Shooting the Messenger


As conference interpreters, we know that the real start of simultaneous interpreting was at the Nuremberg trials in 1945. Until then, the modus operandi was consecutive interpreting. However, it became obvious soon after the Allies created the International Military Tribunal following World War II that consecutive interpreting was not going to be a suitable mode for the Tribunal. It was charged with an explicit mission: 'fair and expeditious trials' of accused Nazi war criminals. In other words, the trials required a better, faster technique to help expedite the procedures.

Transmitting multiple languages in real time without suitable technology was certainly a challenge. With the help of IBM, Lieutenant Colonel Léon Dostert of the US Army sorted out the technology issue by developing the microphones and headsets needed to transmit the trial combination of languages clearly. But for the system to work, there remained the issue of finding the human beings who could listen and speak at the same time. Monitors were dispatched to look for new talent. Interpreters were tested for language skills in their home countries and then sent to Nuremberg to be tested for simultaneous skills. Patricia vander Elst, Siegfried Ramler, Virginia von Schon and Ernest Peter Uiberall are some of the interpreters who were chosen for this tremendous task. Many of them continued to work as simultaneous interpreters after the trials, thereby becoming the mothers and fathers of the conference interpreting profession. That is why it came as a shock to me to learn that many of their colleagues in Asia were prosecuted during the Japanese war crimes trials.

The Japanese context

In January 2018, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr Kayoko Takeda, Professor of Translation and Interpreting Studies at the College of Intercultural Communication at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Dr Takeda wrote her PhD dissertation on sociopolitical aspects of interpreting at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946 to 1948). One of her special interests is the case of interpreters who worked with the Japanese army during World War II and what became of them during the Japanese war crimes trials.

In the same way that Nazi leaders were prosecuted at Nuremberg, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal prosecuted military and political leaders from Japan. In other parts of Asia there were further trials, at which less senior perpetrators of war crimes were tried. At Yokohama, the US Army conducted more than 300 war crimes trials through 1948, more than 90 per cent of which involved prisoner mistreatment. American prosecutors focused on Ofuna, a secret interrogation camp run by the Japanese Imperial Navy for pilots and other high-value prisoners.

Interpreters were included among the defendants. Three groups of interpreters were involved; these were court interpreters, witnesses or defendants. They included Taiwanese, Korean, American and Canadian Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans or Japanese Canadians). In the case of the latter group, they had dual nationality, and it was rather common for Japanese American and Japanese Canadian families to send their children to Japan for their education there. 

Some of them joined the Japanese army of their own free will while others were stranded in Japan as a result of the war, and were then conscripted as interpreters.

The interpreters

The affidavits and testimony from former prisoners in Ofuna and similar camps very clearly showed that in the camps they had been subjected to extreme levels of physical and psychological cruelty. It is not surprising that in many trials, witness statements by former prisoners of war were used to convict perpetrators, including interpreters.

From some points of view, in fact, the interpreters played a particular part in inflicting this cruelty. They were in close contact with the victims as they interpreted for their superiors. From the victims' perspective, the interpreters were literally speaking the language of evil. They rendered the oppressive and tyrannical orders of the occupier in the victims' languages, which left a lasting impression. This is shown very clearly in the words of Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese army and whose autobiography, The Railway Man, was used for the film of the same name. Lomax said that he hated the interpreter more than the Kempeitai (military police) officer who tortured him because 'it was his voice that grated on and that would give [him] no rest'. It is clear that to the victims, the interpreters were seen as the face and voice of the oppressor and not as a neutral messenger.

Just doing their job

One may wonder why these interpreters were prosecuted and in some cases executed: surely they were only doing their job? This was exactly one of the main arguments the interpreters used when defending themselves. They added as well that they could not afford to refuse the orders of their superiors. They would have faced court-martial themselves had they done so. Some interpreters said they tried to protect prisoners of war they were interpreting for by slapping them during the interrogation - with the aim of preventing much harsher assaults by the guards. 

Then and now

I could immediately see similarities between the perception of interpreters as collaborators and traitors post- WWII and the case of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters nowadays. Their work for western armies stigmatised them as traitors in the eyes of some local groups. As a result, many of them and their families faced threats, abduction and even death.

In addition, interpreters in occupied areas - including those areas occupied by Japan in WWII - have no choice with regard to their visibility to the local people. Since they can speak the language of the occupier, they are better able to communicate with the occupier than other people from that area. The occupier may choose to use them as propaganda material to demonstrate successful cases of local cooperation. The interpreters in this case have no choice about whether or not they are identified and visible, and this has had serious consequences - including some deaths.

Professor Takeda raised some valid points that are relevant to interpreters in conflict zones today. Two in particular stand out. Under the military code of absolute obedience to orders of superiors, can interpreters refuse to be part of unlawful acts such as torturing a prisoner of war to obtain information? And what is the interpreter's role and code of conduct in conflict zones?

A good start in looking at these issues is the Conflict Zone Field Guide for Civilian Translators/Interpreters and Users of Their Services, which was produced by the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), the International Federation of Translators (FIT), and Red T. That document is a guide to the basic rights, responsibilities and practices those organisations recommend to translators, interpreters and users of their services. It applies to translators and interpreters serving as field linguists for the armed forces, journalists, NGOs, and other organisations in conflict zones.

Answers to these questions could help start the process of defining the interpreter's role in conflict zones so that the messenger no longer faces the risk of getting shot. 

(Article published in the ITI Bulletin in the May-June 2018 issue)