Shadow Warriors – of Translation and Language during Wartime

War. What associations and thoughts does this word trigger? Death, destruction, explosions, gunfire, or tales of heroism, determination and victory. Almost everything, except the use of words. Words and the use of languages ​​is perceived as belonging to such realms as diplomacy and communication with those who may also be your enemies, in some fancy hotel lounge in Zurich, rather than the battlefield or an alleyway in the souk. When thinking about translation in the context of war, one may think more of negotiations between state delegates, suited diplomats, and adept translators. But even during war, which is the most non-verbal situation, and where communication is mostly done through the aims of rifles or cannons, there is often substantial need to use language for communication – whether with the enemy or uninvolved population within a war zone, or to gather quality intelligence to better understand the enemy’s intentions, etc. The need to communicate with the population is evident, in the type of war we are engaged in today in Gaza. The battles occur right in the midst of civilian population, and the enemy, i.e. Hamas terrorists and their followers, seem just like ordinary Gazans. Fighting in areas where innocent civilians and terrorists intermix requires particular sensitivity and an ability to communicate with the locals. In most IDF units there are Arabic-speaking soldiers at one level or another, and some units also include Druze or Bedouin warriors who can act as interpreters when communication in Arabic is required. Moreover, most IDF elite units also comprise field investigators from the Agent Operating Unit of the Intelligences Corps. They are fluent in Arabic and are entrusted with handling the relationship with the locals, such as, for example, investigating residents of houses the forces entered, to locate wanted persons or hidden weapons. These agents can make all the difference between success and collosal failure in combat. Beyond the actual warfare on the battlefield, the ability to communicate in the enemy’s language, Arabic in our case, is substantial. We are all familiar with the stories of brilliant individuals from the Arab track in high school, snatched away to serve in the Intelligence Corps’ 8200 unit, eavesdrop on the enemy, or the devil knows what they are doing there – hush, hush… In the current war, we have also encountered quite a few videos released by the Arabic-speaking IDF spokesperson. Astonishingly enough, we discovered there is such an officer who addresses the Gazans or even Hamas terrorists directly, explaining what they should or shouldn’t do or how much money Ismail Haniyeh’s son wasted on his recent visit to Tiffany’s in Doha while they are fighting over sacks of UNWRA rice. Psychological warfare is also very crucial, and knowing the language with all its social nuances is critical to generate and impact over the other side’s consciousness.

To better understand the key role played by those individuals whose weapons were language and translation in various conflicts throughout history, I gathered some examples that will illustrate The matter: WWIIThe Codebreakers of Bletchley Park: One of the factors that tipped the scales in favor of the Allies in WWII was the discovery of the famous Nazi cipher machine “Enigma” and its decipherment by British Intelligence. The British recruited the best mathematical minds of the time, the most famous of whom was Alan Turing, one of the future developers of the modern computer, and seated them for months at the Bletchley Park estate between Oxford and Cambridge until they managed to crack the sophisticated code, which helped the British to intercept Nazi messages and, eventually, win the war. 9,000 individuals were employed at Bletchley Park, among them chess wizards, linguists, crossword champions and hundreds of methematicians. Cracking the Enigma is an example of how understanding the enemy’s messages can determine the outcomes of battles in war, no less than planes and tanks.

The Navajo Code Talkers: During the battles between the US and Japanese forces in the Pacific arena, the Americans, who were unable to encrypt their transmissions due to urgency and time constraints, suffered severe losses because the Japanese, most of whom spoke English, intercepted their messages. The solution was surprisingly creative. The US army enlisted 400 radio operators of the Navajo Indian tribe into its ranks. Navajo?? It turns out that the Navajo language is unique; there is no other language on earth like it, not even the languages ​​of other Indian tribes, and it is only spoken; it does not even have a written form. So, there was no chance any enemy forces would be able to understand or decipher it in any way based on its connection to other, more familiar languages. The radio operators underwent training where additional words were added to their vocabulary, which was poor in verbs and adjectives, to suit combat and modern terms, and they were then scattered among the Marines units in the Pacific. The success was phenomenal. The Japanese failed to understand the messages, allowing the Americans to seize the island of Iwo Jima, which was the turning point in the battles in the ocean. Vietnam War, The Gulf War, and Afghanistan: During their entanglements in Vietnam and later in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans faced a primarily non-English speaking population. Also, the American soldiers’ capability to communicate in Vietnamese, Arabic, or Pashto was limited to non-existent. Hence, the use of local interpreters was widespread. Using locals can quickly become a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, the local interpreter is familiar with the language, culture and all small nuances that can make the difference between successful communication and a problematic one, to say the least, when it comes to war. On the other hand, it is hard to sense where the local’s loyalty lies and to what extent he/she conveys the message accurately and objectively. In his lecture, Lt. Adam Carr, a West Point Military Academy language expert, discusses this issue and offers some engaging examples of cases where the Americans used local interpreters during the war in Iraq.

Another interesting thing involving translation during wartime, happened in the Gulf War. The US army started using Machine Translation for the first time, to handle the huge amounts of materials intercepted from enemy transmissions. TM was taking its firstg steps and was far from perfect, but it served a purpose and proved a valuable tools in the hands of the US army, to discover what the enemy was hiding. This is just the tip of the iceberg surrounding the fascinating world of translation during warfare. So, when we rightfully praise those heroes who sacrificed their lives for flag and country, let’s not forget those individuals whose work was sometimes accomplished in the shadows, behind the scenes and away from the spotlights, but their part was no less critical.

פוסט זה זמין גם ב: Hebrew

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