In Search of Military Translation Cultures

Translation and Interpreting in World War II in Finland

In Brief

Full title:
In Search of Military Translation Cultures: Translation and Interpreting in World War II in Finland with Specific Reference to Finnish, German and Russian

Site of research:
University of Eastern Finland, Faculty of Philosophy, School of Humanities, Foreign Languages and Translation Studies. 

Academy of Finland: January 2011 – December 2014.

Responsible project leader:
Pekka Kujamäki

In Search of Military Translation Cultures is a research project into translation and interpreting practices during the two Finnish military conflicts – the Winter War (1939–1940) and the Continuation War (1941–1944) – against the Soviet Union.

The basic point of departure is the assumption that language skills as well as translation and interpreting play a significant role in military encounters with the enemy or with brothers-in-arms: Wars are declared on and reported to other nations, and conditions of peace negotiated between the parties. Military manoeuvres are planned in headquarters (e.g. on the basis of intelligence reports), problems in logistics and maintenance of troops solved with local inhabitants, and – finally – prisoners captured and interrogated on the front and in the prisoner camps.

Around these communicative encounters mediation practices are developed that are to be described in the present project as translation cultures. The concept was coined by Eric Prunč in 1997 to denote a set of socially determined “norms, conventions, expectations and values” that constrain the translation and interpreting activities in a given society or institution. Through this definition, Prunč’s concept creates a link to official language mediation policies as well as to the personal agencies of those involved as interpreters and translators in the military operations on the Finnish-Russian front, in the headquarters or with troops of the Third Reich stationed in northern Finland. In addition to descriptions of translation cultures and translation events (“tasks”) in general, the project seeks to reconstruct translator and interpreter profiles with information on their ethnic background, education, language skills and training in interpreting and translation tasks. For this objective, Michael Cronin’s (2006) concepts of autonomous (military forces use their own professionals or otherwise linguistically versed people) vs. heteronymous translation/interpreting strategy (military forces have recourse to the services of the natives to interpret for them) are of central importance. Special attention is also paid to networks of interaction and the status of translators and interpreters in different social settings of military practice.

In the reconstruction of military translation cultures, the project draws on various research material: War novels are analysed as fictional representations of military translation and interpreting situations that provide – together with information extracted from biographies and academic writings on military history –  short-cuts to hypotheses on translation cultures and translators’ or interpreters’ identities. Additional important information is expected from “oral history”, i.e. from interviewees who experienced language mediation situations or themselves worked as translators and interpreters during World War II. The most significant research material, however, is to be obtained from archived records in Finnish, German and Russian national and military archives.


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