From Gaza to Bletchley Park: The Role of Translation and words in Wartime


What associations and thoughts does this word trigger?

Death, destruction, or perhaps tales of determination and victory?

Almost all of the above – except the use of words.

When we think of war-related translation, it’s easy to picture negotiations between country delegates and suited diplomats. However, even during war, where communication is overshadowed by the sounds of explosions and gunfire, there exists a crucial need for language and adept interpreters.

The need to communicate with the population is especially evident in the current war in Gaza, where Hamas terrorists mix with ordinary civilian Gazans.

Most IDF units include Arabic-speaking soldiers; some units also contain Druze or Bedouin fighters who act also as interpreters.

Elite IDF units also incorporate field investigators who are fluent in Arabic and are entrusted with negotiating with the locals as they simultaneously engage in the dangerous work of locating terrorists or finding weapons.

In the current war, the IDF spokesperson addresses the Gazans or even Hamas terrorists directly, in Arabic, 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.

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:


The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park:

One factor that tipped the scales in favor of the Allies in WWII was the discovery of the famous Nazi cipher machine called “Enigma”.

British intelligence, including top minds like the computer pioneer Alan Turing, worked at Bletchley Park, where they managed to intercept and crack the sophisticated Nazi-coded messages, thereby contributing to the victory of the Allied forces

About 9,000 individuals were stationed at Bletchley Park located between Oxford and Cambridge, including Chess wizards, linguists, crossword puzzle champions, and hundreds of mathematicians.

Cracking Enigma shows 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 theater, the Americans, who were unable to encrypt their transmissions due to urgent time constraints, suffered severe losses because the Japanese, most of whom spoke English, intercepted their messages.

The solution was remarkably creative.

The US Army enlisted 400 Navajo Native Americans radio operators.

Why Navajo??

It turns out that the Navajo language is unique; there is no other language on earth like it, not even among other Indian tribes. Moreover, it is purely spoken and lacks a written form. This made it nearly impossible for any enemy to understand or decipher it based on connections to more familiar languages.

The Navajo radio operators underwent training, during which additional terms were incorporated into their vocabulary—enriching a language that was originally limited in verbs and adjectives—to better suit modern combat. Subsequently, they were deployed among Marine units in the Pacific.

The result was a phenomenal success.

The Japanese failed to decode the messages, allowing the Americans to seize the island of Iwo Jima, marking a crucial turning point in the war.

Vietnam War, The Gulf War, and Afghanistan:

During their involvement in Vietnam and later in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans faced primarily non-English speaking populations. Naturally, American soldiers had limited or no proficiency in languages such as Vietnamese, Arabic, or Pashto.

Hence, the use of local interpreters was crucial.

Using locals can quickly become a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, a local interpreter is familiar with the language, culture, and all the nuances that can make the difference between successful and problematic communication—vital skills in wartime, to say the least.

On the other hand, it was challenging to sense where the local’s loyalty lay and to what extent he/she conveyed the message accurately and objectively.

In his lecture, Lt. Adam Carr, a language expert from West Point Military Academy, discusses this issue and provides engaging examples of cases where Americans used local interpreters during the Iraq War.

Another intriguing topic comes from the Gulf War: the US Army began using Machine Translation (MT) for the first time to handle vast amounts of materials intercepted from enemy transmissions.

Although MT was in its early stages and far from perfect, it proved to be a valuable tool in the hands of the US Army, helping to uncover hidden information from the enemy.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the fascinating world of translation during warfare.

So, while we rightly praise the heroes who sacrificed themselves for their country, let’s not forget those individuals whose work was sometimes accomplished in the shadows, behind the scenes, and away from the spotlights, but whose role was no less crucial

פוסט זה זמין גם ב: Hebrew

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