Academy of Finland
Translation and Interpreting in World War II in Finland
“The translator’s task has been misunderstood, ridiculed, belittled and ignored, but never is it as crucial or dangerous – at times, both – as in times of war and conflict. In Search of Military Translation Cultures, a multi-phase project headed by Professor Pekka Kujamäki of the University of Eastern Finland, is exploring this task as well as acts of translation and interpreting under duress. It is a topic I had never considered before, coming from a country (the United States) that has not seen domestic war during my lifetime. But the act of comprehending a message in one language and conveying it in another, though already fraught with conditions that can skew, alter and corrupt the transfer of thought, becomes even more uncertain and suspect under the intense emotional, political and social pressures created in military situations. Already before hearing the first paper, I was made conscious of how military conflict and multi-lingualism is never very far from people’s consciousness here, given Finland’s history.
My thoughts about the workshop on December 13, 2012 are necessarily impressionistic; I was unable to attend all the papers. (This is, sadly, often the flip side of hosting a conference – when you travel to one, you can temporarily leave instruction and other duties behind. This is not the case when you attend a conference at your home institution.) I offer a few reflections on the ones that I did have the privilege to hear.
Franziska Heimburger’s presentation on supplying interpreters to the Allied coalition during World War I brought up issues of allegiance and status that I had never pondered. Whose side are interpreters on? What uniforms or other identifying apparel should they wear? Ms. Heimburger’s lecture bore witness to considerable archival research and years of study, and it made me want to know more about a subject that, to be honest, I had never considered at all.
Michaela Wolf spoke about methodological tools in translation studies and their potential limitations in shaping (what we understand about) military translation cultures. What resonated with me best was her explication of histoire croisée (Werner & Zimmermann), in which multiple perspectives of historical events are interwoven. The relationship of such a method to translation/transnational studies is clearly a fruitful one. Multiple perspectives are de facto and omnipresent in the world of translation and interpretation; I imagine this is amplified in the case in military translation, where historical contexts collide in very real ways.
Pekka Kujamäki himself presented the last paper, which explored the ‘Niila’ case. As I remember it, this was an instance in which a warped translation of an opinion piece in a newspaper served the aims of the Nazi authorities in Rovaniemi, Finland. Kujamäki likened his archival work on this case – fraught as it is with misinformation, miscommunication and mistrust — to putting together the pieces of a jigsaw, and I was reminded of why we conduct research. It’s those ‘detective moments’ in which we work with original material and notice patterns that our hearts begin to race and we realize we are on the threshold of something that should be shared with a broader public because the implications can be so compelling. In a case in which, as Kujamäki expressed it so succinctly, “target text suppresses source text”, this reverse flow of power was laid bare, and it made me consider my usual, nearly subconscious stance when translating – that the source text is stationary, the target text fluid and present in several versions.
Military translation is a topic I had never considered before, but after learning about the project In Search of Military Translation Cultures and hearing some very fine reports on its progress, I will be looking over these scholars’ shoulders as they lay the next pieces of the jigsaw.
University Lecturer, English and Translation
University of Eastern Finland