A brief history of translation during times of conflict

Translators at War

Translators are often the forgotten vital intelligence asset in wartime. Their role has developed considerably in the twentieth and early twenty-first century, becoming increasingly important in a globalised world that faces the challenges of terrorism and complex international relations. Today we need their skills more than ever, but the origins of translators in warfare go back further than most people imagine.

The Stone Age

The story of the human species is a story of war and conquest. From the very earliest movement of people from Africa, human beings have made war to establish new territory and gain social dominance. Since that time humans have made use of soldiers and sailors who spoke the language of their enemies, hoping to gain an insight into their opponents’ tactics and the lie of the land (or sea), and in the process gain the advantage in battle.

The Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs

One notable use of native translators in history was during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. It began in 1519 when conquistador Hernán Cortés landed in Mexico with Spanish forces. Faced with more than one local language to navigate, the clever Cortés decided to make use of the translation skills of a local woman, Malintzin, to help him make alliances with other groups hostile to the Aztecs. She quickly learned Spanish and translated between this, Chontal Maya, and Náhuatl. Malintzin also taught Cortés about Aztec culture and helped him defeat the Aztec forces. She even warned him of a planned assassination attempt. Eventually she became Cortés’s personal interpreter and mother of his son. Read more

US Scientists Developing Program to Translate Middle Eastern Tweets

The popularity of microblogging service Twitter has spread across the globe, and the US government has taken notice. Twitter was one of the earliest means of communication for the Egyptian protestors, and could potentially be used to gain insight into what ordinary people in the Middle East and South Asia are thinking and feeling.

Of course, many people who live in these countries don’t tweet in English, so first you have to translate what they are saying.

The problem: Flesh-and-blood translators cost money, and there’s a shortage of qualified translators for certain languages. People don’t always or even primarily use Twitter to talk about politics or other weighty topics – there’s also a lot of mundane chatter on the network. There’s no point in having professionals spend their time translating what someone in Pakistan ate for breakfast this morning. Read more