Interpreters in the Great War
2018 marks 100 years since the end of the First World War, a conflict which engulfed the whole world and destroyed large parts of it. Dragging in people from all walks of life and all parts of the world, speaking many languages, it was a cross-cultural horror that we have left nobody untouched.
Back in the early 20th century, it was quite common never to leave your home country, and many young soldiers’ first encounters with anyone speaking a different language was firing a gun at them, or standing alongside them in the trenches. In the UK, it’s well known that even French words and names were hopelessly mangled by the troops – for example, Ypres was rechristened ‘Wipers’.
Naturally, translators and interpreters were key to the war effort, and found themselves on the front line as often as in a back office, speaking to allies, enemies and prisoners alike. We’re familiar with this from popular culture – even Indiana Jones was shown as a fluent French and German speaker in films depicting his early life. But it’s often forgotten that, for example, Chinese labourers played an important role on the Western Front, digging trenches and repairing tanks – with many staying on and creating the ‘Chinatown’ communities that persist in European cities today.
Other non-Europeans played important parts in the war as well, such as the Choctaw radio operators brought in by the United States as ‘code talkers’ – confusing the enemy with a language far removed from Germanic or romance tongues they were familiar with. Unlike the army, the ranks of translators were as likely to be female as male, with women like Marguerite McArthur placing their lives in danger, and often paying the ultimate price.
Translators in the First World War were not just spies or code breakers; they had a key role in coordinating vast, international armies on both sides, with an unprecedented array of languages. Their efforts and sacrifices were remarkable and essential, and should never be forgotten.