Sunday, May 23, 2010


Robert Evkall’s Faithful Echo was the first book I ever read about military and diplomatic interpreting. (The two often merge because wars end in armistice negotiations between the generals on the opposing sides and they bring their military staff interpreters with them, each party – as is customary in diplomatic interpreting – bringing its own.)

Ekvall’s book tells a fascinating tale of a life that began as the son of Christian missionaries in the borderlands between China and Tibet and led him as a US Army interpreter to the negotiating table at Panmunjom (see photo) and the armistice that halted the Korean War in 1953. Several of his books about Tibet are still available, but Faithful Echo is out of print, so I don’t suppose many people read it nowadays. Therefore I was delighted when Mariela Fernández of the University of Granada disinterred it and used it as a source for the paper she gave to the Castellón symposium last autumn (see November 18 post) on the role of interpreting in the Cold War. Mariela works in collaboration with Jesús Baigorri of the University of Salamanca, an authority on the history of 20th-century conference interpreting. Now she’s sent me an article about Panmunjom that she’s had published in Korea. Most of what follows is drawn from it.

Ekvall was a seasoned military Professional Expert Interpreter from World War II in the Pacific. So were two of his colleagues, the Underwood brothers, Horace and Richard, who were the sons of missionaries in Korea. As Professionals, they are outside the scope of this blog. However, I can’t leave them without mentioning an important element in their preparation for the task, to which Mariela draws attention at the very end of her article:
Finally, we have to point to the missionary background of the main interpreters, which brings us to the historical contribution of European and North American missionaries in the great task of spreading culture between peoples, a link that war tends to destroy.
My April 10 post mentioned the effect of a missionary tradition on the language skills of the Mormons. However, Mormon missionaries are usually late bilinguals who learn their second languages in their teens. It’s the children of missionaries who are the best placed to grow up as early bilinguals.

Though both sides had some Professional and Expert Interpreters, they were not enough to staff the 159 plenary sessions and 500 meetings at other levels. Ekvall had to be called back out of retirement. The shortage was particularly acute on the Communist side.
Sources consulted also document the presence of interpreters from different geographic and cultural backgrounds, most of them without any formal professional training or experience. As far as we know, these interpreters learned on the spot, and their working and personal conditions were intolerable. They were recruited by force, and worked under personal risk because of the war, particularly when working with users from authoritarian regimes. For example, Millet talks of ‘a turncoat Seoul high school teacher’ (2002:260) who worked as an interpreter for the Communist delegation… He was executed at the end of the meeting because of his poor performance. In other words, it seems that interpreters without any proper training were only valuable according to their linguistic abilities, and, thus, they were highly vulnerable.
Nevertheless, for those Native Interpreters who survived the ordeal, Panmunjom was a changing experience for many of them, both personally and professionally. According to Chaozhu Ji, one of the leading interpreters in the Chinese delegation,
The experience had transformed me from a clumsy, Chinese-challenged university student on the science-doctorate track into a member of China’s foreign policy apparatus, a low level cadre in the Foreign Ministry. I had studied hard and could now actually read The People’s Daily. I had participated in one of the seminal events in China’s new history and been witness to the devastation of war.


María Manuela (aka Mariela) Fernández Sanchez (University of Granada). Understanding the role of interpreting in the peacemaking process at the Korean Armistice negotiations (Panmunjom 1953). Interpreting and Translation Studies (South Korea), 13:2.229-249, ?2010. Her address, if you want a downloadable copy of the article, is

Mariela Fernández Sanchez. Escenas de la interpretación en la Guerra Fría: mediación lingüística, cultural y diplomática. (Episodes from interpreting in the Cold War: linguistic, cultural and diplomatic mediating). Paper to the 10th Symposium on Translation and Interpretation, Jaime I University, Castellón de la Plana, Spain, November 12-13, 2009.

Colonel Robert B. Ekvall (US Army Retired). Faithful Echo. Foreword by Ambassador Arthur H. Dean (former deputy to Secretary of State). New York: Twayne. 1960. There was also a later edition, but both are out of print although Amazon USA still lists one of them. Ekvall wrote extensively on Tibet and China.

Allen R. Millet. Their War for Korea: American, Asian and European Combatants and Civilians, 1945-1963. New York: Brassey’s, 2002.

Chaozhu Ji. The Man on Mao’s Right. From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square. My Life Inside China’s Foreign Ministry. New York Random House, 2008.


  1. Better be the head of a dog than the tail of a lion..............................................

  2. I met Col.Robert Ekvall at our Consulate General in Geneva. We became friends because I'd read his "Tales of the Gobi Nomads" in Asia Magazine as a child. The fact that I was a young Marine Security guard with more than a passing interest in the conference may also have affected him; he let me read his book Faithful Echo in manuscript. He said that an interpreter must not only translate the words spoken but give them their proper emotional nuance as well.

    1. Dear Ron,
      It gives me great pleasure to hear from someone who knew Ekvall personally. Sort of brings him to life. I've admired him since I read his book some 40 years ago and I hope some of the readers of this blog will get hold of it. The military have always been an important source of interpreters.

    2. My memory is getting hazier by the day. I recall Robert Ekvall saying that he and his wife were en route to Tibet when she became ill. She died and Robert left Tibet via Hanoi and was interned by the Japanese occupation. I never understood how he came to be exchanged and returned to the U.S.. In 1956 this entire topic was still Classified, I suppose. But he certainly knew the meaning of "P.O.W. Exchange" as it was not only on the agenda of the Armistice Negotiations at P'anmunjom,Korea but also those negotiations in our Consulate General in Geneva which resulted in the release of surviving air crews of reconnaissance aircraft shot down over the People's Republic of China. As in Korea, lives depended upon the success of negotiations and interpretation.