I recently visited Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes. Walking through the makeshift wooden huts inspired me with admiration and respect for those who worked there during the Second World War. It also made me realise how important the role of linguists and translators was in breaking the code. I hadn’t previously made the connection, as I am sure neither had many of you, that deciphering Axis's communications involved recruiting linguists and translators.
Let’s backtrack a bit…
Because of its location, Bletchley Park was chosen to be the home of the code breakers. Bletchley is roughly halfway between Oxford and Cambridge (many were recruited from there), and it's connected to the main railway line between London and Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.
In 1939 the code breakers began their work.
Enigma – from the Ancient Greek noun αἴνιγμα (enigma), meaning 'riddle', and the verb αἰνίσσομαι (enissomai), meaning 'speaking in riddles' – was firstly broken in 1932 by the Polish intelligence, when the encoding machine was undergoing trials in Germany.
With Poland's invasion imminent, Poles decided to inform the British asking for help with breaking Enigma once again. This meant Polish intelligence officers started arriving in Bletchley.
Early in 1940, the code was broken and messages could be deciphered.
Here’s the step by step approach followed daily at Bletchley Park:
Intercept your enemies’ radio signals
Work out how the messages have been encrypted
Send on the top-secret intelligence you’ve uncovered
The messages deciphered at Bletchley Park were in many languages, not just in German. The linguists working at Bletchley Park were also translating French, Italian, and Japanese communications into English, to name a few of the languages.
The exhibition at Bletchley Park mentions that "People fluent in German and other European Languages were in high demand and many Codebreakers trained in Japanese were sent abroad to work on Japanese codes and ciphers much closer to the front line."
F.L Peter Lucas, Head of Hut 3, Research Section, said "It was not a matter of receiving straightforward messages and translating them; it was…a matter of receiving material which was nearly always more or less imperfect, incomplete, rarely intelligible with ease and at its worst, totally meaningless even to the best German scholar."
At the end of my visit, it became obvious that diversity played a key role in the success of Bletchley Park. Linguists, translators, mathematicians, technicians, men, women, French, Polish, British, German-speaking, Japanese-speaking, Italian-speaking, of all ages and backgrounds came together to enhance communication and promote peace. It is estimated that breaking Enigma contributed to the war ending two years early, saving millions of lives.
Can you imagine being a history-making linguist?
Can you consider what consequences a tiny translation mistake could have had for humanity?
Vasiliki is a professional translator from English and French into Greek and from Greek into English. She runs Greek to Me Translations from Oxford, UK. She is a Member of the CIoL and the ITI and she is registered the Greek Embassy. She specialises in legal, marketing, psychometrics and food content. Her mission is to help businesses and private individuals reach their goals through the power of words. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org