Lost in Translation

Frank Gibney, professor of politics at Pomona College, is president of the Pacific Basin Institute and author of "The Pacific Century" and other works on Asia.

When my children used to ask me, “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” my answer was terse and occupationally disappointing: “I spoke Japanese.” No daring fighter pilot. No inspiring platoon leader. No crack submarine commander.

Still, I did a lot in World War II. As a Navy intelligence officer, I interrogated Japanese prisoners of war. I elicited much military information, both tactical and strategic, and translated it. After August 1945, I spent more than a year in Japan doing liaison work, interpreting and translating U.S. occupation directives and policy. I was a small human bridge between Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s conquering army and a puzzled but receptive Japanese public.

I was not alone. Some 1,100 young Americans hurriedly learned Japanese at U.S. naval schools, while approximately 9,000 officers and men, most of them Japanese Americans, received Japanese language instruction from the U.S. Army. Language programs in both services were in place by November 1941, as relations with Japan neared a breaking point. By late 1942, when I joined up, a huge language-recruitment program was underway. The objective was to train a generation of bilingual communicators not merely for wartime intelligence but also for the occupation of Japan, being planned long before the war’s end.

A crash program it surely was. Army and Navy language specialists canvassed colleges looking for young Americans with Asian backgrounds (typically from oil-business or missionary families) or classics majors, the latter on the plausible ground that anyone foolish enough to spend their college education studying Latin and Greek could handle Japanese. Other recruiters enlisted young Japanese American volunteers from the internment camps into which their families had been unjustly confined. When I was sworn in as a yeoman second class, I had finished two years plus at Yale and could quote Plato ad infinitum. My only knowledge of Japan was derived from the daily scare headlines in the newspapers and from my recollection of the Mr. Moto detective stories in the Saturday Evening Post.


We learned about Japan in a hurry. After 14 months of reading, writing and speaking Japanese -- topped off by a few weeks’ study at the Advanced Naval Intelligence School (unfortunately, we missed the elementary course) -- we were on our own in the Pacific Theater trying to win the war. In the process, we learned a lot about the enemy’s way of life. Most of us would go on to help in the occupation and played key roles in its reform programs.

The Japanese had been propagandized and cut off from the rest of the world for almost two decades. They were fearful and upset in the backwash of total defeat. The presence of a few thousand Americans who spoke the language did much to ease the shock of occupation.

The sudden and peaceful cultural exchange also profoundly affected the occupiers. Some of us became journalists. John Rich joined NBC News. I became Time-Life Tokyo bureau chief. Marshall Green, Dick Sneider and Dave Osborn became distinguished ambassadors. Otis Cary, Donald Keene, Marius Jansen and Ted de Bary expanded postwar Japanese and Asian studies at universities. It’s no exaggeration to say that the wartime language-school graduates helped recast the old U.S. relationship with Japan into a new and permanent partnership. This was export democracy in action.

When plans for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq first surfaced, many of us worried abut the obvious shortage of qualified American Arabic speakers, as we had earlier worried about the too few proficient in Pushtu and Persian. In May 2002, I wrote Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to thank him for his help in honoring the surviving World War II Japanese American language teachers. I also asked him whether the government would consider an Arabic version of the wartime crash language programs. Six months later, I got an answer from Assistant Secretary Peter W. Rodman. He confidently assured me that programs had long been in place (well before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks) to facilitate university instruction in “less widely taught languages and cultures,” Islamic included. So much for a crash program.

A look at the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan today tells a vastly different story. Estimates vary, but everyone agrees that very few of the more than 130,000 U.S. soldiers on duty in Iraq are in any sense Arabic-speaking, far fewer certainly than the 850 originally planned. There is a similar shortage of Iraqi Americans working with the U.S.-led occupation. Senior U.S. administrators in Iraq are frantically seeking more. Yet according to a 2002 General Accounting Office report, almost half the Defense Department positions for speakers of difficult languages (Korean, Chinese, Persian and Russian, along with Arabic) still remained unfilled.

The State Department has barely 40 competent Arabists -- not all of them are in Iraq -- and perhaps 50 learning the language. Other agencies, notably the FBI, are scurrying for Arabic-speaking recruits. But supplying them is not easy. A minimum of 18 months is needed to acquire a basic knowledge of this highly difficult language. Moreover, to be effective as an interpreter/translator in what is becoming a long-term occupation of Iraq, students should also learn Arab and Islamic history and customs. All this takes time, at least two years.

As things now stand in Iraq, occupation forces rely on a patchwork of outsourcing contracts with various private translation agencies, local Iraqis who speak English (beware of the superficially smiling interpreter) and, worst of all, machine translators capable (one hopes) of repeating preselected English phrases in Arabic, or vice versa. There is nothing remotely resembling the corps of translators and interpreters we had in World War II. Small wonder there are daily collisions and firefights between Americans and Iraqis who do not understand what the other is saying.

Few people in Iraq speak English. Fewer remotely comprehend the Anglo-Saxon concepts of law and democratic governance. To transform Iraq into a bastion of democracy in the Middle East, as President Bush and his ambitious neocon retainers have resolved to do, would require a mammoth job of cultural and political translation. (By comparison, democratizing the failed nation-states of Japan and Germany a half-century ago seems easy.) For starters, we might have trained a new generation of Arabic speakers to explain our unfamiliar words and concepts in a language the locals in Baghdad could understand.

With our occupation forces on the ground and under fire, it is late -- very late -- to begin.