In the interpreting industry, remote interpreting is typically thought of as a modern phenomenon. Additionally, even long-term players in the industry consider this form of interpreting to be primarily used by businesses who deal extensively internationally or by specialized organizations such as the United Nations. However, unbeknownst to many, telephone interpreting played a critical part in helping the United States defeat Japanese forces in World War II.
Origins of Remote Interpreting in World War I
Remote interpreting services grew during World War I out of military necessity. During this first global conflict, the United States needed to invent a secret way of communicating in order to transmit messages on the battlefield. Therefore, the U.S. Army recruited members of Native American tribes, such as the Choctaw, to serve as crucial messengers during the later stages of the war. Using the languages of their tribes, these messengers helped commanders coordinate strategy in a way that the Germans could not decipher, as the Choctaw language was spoken by few people outside of the tribe at the time. While this method was hardly used during World War I, it demonstrated the fact that a Native American telephone interpreter service could be used to securely transfer messages in wartime, a key advantage that the Allies would put to more effective use in World War II
Remote Interpreting and the Navajo Tribe
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entrance into World War II, the U.S. government went to great lengths to recruit members of the Navajo tribe to transmit messages on the frontlines. These efforts were encouraged by Phillip Johnston, a World War I soldier who recognized the effectiveness of using native languages as a means of transmitting encrypted messages. The recruits underwent intensive training in radio operation and cryptography. According to the native-inspired code, Navajo words served as representations of military hardware or vehicles. For instance, the Navajo word for turtle (“wakaree’e”) signified “tank” according to the rules of the code.
Remote Interpreting in Combat
This newly-created unit of Navajo code talkers went on to serve with distinction in the Pacific Theater of the war. Because commanders needed real-time updates on troop movements, Navajo code talkers went into combat with their comrades, working in two-man radio teams. Many of them participated in the brutal Battle of the Iwo Jima in 1945 and went ashore with the Marines there. Considering the fact that interpreting under normal conditions is a difficult undertaking, interpreting the Navajo language for their non-Navajo speaking counterparts must have been challenging for the code talkers. Some members of the unit were even captured by the enemy and forced to survive in prisoner-of-war camps for the rest of the war. The origins of remote interpreting and the related fields of telephone interpreting, video remote interpreting, and video relay interpreting can be found in the crucible of World War II.
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