A Different Kind of Translator: The Work of Nisei Linguists

It’s always good to get a fresh perspective on familiar things – in this case, on those Government books we love. I’ve asked the summer interns in our office to select a publication that interests them and write about it. What they picked and wrote about is really interesting, and I think you’ll feel that way, too.

 Our first intern is Camille Turner, a rising junior at the University of Delaware.

The first time that I really began to grasp the severity of World War II was when I did a project on Pearl Harbor. Yet, even after years of learning about  the techniques and tactics utilized by all countries involved, and the toll it took on participants and non-participants alike, I had never heard of anything so charged  with personal conflict as the decisions made by second generation Japanese American (Nisei) soldiers.

Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service during World War II from the Army Center of Military History details the efforts of Nisei who were recruited by the U.S. Army as translators and interpreters. Trained in a secret school, these Nisei soldiers were placed in a unique position, determined to protect the country in which they were raised, while simultaneously embracing the Japanese culture they were taught to value and burdened by the knowledge that many of their family members and friends had been removed from their homes on the West Coast and placed in isolated camps by the country and Army they were serving. (Don’t be concerned if you haven’t heard about this group of nearly 6,000 soldiers: for many years, their work was a military secret, and no official history was published about them until 1994).

As this book explains, in a time of strained American and Japanese-American relations, the Nisei linguists helped to ease tensions and maintain communication between the two groups. Complete with maps and photographs documenting the training process, it follows the work of the linguists chronologically, including the upbringing of several officers, and their service up until the early occupation of Japan in February of 1946.

One of the remarkable aspects of this text is the objectivity of the author in relating the specific events the Nisei had to face, including the bombing of Pearl Harbor by their ancestral country. The author manages to detail respectfully the feelings of multiple groups of citizens in the United States through a multitude of controversial and painful incidents, including the strain on the Nisei officers as their loyalty was questioned continuously by the country they were working to defend against the country they were taught to cherish and respect.

This book is a must read for any World War II enthusiast and a great source of insight into a little-known chapter of military history. You can get a copy here, review it here, or find it in these libraries.

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