This innocuous term is best described or seen as a profession to help two parties of different worlds communicate and understand each other. When world leaders met, they have translators sitting between them to translate the messages expressed in a foreign tongue to be comprehensible by both parties. We have translators between those who can hear and speak with those who can’t. We have tangkees to translate the messages of the spirits to the human beans. We even have horse whisperers who speak to the horses.
I met this grand old man, in his eighties, who told me that he was a translator in his youth. He was a Malaysian then. He worked for the British colonial govt in a division called the Special Branch. In those days, Communism was a hot issue and Communists were fighting a war of liberation from the British Occupation.
In his expressive mood, to share a bit of his mysterious past, a bit of his past glory, he told his stories to eager listeners. He was quite a bit shot among the local employees of the British though he was just a small pawn in the colonial master’s bigger game plan.
He was anything but a translator. He was a key figure in helping the British to round up the Communists in the community. He conducted raids, arrested suspects, interrogated and beating them up to extract confessions. He did not say how many died because of him. I suspect there were blood in his hands.
He was a local Chinese in a small Malaysian town. And those arrested and beaten up were mostly local Chinese. Did he feel that he had betrayed his community? The question did not disturb him. As a non politicised youth, whose intellect had not been activated with politics, with the rights and wrongs of political ideologies and colonialism, to him, he was just an employee doing his job and getting paid for it.
Yes, he was arresting the people in his hometown, some he knew well, but never had his conscience prick him. He has never seen his translator job as a betrayal of his own people. The British were very successful in creating a small group of local elite who grew, prospered through association with them. Some were flown to London to be knighted. The local elite were proud to be mingling with their colonial masters.
In his twilight years, there is still this little pride in his eyes when he spoke fondly of his days in the Special Branch. I bet he must have kept a few photos of himself in full British uniform, and with his little revolver in his belt. No one ever call him a traitor. He led a good life, very rich in his own ways.
A translator is a translator is a translator.