Friday, October 31, 2014

Belgian Nuns and Chinese Students as Wartime Interpreters

This year being the centennial of the outbreak of World War I (the 'Great War') in 1914, there has been an abundance of articles about it. Not to be outdone, my favourite language magazine The Linguist devotes a section of its current issue to Languages at War. One of the articles is Emerging from the Great War by Sandrijn Van Den Noortgate. As Sandrijn is Belgian, it's natural that some of her article is about Belgians. However, she also produces a surprise: the interpreters of the Chinese Labour Corps. The British army recruited this corps to relieve the workload for the fighting troops on the Western Front, and estimates of its size range from 92,000 to 200,000. Some 40,000 were also recruited by the French.

But first the Belgians.
"As the Germans advanced through Belgium, people fled with around 250,000 crossing the North Sea to England. Very few knew any English, so help was needed, and this was often found with women's organisations… They organised themselves into volunteer groups, such as the Women's Emergency Corps and Women's Catholic League and took care of refugees by providing lodgings, healthcare and interpreting services. As well as interpreting, these volunteers were cultural brokers…
Some were Belgians or had spent time in Belgium. The congregation of the Ursuline Sisters of Tildonk, for example, originated in Belgium, coming to the UK in the 1850s. It was a very international community and, from 1895 onwards, all novices spent a year at the convent in Haacht, Belgium [see image]. Many of them therefore knew at least some Flemish. As the Ursulines wished to propagate the Christian faith through community service, it is likely that some of the nuns volunteered as interpreters. Belgian priests were also a good source of interpreting."
So here we have an example of a religious order producing Native Interpreters because it was an international organisation – as are, of course, many religious organisations of all faiths. Also of how the contexts in which the organisations work draw them to interpreting. Religion has been a great stimulus for interpreting as it has been for written translation, and it still is. See the numerous mentions of church interpreters on this blog.

The very different story of the Chinese Labour Corps takes us to the other side of the globe and of humanity. But there are connections. First the Churches. Many of the labourers were Christians and were recruited by missionaries. And then much of what we know about the labourers' sufferings comes from the diary of Father John Van Welleghen, a Belgian parish priest in Flanders who kept a diary throughout the war. His entries reflect the sympathetic attitude of the local people towards victims of the abysmally racist British Army's harsh methods. Though volunteers, they had signed contracts committing them to three years of military discipline and they were segregated in camps under armed guard. The French behaved slightly better; they at least allowed many Chinese to stay on in France after the armistice. A Chinese phrase book prepared by the British Army is suggestive: Less talk, more work, Why don't you eat this food, This is a bad business.

Which brings us to the language problem.

Most of the labourers were illiterate peasants. One solution might have been to teach some of them basic English or French, but it would have been slow. Then the recruiters in China hit on an unexpected pool of ready-made Native Translators. English and French were being widely taught in Chinese universities and missionary colleges.
"Along with the mainly illiterate peasants came a few hundred ambitious Chinese students to act as interpreters, keen to discover new ideas and European culture. They found themselves interacting with a class of Chinese they had not encountered before. In Chinese society of the time… an educated person would have no contact with the illiterate masses. Yet the war threw them together, and with lasting consequences."
Since those consequences were social and political, they are beyond the scope of this blog. However, they constitute an interesting example of the effects of interpreting on the interpreter.

One interpreter stands out as a particularly valuable source, because he later published his memoirs. His name was Gu Xingqing.
"Gu's book is the only book-length account of the First World War by a Chinese national known to exist… Gu tells the story of his journey from his home village in China to Europe, his work in France and Belgium and his return home. Although published nearly two decades after the events, Gu's account proves to be highly accurate in terms of dates and events. His main source… were the notes he had taken in Europe but which he lost during a Japanese raid… in Shanghai in 1932."
Unfortunately it's not available in English. But it stands alongside Mantoux's account of the Paris Peace Conference or the Barón de las Torres' report on the Hitler-Franco meeting at Hendaye as a case where the most reliable source for historians is the notes taken by the interpreters.

Sandrijn's article starts off with an important error. Her subtitle reads, "The professionalisation of interpreting began during WW1." The statement only makes any sense if all interpreting is equated with conference interpreting; and we may observe that Sandrijn, according to her profile in the magazine, is herself a conference interpreter. Professional Conference Interpreters tend to be dismissive of other branches of interpreting. The facts are that the French had professionalised trade interpreting in the Levant and in Canada (les Interprètes du Roy) by the 17th century; that their army had a corps of interpreters for its North African campaigns in the 19th century; that the British had professionalised their diplomatic interpreting in the Middle and Far East by the mid-19th century (see my article on Ernest Satow); that Mr Melas in the Sherlock Holmes story The Greek Interpreter was a professional court and tourist-guide interpreter in late Victorian London; and that even Paul Mantoux, the father of modern conference interpreting, was a wartime Professional Military Interpreter before he was assigned to the Paris Peace Conference. There are photos of him in his army uniform. And so on.

Sandrijn Van Den Noortgate. Emerging from the Great War. The Linguist, vol. 53, no. 5, pp. 10-11, 2014, The Linguist is published by the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIoL), London. Go to or click here.

Helen Fitzwilliam. First World War: China's forgotten foreign legion. The World Today, vol. 70, no. 3, 2014. or click here.
There's a short documentary film attached to the article.

Gu Xingqing. Wikipedia, 2014, or click here.

1. Tildonk Ursuline Convent. Source: Deelnemers, Tildonk.
2. British officer with CLC labourers. Photographer: 2nd Lt. David McLellan. Source: Ministry of Information Official Collection.


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