Thursday, October 28, 2010

Bilingualism and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal

Usually the Canadian translation studies journal TTR (which stands for Texte, Terminologie, Rédaction) is of no interest for this blog. But you never know… The latest issue is a special one on translation in Japan. Mostly it’s about sophisticated literary translation, but among the articles of that kind is sandwiched a very unusual one that does concern us. It's Tomie Watanabe’s description of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal of 1946-1948.

The Tokyo Trials paralleled the Nuremberg Trials that had started a few months earlier in Europe. Both of them used large numbers of interpreters. However, though they were both important in the history of court interpreting, the Tokyo Trials have received only a fraction of the attention that the Nuremberg Trials have. That’s what makes Watanabe’s quite detailed analysis so valuable.

The first and most famous of the trials was that of the Japanese war leaders and their major henchmen. At its coclusion, 25 were found guilty and seven of them, including General Hideki Tojo, the Japanese Prime Minister (see photo of him wearing headphones at the trial), were sentenced to death and hanged.

As at Nuremberg, the logistics were organised by the Americans, but all their Far East allies participated in the trial itself.
The official languages… were English and Japanese. However, there were participants who spoke other languages as well, for example, the prosecutor representing France spoke only French. Therefore, not only English- but also Chinese-, French-, Russian- and Dutch-Japanese… services were added, when necessary. English-Japanese interpreters performed interpretation in both directions. Relay interpretation was conducted when other languages were added.
How to find the interpreters?
The Allied Powers would have preferred non-Japanese interpreters…, but they soon discovered that it was absolutely impossible due to the complete absence of this resource in those days. Shimada [one of the interpreters] said that he was surprised how poor the Japanese proficiency was among the interpreters of the Allied Powers, noting that this was proof that the Japanese language was little known or used in the world before World War II. It was then decided that interpreters should be hired from among the Japanese, and monitors from among officials of the Allied Powers would be relied upon to check and correct the interpretation.
Now we come to the key passage as far as this blog is concerned:
The Japanese interpreters had no experience working as professional interpreters before the trial... English proficiency was the only qualification for being hired… It was extremely difficult in those days to find qualified interpreters with sufficient command of English and Japanese, as well as with an adequate knowledge of the historical and cultural background and of the legal terminology. It is clear, then, that the minimum qualification of a good command of English became the selection criterion.
In other words, the recruitment criterion was not interpreting qualifications but bilingualism. Furthermore,
Interpreters were given no prior training or preparatory classes. They received only technical information about the courtroom.
Mock trials were used, but only as an aptitude test, not for training.

To be continued.

Relay interpretation means that a speech is first interpreted from language A to language B and then re-interpreted by another interpreter from language B to language C. Thus, if no French-Japanese interpreter was available, it might be interpreted first from French to English and then from English to Japanese.

Tomie Watanabe. Interpretation at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal: an overview and Tojo’s cross-examination. TTR, 22:1.57-91, 2010.
The author is a conference interpreter. She teaches interpretation at Daito Bunka University and Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. The article is based on her M.A. thesis.

TTR has a website at

There's also a recent book:
Kayoko Takeda. Interpreting the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010. Available from Amazon.

Hideki Tôjô. Wikipedia. (This article also quotes an illuminating report by Shuichi Mizota, interpreter for Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, about the pressure exerted by General MacArthur to exonerate Emperor Hirohito and all members of the imperial family from criminal prosecution.)

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