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War translators were probably braver than certified translators!

Under the title Languages between Two Fires - Interpreters in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Professor Jesús Baigorri Jalón allows us to discover something of the world of the people who worked as interpreters during the Spanish Civil War. The prologue by Enrique Moradiellos endorses the historiographic work of the man who worked as an interpreter at the UN between 1989 and 1999 and is internationally recognised as an expert and a good connoisseur of the history of interpretation and translation. With a number of pioneering works in this field, Baigorri's work is an essential reference for anyone who wants to discover this subject.

Before delving into the role that interpretation played in the Civil War, the master gives us a master class on what linguistic mediation is and what its importance is throughout history; which aspects are repeated throughout its development and which are the ones that make its reconstruction more difficult, such as "the silence of the sources with respect to the oral and written links that are usually absent from documents and chronicles".

The author goes from Herodotus to the dragomans of Constantinople, from the alpha-queques to Umberto Eco to Augusto Monterroso and his dinosaur, all in order to teach us that interpretation has its history and relevance and that the work of linguistic intermediaries is essential in an infinite number of events and situations, such as the negotiations that led to the release of the most illustrious of our writers from the prison of Algiers, or the purely humanitarian aspects of health care.

The importance of interpretation for the present is demonstrated by the words of Umberto Eco, "the language of Europe is translation". Its meaning is evident, among other examples, in the mediating work of Malinche, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, in the Language Office created by Charles V of Spain to manage diplomatic relations and in the laws of the Indies, with specific regulations regarding the use of interpreters to mediate with the inhabitants of the lands discovered in America. During the First World War, thousands of interpreters were trained by the French Army in order to understand the British and American allies. But interpretation also takes on a high level of significance in times of peace, for example in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference, from which the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations emerged, and some time later in the Nuremberg process.

Later on, and already in full analytical mode, Baigorri dissects the characteristics of the interpreter with a fine scalpel. He reconstructs the memory and identity of a profession by pointing out aspects that inform how an interpreter is selected, what clothing and identifying accessories he uses, the conditions of his work and the risks he is exposed to, as well as the framing and instruction among many other contexts in which his work was carried out. Polyglot nurses who attend to and comfort the soldiers and who sometimes accompany them in their own language to the difficult passage of death. Or comrades who read and write love letters between comrades and girlfriends they met in fleeting encounters. These reflections also show the empathy that the author brings when dealing with such sensitive contexts.

Although many of the interpreters arrived within their units, others were selected spontaneously, based on the imperative need for intermediation and the natural linguistic skills perceived in the interpreter along with a proven ideological loyalty to the military authority on which they depended. The interpreters of the International Brigades were sometimes identified by cloth bracelets which, in the case of the Condor Legion, were badges worn on the cap or on the upper pocket of the uniform.

This new work by Baigorri, aimed at both historians and scholars of interpretation and translation, has combined the objectives and methods of both disciplines well. It offers a series of reflections that, as he himself indicates, are aimed at making the reader aware of the fiction that lies behind an "apparent universal intercommunicability transmitted by the media", making it clear that communication between those who do not share the same code is not possible unless there is a linguistic mediator to help them.

It is a work that makes visible an occupation and names that are marginal in war and which have hardly been shown in military historiography, despite the high strategic value that knowledge of the enemy's language represents since, as the author says, "languages are one more weapon in war situations". The book shows how without the work of understanding that interpretation entails and that was carried out by hundreds of people, men and women, the Spanish Civil War would not have been the same. The military leaders and advisors of both sides, as well as middle management and troops, saw in their own experiences and needs the usefulness of language interpretation to develop both front and rear tasks. The arrival of the interpreters also meant a cultural shock for many Spaniards who were not used to the degree of development of other societies. Some military commanders found it difficult to understand that there could be married women with children volunteering in the Spanish war.

The book also aims to highlight the pioneering work of women interpreters and their value in wartime, traditionally that of men, highlighting work such as that of the Frenchwoman Teresa Debernardi, who reached the rank of ensign in July 1937, or the work of Russian women interpreters, equal in number to their male counterparts, who were involved not only in language mediation but were multi-faceted agents who also carried out spying tasks, "their own and those of others", for propaganda purposes, continuously broadcasting messages of the achievements of the October Revolution of 1917. They moved in an environment characterised by loneliness and self-effort, in which they almost never worked with their compatriots, despite the fact that many of them knew each other because they had studied together, since they were assigned to different battalions and companies.

To get an idea of the importance of language and communication and therefore of the tasks of the interpreters, we can go to Fuster Ruiz, who speaks of the biblical curse of Babel as one of the greatest sufferings of the International Brigades: "They were in a country they did not know, where many of them shed their blood daily, unable to communicate with most of the friends they shared their days with, and much less able to understand or comprehend those they considered their enemies, who were out there in front of them".

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