Localizing propaganda in World War I

How much “official” translation was there and into how many languages in government departments and other power centers in the world before the League of Nations, the UN, SW and LW radio (the one-way global speech communication platform for the pre-digital generation) and finally the various modern institutions of global governance, made multilinguality a household word, as it were? Obviously it would have depended on your colonial spread.

During the 1800 to 1950 period, presumably France in its role as provider of Gallic clarté did little official translation into African languages (or Arabic), or any relevant Indian languages in its Chandernagore and Pondicherry outposts. One doubts that Germany did much in its short-lived Namibia, Cameroon and Togo colonies, nor the Brits in their African land grab. However, the administrative complexity of British Empire in a Brahmin-educated India raises more interesting questions about multilingual communication, and it would be good to have a thorough history of the linguistic relations between the colonizer (many of whose faithful Indian Civil Service henchman learnt local languages and legal systems to a high degree of proficiency, just as they had learnt the classics at school) and colonized (who have ended up learning various forms of local English in addition to their multiple languages).


Going further back to the Renaissance, diplomacy made use of Latin, French or other lingua franca, and nations usually tended as in the Spanish case in Latin America to extend the sway of their own language to the colonized (read Ivan Illich’s provocative Vernacular Values on all this). One imagines that the Vatican (or perhaps just the proselytizing Jesuits and other religious orders) did quite a bit of translating of religious texts and some official documents, even though Latin must have been a handy administrative esperanto for centuries Whether the Romans ever bothered to hire a 3rd century Visigoth, 2nd century Carthaginian or 0 CE Palestinian (presumably after Pontius Pilate had washed his hands, he wrote up his report in Latin) to localize Rome’s decrees would require research beyond the call of this posting.

What sparked this reflection was an item in the January 15th Times Literary Supplement (need to subscribe) by A.D. Harvey on the role of English writers such as John Buchan and Rudyard Kipling in the British ad hoc propaganda effort in the First World War once hostilities had broken out. I was struck by the amount of rapid translating going on to beam anti-Germany messages out to fence-sitters and neutrals. By June 1915, Wellington House (the propaganda admin center) had distributed “2.5 million books and pamphlets in 17 languages, as well as editions of the Bryce Report on German atrocities in 30 languages.” I calculate this report (written after the German invasion of Belgium in the autumn of 1914) to be about 30,000 words long, so it was only a three week job for a single translator, plus another three weeks, say, for typesetting and printing etc. But the chaps in charge – presumably unused to this sort of a multilingual workflow – were obviously capable of marshalling and managing translation resources (in Britain?) in war time.

Compared with the supposed language spread of old empire (and possibly the Bible translation agenda), 30 looks like a lot of languages for your average European administration to handle. Which were they? They would have at least included standard Western European, Scandinavian and Slavic languages (as well as Asian?) to reach that number. According to the same article, John (39 Steps) Buchan went to France and wrote a patriotic The Battle of the Somme: First Phase which was published in November 1916 and “quickly translated” into Danish, Dutch, Spanish and Swedish.

Any leads on “official” translation practice of this sort before say 1939 would be most welcome.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

Related Articles

Weekly Digest

Subscribe to stay updated