Shooting the Messenger: Interpreters in Conflict Zones & the Case of Japanese Interpreters in WW II

Three distinct groups of interpreters were present at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East: interpreters for the court, those called as witnesses, and others who were defendants.

The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-1948). [Photo via Wikipedia, public domain]

Conference interpreters know that the real start of simultaneous interpreting was at the Nuremberg trials in 1945. Until then consecutive interpreting was the modus operandi. However, it became obvious soon after the Allies created the International Military Tribunal after World War II that consecutive was not going to be suitable; the Tribunal was charged with an explicit mission: "fair and expeditious trials" of accused Nazi war criminals.[1] In other words, the trials required a faster technique to help expedite the procedures. Transmitting multiple languages in real time without suitable technology was certainly a challenge. With the help of IBM, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Leon Dostert sorted out the technology issue by developing the microphones and headsets needed to clearly transmit the trial combination of languages. 

But there remained the issue of finding the human beings who could listen and speak at the same time. Monitors were dispatched to look for new talent. Interpreters were tested for language skills in their home countries then sent to Nuremberg to be tested for simultaneous. Patricia vander Elst, Siegfried Ramler, Virginia von Schon and Ernest Peter Uiberall were among those chosen for this tremendous task. Many continued to work as interpreters after the trials, and were the veritable pioneers of today’s simultaneous interpreting. That is why it came as a shock to me to learn that in the post-war Japanese war crimes trials many interpreter colleagues in Asia were prosecuted.

In January 2018, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr Kayoko Takeda, Professor of Translation and Interpreting Studies at the College of Intercultural Communication at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Dr Takeda wrote her PhD dissertation on socio-political aspects of interpreting at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (1946-1948). One of her special interests is the case of interpreters who worked with the Japanese army during World War II and what became of them during the Japanese war crime trials.

                     Accused war criminals in the prisoners box, May 14,1946

She started the lecture by pointing out that three distinct groups of interpreters were involved in the trials: those working as interpreters for the court, those called as witnesses, and others who were defendants. They included Taiwanese, Korean, and American and Canadian Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans or Japanese Canadians). In the case of the latter, they had dual nationality and it was rather common for families to send their children to Japan for their education. Some of them joined the Japanese army out of their own free will while others were stranded in Japan due to the onset of war and conscripted as interpreters.

There are also Nisei who worked with the Allies. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order that resulted in the forced relocation of nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, most of them residents of the west coast, to internment camps. As the US army became acutely aware of the great need of Nisei linguists for military intelligence, more than 6,000 of them, including hundreds from the camps, were recruited and received six months of rigorous training at the Military Intelligence Service Language School. They were then sent to serve in the Allied Translator and Interpreter Service, and in other units as translators, interpreters, interrogators or code breakers.[2]

As was the case of the prosecution of Nazi leaders in Nuremberg, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal prosecuted military and political leaders in war-time Japan. There were, however, trials held in other parts of Asia where less senior perpetrators of war crimes were tried. Interpreters were among the defendants in those trials. The table shows the number of trials that each of the Allied countries held and how many interpreters were convicted and even executed.

Presiding Country

Interpreters Prosecuted

Interpreters Convicted

Interpreters Executed













The Netherlands




The Philippines
















In Yokohama, the U.S. Army conducted more than 300 war-crimes trials through 1948. More than 90% involved prisoner mistreatment. American prosecutors focused on Ofuna, a secret interrogation camp run by the Japanese Imperial Navy for pilots and other high value prisoners. “Using affidavits and testimony from former prisoners, prosecutors depicted a grim world where men were broken through physical and psychological cruelty.”[3]

It is no wonder than in many trials, witness statements by former prisoners of war were used to convict perpetrators, including interpreters who were in close contact with the victims as they interpreted for their superiors. For the victims, they were speaking the language of evil. They rendered the oppressive and tyrannical orders of the occupier in the victims’ languages, which left a lasting impression. This could be seen very clearly in the words of Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese army. His story featured in the book and movie ‘The Railway Man’. He said that he hated the interpreter more than the Kempeitai (military police) officer who tortured him because ‘it was his voice that grated on and that would give [him] no rest’. It is clear that to the victims, the interpreters were seen as the face and voice of the oppressor and not as a neutral messenger.

In addition, interpreters in occupied areas – including areas occupied by Japan in WWII – were very visible. Since they could speak the language of the occupier, they were better able to communicate with the occupier than other locals. The occupier might choose to use them as propaganda material to demonstrate successful cases of local cooperation. In such cases the interpreters had no choice with regard to their visibility which had fatal consequences for some of them,[4] including some deaths.

One may wonder why these interpreters were prosecuted and in some cases executed while they were only doing their job. This was exactly one of the main arguments the interpreters used when defending themselves. Add to this that they could not afford to refuse the orders of their superiors; they would have faced martial courts had they done so. Some interpreters said they tried to protect prisoners of war they were interpreting for by slapping them during the interrogation to prevent much harsher assaults by the guards.

I could immediately see similarities between the perception of interpreters as collaborators and traitors post WWII and that of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters nowadays. Their work for western armies stigmatised them as traitors in the eyes of some local groups. As a result, many of them and their families faced threats, abduction and even death.

Professor Takeda raised some valid points that are relevant to interpreters in conflict zones today. Two in particular stand out:

  • Under the military code of absolute obedience to orders of superiors, can interpreters refuse to be part of unlawful acts such as torturing a prisoner of war to obtain information?
  • What is the interpreter’s role and code of conduct in conflict zones?

A good start in looking at these issues is the “Conflict Zone Field Guide for Civilian Translators/Interpreters and Users of Their Services”, produced by the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), the International Federation of Translators (FIT), and Red T. That document outlines the basic rights, responsibilities, and practices those organisations recommend to translators, interpreters and users of their services. It applies to translators and interpreters serving as field linguists for the armed forces, journalists, NGOs, and other organizations in conflict zones. Answers to these questions could help start the process of defining the interpreter’s role in conflict zones so that the messenger no longer faces the risk of getting shot.


[1] Gaiba, F. (1998). The origins of simultaneous interpretation: The Nuremberg trial. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

[2] Takeda, K. (2007, January). Nisei linguists during WWII and the occupation of Japan. The ATA Chronicle. doi:

[3] Bravin, J. (2005, April 7). What War Captives Faced In Japanese Prison Camps, And How U.S. Responded. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved April 6, 2018, from

[4] Takeda, K. (2014). The Visibility of Collaborators: Snapshots of Wartime and Post-war Interpreters (A. Fernandez-Ocampo & M. Wolf, Eds.). In Framing the Interpreter: Towards a Visual Perspective. London and New York: Routledge.

An earlier version of this article was published in the ITI Bulletin.

Maha El-Metwally is a freelance conference interpreter, member of AIIC and a member of the Board of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI).

Recommended citation format:
Maha EL-METWALLY. "Shooting the Messenger: Interpreters in Conflict Zones & the Case of Japanese Interpreters in WW II". May 18, 2018. Accessed June 6, 2020. <>.