War, the West was shocked when USSR president, Nikita Khrushchev reportedly said, “We will bury you”. At a time when the world was teetering on the edge of nuclear war, it sounded like a threat. However, it appears that the translators of the time got it wrong, as what he actually said was, “We will outlive you”. Nevertheless, it is the former quote that is remembered.
Even St. Jerome got it wrong. When translating a part about Moses in the Bible into Latin from Hebrew, he mistranslated the word “keren”, as “grew horns”, instead of “radiated light”. Subsequently, Moses was repeatedly depicted as having horns!
Sometimes the errors in translations and interpretation can have more sinister motives. For example, Felipillo, a native interpreter for the Spanish in Peru, proved to be less than faithful to his masters. Felipillo acted as interpreter during the initial meeting between the Spanish commander, Pizarro, and the newly captured Inca king Atahualpa. Felipillo had no reason to love Atahualpa, as not only was he from an enemy tribe, he was also having an affair with one of the king’s concubines. Subsequently, he mistranslated messages to both men, and spread misinformation, causing distrust between the two sides, and effectively leading to Atahualpa’s death. Later, he also betrayed the Spanish in Chile by convincing the natives to attack them. Such duplicitousness did not go well for him, however. Once the Spanish found out what he had done, they tracked him down and executed him by being torn apart by horses.
Another act of deceit was carried out by the British Government against the Maori of New Zealand. In 1840 it was agreed that the British would help to protect the Maori villages from attacks by renegade traders and convicts and in return, the Maoris would accept British governance while still retaining their sovereignty. The Treaty of Waitangi was supposed to confirm this arrangement and two copies were written – one in English and the other translated into Maori by an English missionary. The only problem was that the British version was worded very differently to the one that the Maoris had. It read that the Maori people had to “cede to Her Majesty the Queen of England absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty”. The Maori version said nothing of the sort, and so, trusting that the British were being honorable, they signed it. This is an issue that still causes problems today.
Translation & Interpreting as a Professional Craft
Examples of inadequate and deliberately misleading interpreting and translating are rare in comparison with all the good that such cross-language communication can bring. For example, it is estimated that the work of the Bletchley Park codebreakers and translators in World War II helped to shorten the war by at least two years, therefore saving thousands of lives. The advent of simultaneous translation as was used in the Nuremberg War Trials of 1945 (although this was not the first time it had been used), was to lead to it being used in almost every multi-linguistic meeting or event since. Machine translation has evolved and improved too, although it is still not up to the standard of a human being. (Read our article here on The Evolution of Machine Translation)
But maybe one of the biggest achievements of today in the field of translation and interpretation has been that modern-day operators are more likely to have chosen such a path for themselves, learning their trade and making a career from it. Very rarely nowadays are people forced into the role either due to captive status or through being displaced or through promises of better food, housing position, etc. Such professionals have more reason to provide an excellent and accurate service free from prejudice and fear and thus serve, not just their own countries, but also the whole world.