Language and War

It is said that a poor translation of the Japanese Prime Minister’s response to an Allied ultimatum in 1945 contributed to the prolonging of World War II and the subsequent use of atomic weapons. The translation was technically passable, but contextually off.

In the Chief of Army’s commentary on the recently released Defence Strategic Review (DSR), he points to five key decisions to which the government has directed towards Army. Three of these involve fostering Australia’s relationship with our region and the world. In his video about the DSR, he stresses, ‘we must not forget that war is, and will continue to be, a human endeavour’. Language and culture are fundamental to human identity and relationships. If we are to fulfil our role as an Army, we need to be smart about understanding language and culture.

Why learn other languages in an era of Google Translate?

I (Captain Malcolm) once watched an interaction in Indonesia, occurring in Indonesian. This took place in a public setting, with others watching:

Person 1: Will you be coming to my seminar on Saturday?
Person 2: Oh of course, I’m very much looking forward to it.
Person 1: Great, I look forward to seeing you there.

With my basic language skills, I understood the words. The local that I was with later explained their interpretation of the conversation: Person 2 probably had no intention of attending the seminar, and Person 1 knew this, but both were satisfied with the interchange. I was incredulous, but the local explained that the point of the (unplanned) conversation was for Person 2 to give public support to Person 1 in the hearing of others. How did my local friend perceive this? By understanding the words, gestures, and inflections in the context of the (sub-)culture.

Language is bound up with human culture and can express important meanings and subtleties that cannot be fully captured by simply replacing the words or phrases of one language with equivalent words or phrases in another language.

We have all seen those hilarious Google Translate fails on the internet, and this is precisely why we should be very cautious when laying our trust in automation or Artificial Intelligence for translating and interpreting.

Learning a language is more than learning the linguistic features and memorising the equivalents, it also encompasses understanding of the history and culture that are embedded between the lines and the context to which the words are spoken. Without these understandings, things could easily get lost in translation.

For example, modern English has abandoned the formal/informal grammatical feature. In lieu of this, when speaking to strangers or people of higher prestige or status, we often add words like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in addition to the key message in order to elevate the level of formality and politeness. However, to be formal and polite in other languages, another form of ‘you’ might be used, or even another system of speech – the ‘honorifics’. In some cultures, the level of formality used in the language indicates the level of respect you have for the person you are talking to, so to best convey your attitude and intention and not offend the other person, you would hope that your translation device is smart enough to pick it up and decide on the appropriate grammar or form for you. However, as ideal as it sounds, this is something the current automatic translation technologies always fail to grasp.

An example from Mandarin

Using the aforementioned ‘you’ as a case study, in Chinese Mandarin there exist some subtleties when it comes to addressing people. An informative article on Babbel mentions that “a Chinese speaker might avoid using pronouns at all to refer to a respected person”; instead, the person’s title is used to address them.

In a military context, that means unfortunately we cannot take the easy route and call every superior a ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’, because the direct translations of these words in Chinese are only used in civilian settings, and the superior would most likely feel offended if you are not addressing them correctly. It is also customary to avoid using ‘你(nǐ; you)’ when speaking to an elder/more senior person, or a person of higher position.

For example, when you greet a colonel as a subordinate, you should say ‘上校好 (shàng xiào hǎo; Colonel hello)’ instead of the literal translation from ‘hello Colonel’ which is ‘你好上校 (nǐ hǎo shàng xiào’). Likewise, when expressing gratitude for this colonel as a subordinate, you would say ‘谢谢上校 (xiè xie shàng xiào; thanks Colonel)’ and omit the ‘you’ completely. In the case that you are speaking directly with this colonel and have to refer to him/her in your speech, the formal form of ‘您(nín’; you)’ should be used to show your respect and recognition of their seniority.

An example from Indonesian

Indonesian not only has different forms of the word ‘you’; it also has different forms of the word ‘we’. When you wish to include the person you’re speaking to (‘we [you and I] should see a movie’), you use ‘kita’; but when you wish to exclude the person you’re speaking to (‘we [my brother and I] are going to Bandung tomorrow’), you use ‘kami’. Automated translators can’t seem to get this right, perhaps because they don’t know who’s going to the movies or Bandung. These are trivial examples, but it’s not hard to imagine situations in which the inclusion or exclusion of the hearer could be politically critical.

What does this mean for Army?

In relevance to Army and our frequent engagement with regional partners, it is therefore crucial for us to communicate with each other with minimised misunderstandings. Army personnel at all levels should recognise that the difference between Australia and other countries does not merely exist on a linguistic level, but also on a cultural and perceptive level, and we could only facilitate optimal cooperation when we understand such differences and work towards agreed goals. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it – there is nothing to lose for communicating with cultural awareness and sensitivity.

Humans can be brilliant at using and interpreting language in sophisticated, nuanced, culturally-attuned ways. In an era in which propaganda and information warfare travels instantly across widespread social platforms, we need our relationships with partners and potential adversaries to be built on this sort of cultural and linguistic sensitivity. Here are some ‘so what’s for Army:

  • Take with a grain of salt media reports about public statements from other regional players. Seek culturally informed interpretation. (For example: what does that speaker in that culture mean by ‘self-defence’?).
  • By all means use automated/AI translators for provisional translations, and give them greatest weight for materials that are less context critical.
  • Use caution when reading translations of social media posts. Pause before passing these on to others: how confident are you that you’ve understood correctly?
  • Draw on the expertise of Defence linguists.