- Surviving in Violent Conflicts: Chinese Interpreters in the Second Sino-Japanese War 1931–1945 by Ting Guo
In most conflicts there is a linguistic disjuncture between the invading army and the invaded country. In the case of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese project in China required communication with the Chinese people. Japanese soldiers, bureaucrats, educators, journalists, and businessmen operated in the Chinese theater—although obviously the key tension point was with Japanese military operations. Interpreters played an essential role in this conflict, and yet they are rarely discussed in the scholarly literature even in Chinese.
We are fortunate therefore to have this new study by Ting Guo, which focuses on interpreters in all segments of the conflict in China. Guo chooses to cast a wide net, starting in 1931 rather than with the outbreak of the war itself in 1937. She also includes chapters on the use of interpreters by the Kuomintang (KMT), Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Japanese, notwithstanding the strong asymmetry in the role they played for each. As the invaders, the Japanese needed far more interpreters than the Chinese players, and because Japan lost the war those who worked with it were tainted by the label hanjian (traitor). While the author does not ignore such issues, she seeks a broader view of the role and status of the interpreter. The result is an important study that advances our understanding of this neglected topic.
Guo suggests that one major factor in the lack of scholarly treatment of the subject in Western and even Chinese publications is the paucity of readily available sources. She has done a prodigious job of scouring the archives in China and Taiwan in search of material. The municipal archives of Beijing, Chongqing, Nanjing, Qingdao, and [End Page 334] Shanghai provide some of the richest sources, as do the provincial archives in Hunan and the US National Archives. But in all cases the author had to dig deep—uncovering, for example, court cases in Beijing about fake Chinese interpreters who fleeced Chinese frightened by their claim to work for the Japanese military. In the Hunan Archives she finds several yearbooks from a Kuomintang school for interpreters. Through this wide variety of sources the author develops a portrait of wartime interpreters.
The author devotes one chapter to the use of interpreters by the Kuomintang government beginning in 1931. She notes that the KMT really had limited use for Japanese-Chinese interpreters or translators in the war itself, except in some diplomatic negotiations, especially in the 1930s, and in intelligence gathering during the war. In any event it seemed to have an adequate supply for these purposes; a significant number of Chinese had studied in Japan, including paramount leader Chiang Kai-shek himself. One might add that a number of key leaders also had Japanese wives or mistresses.
Where the Kuomintang actually needed interpreters the most was to deal with its allies. In the 1930s, for instance, China's major military assistance came from Germany, the members of whose mission advised Chinese troops and provided equipment and training. When Hitler terminated this mission in 1938 the Soviet Union became the major foreign ally. The Chiang government was constantly concerned about the political loyalty of its interpreters, but particularly when dealing with the Soviets. The worry was that interpreters might have studied in the Soviet Union and thus be sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party. In addition, the KMT required interpreters to spy on the Soviets and report back on their activities.
The biggest demand for interpreters in the war was for English speakers to translate for the Americans, particularly later as preparations were made for the Burma Campaign. At the highest level, the Kuomintang government had a number of individuals fluent in English including, mostly famously, Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong Mei-ling), who translated for her husband in Cairo when he met with Roosevelt and Churchill. American personnel worked with Chinese troops in both India and southwest China. Other Americans trained Chinese to...