Saturday, July 17, 2010
LOST IN TRANSLATION
The View from the Field
In June 1958 I was posted in a Battalion of Engineers based just outside the city of Thessalonica. I had just finished the Army Technical Services Reserve Officers School in Patras. My specific assignment was with the mechanical repairs unit where I was second in command under captain B. B had joined the Army as a private in the 1920s and he had risen through the ranks. He was a nice person with a lot of folk wisdom and we got along very well.
The Greek Army had been the recipient of large amounts of American Army equipment (most of it World War II surplus). However, the donations were in an awful state of repair, mainly because the Greek soldiers had little familiarity with machinery. To make matters worse, postings in the repair unit were sought after and several of the “technicians” were from rural areas. They had been assigned to the technical services though favoritism. On the other hand there were men who had been mechanics in the Greek Merchant Marine but because they had delayed their enlistment, they were assigned to digging ditches. Fortunately, the battalion commander let me look for such people amongst the troops and transfer them to the repair unit. After all this meant that the equipment of the battalion will be in better working order.
It turns out that the High Command of the Technical Services had its own ideas on how to improve the maintenance of the equipment. The idea was to translate the American Technical Manuals into Greek and distribute them to the technician soldiers. Our unit had indeed copies of some but they were kept under lock and key. Why? The manuals were written in the official Greek language that was quite different from the common language spoken by the soldiers. Furthermore most of the soldiers were barely literate so books were not the way to train them. I tried to read some of the manuals and I found them so poorly written that it was hard to find in them any information that could be used.
Because the repair unit was responsible for the books, we did not want any to be lost, thus the safekeeping. When an inspector was expected, the books would be taken out and distributed to the soldiers. It was my job to match the books to the equipment a soldier was repairing. We did not want the inspector to see someone working on a Jeep to have a manual for a 2-ton truck. (We used to joke that I had also to make sure that the books were held right side up.) Another part of the preparation for the inspection was to pour some machine oil on the floor and throw the manuals down so they would be dirtied and appear used.
One day I received through official mail a copy of an American Technical Manual and I was asked to translate it. Apparently, some one had noticed in my records that I was proficient in English and they thought I could do the task. I had quite a busy schedule in the repair unit and I did not want to devote my few free hours to an Army task, but I managed to translate a chapter and sent it back. A few months later I received a notice that I was transferred to the Technical Services Translation Office in the Army Headquarters in Athens. The transfer to Athens was highly desirable and it seemed an appropriate reward for my translating efforts.
The View from the Top
In April 1959 I reported to my new post. However, I was not going to be a translator, but a technical editor supervising other translators. The head of the office was a major, an easygoing type who did not seem to take things too seriously. The translators were civilians, most of them young women who had some knowledge of English but no technical background whatsoever. I was supposed to take what they had written and make sure it was technically correct. It was an impossible task but now I understood why the manuals we had were so poorly written. There was a joke going around that the section that each manual had on destroying the equipment (so it would not fall intact into the hands of the enemy) did not have to be translated. Maintaining the equipment according to the earlier sections was certain to destroy it.
The head of the Translation Office reported to a colonel who, in contrast to the major, was all fire and thunder. It was my luck that the colonel would bypass the major and deal directly with me. He assigned to me an additional duty: to go to the Army Printing Plant to approved the galley proofs before the manuals were put into production. To travel to the Printing Plant from the Headquarters I would ride on the sidecar of a motorcycle driven by a messenger soldier. I often wondered what “important mission” people would think I was on as we made our way through the city traffic.
It turn out that the printing plant duty was a plum. Knowing that no one was going to read the manuals, I was quick to approve their printing and that made me popular with the staff (all civilians). They told me that after I had finished I could go home, and if the colonel called they would cover my absence.
I should have left things alone but one day an American officer came to the translation office and, in my minimal conversational English, I explained that the manuals were translated using the official Greek idiom rather the spoken language. He knew the difference between the top idioms and he was horrified. Apparently he spoke to the colonel who, the next day, thundered to me: “What right you have to tell the American that we use the official language. I told him you were crazy and did not know what you were talking about!”
From then on, he would call me the first thing in the morning and told me to go to the printing office. He would shout “Are you still here?” At first I thought he was anxious to push the production of the manuals but later I realized that he wanted me out of the Headquarters so I would not provide any more “leaks” to the Americans. Since the Printing Office duty was light, my “mischief” turned out to my advantage. I am sure the colonel wrote a poor evaluation for me but since I was anxious to leave the army, it did not matter. I finished my two-year enlistment period and I was discharged in late September 1959.
Anytime I read in the newspapers about American efforts to organize the army of some country my Greek Army experience comes to mind. I wonder if the Iraqi army manuals are in classical Arabic. After all both Iraq and Greece used to be part of the Ottoman Empire so the concept of an official language incomprehensible by the plebeians should be equally familiar to both.