Throughout history translators have proven vital assets at wartime. While this isn’t a role one would typically associate with the translation industry, translators have played a pivotal role in some of the world’s biggest conflicts. Here we look at some examples of translators at war.
World War 1
Communication during World War 1 was much less advanced than in subsequent wars. Basic radio and telegraph were commonly used by the end of the war. With both sides easily translating or breaking any attempt to use code. This all changed when the US army joined the war and brought members of the Choctaw Tribe as radio operators. This was the first time when code talking was used during the war and this powerful aid for the US. The Choctaw didn’t use military terms that were required during the war. This practice of using languages such as this also helped to revive dead languages. It also highlighted the importance of translators in the coordination of massive international armies.
World War 2
The vital role played by translators at war time became really prominent during World War 2 with the work of codebreakers at Bletchley Park. Known for breaking the extremely complicated German Enigma code they also broke the Lorenz cipher used between the leading members of the Nazi regime and army. This work done by the translators and codebreakers at Bletchley Park was classified as an Ultra secret which was a new category above Top secret. Members of British Intelligence have claimed that the work done by translators brought the war to a conclusion two to four years earlier.
Modern wars in the Middle East such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely fought against insurgents using guerrilla warfare tactics. As enemy fighters are harder to identify, the lines between civilians and enemies are blurred. As a result native translators and interpreters have been recruited by armies to help facilitate effective communications with local people. Translations in this area have evolved beyond translating information to acting as cultural liaisons between foreign armies and the local population.
Today the US Government is the largest translator employer in the world. The role of translators has changed and evolved throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Their importance in the field of military intelligence and defence has never been higher.