Saturday, November 6, 2010

Bilingualism and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal - Conclusions

Photo: ‘IMTFE official interpreter’ from Wikimedia Commons. Note the IBM branding on his headset, and that he's taking notes for consecutive interpretation. The man next to him is likely a Monitor, and the non-Japanese to the right is perhaps an Arbitrator. (See previous posts.)

Though the Tokyo Trials took place long ago, we can still learn some things from Watanabe’s account of the most important one.

1. Even for important occasions that call for Professional Expert interpreting, it’s possible in extremis to make use of well-educated Native Translators instead. The latter will learn on the job:
Interpretation was inadequate in the earlier phase of the Trial (around May and June of 1946), sometimes giving only a summary of the exchange. Over time, interpreters’ and monitors’ work and cooperation improved, providing an adequate teamwork performance by March 1947.
However, it’s essential to provide a ‘safety net’ in the form of Expert Monitoring, and corrections must be admitted when the monitors spot mistakes. There was one monitor to every three interpreters at Tokyo, and the monitors did much more than just check the interpretation.
The monitor supported the interpreter – for example taking notes for them of details such as dates, periods, etc.
and so on.

To sum up then, it appears that Native Translators can be used in place of Expert Interpreters subject to three requirements: monitoring, teamwork and time to learn.

2. The pool from which the Expert Monitors were drawn in Tokyo was formed of Military Interpreters. Military interpretation has yet to be accorded its due importance in the history, training and treatment of interpreters – and in translation studies, though it’s been around at least since the time of the Ancient Egyptians. The organisation of military interpreting in recent times has been notoriously ad hoc; and in Iraq and Afghanistan it’s been chaotic, with the American military offloading its recruitment needs to private contractors. The Americans did start to train interpreters for Japanese just before Pearl Harbour, but it was too little and too late. The British were caught even worse off guard - but that’s another story. However, the skills of many Expert Military Interpreters were ultimately forged in the fire of the Pacific battles.

Perhaps, though, the most interesting lesson we can learn in this instance about Military Interpreters is that their role doesn’t end when the war does. Armistices must be negotiated, and after that there are other negotiations that are undertaken by the generals of the opposing forces. The generals naturally turn to the interpreters closest to them. Then there may be tribunals, as we have seen, and a period of occupation by the army of the victorious power as happened in Japan.

Tomie Watanabe. Interpretation at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal: an overview and Tojo’s cross-examination. TTR (Montreal), 22:1.57-91, 2010.

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