LOST IN TRANSLATION (TO PUT IT
© Theo Pavlidis
The View from the Field
In June 1958 I was posted to a battalion of the Corps
of Engineers based in Karabournaki, just outside the city of Salonica.
I had finished the Army Technical Services Reserve Officers School in
Patras where I had spent eight tough months with several of my classmates
from college. My
new base was near the sea and that made it rather pleasant even though
I had no chance to go to the beach. (Karabournaki means Black
Promontory in Turkish.) Until the Balkan war of 1912 the occupant
of the base was Ottoman cavalry. Now there were several Greek army units.
Besides the Engineers there was an artillery unit and a veterinary hospital
for mules. Mules were used in the Greek Army to carry supplies over mountainous
terrain. Occasionally, a mule would run loose and create a bit of excitement.
My specific assignment was with the mechanical repairs
unit where I was second in command under captain B. B had joined the Army
as a private in the 1920s and he had risen through the ranks. During World
War II he had served with the Greek troops in the Middle East that had
been formed from the remnants of the Greek army after the German invasion.
He was a nice person with a lot of folk wisdom and we got along very well.
The repair unit was responsible for maintaining the vehicles, road building,
and bridge building equipment of the battalion.
In 1958 the Cold War was at its height and Greece was
part of NATO. Salonica was less than 60 miles from the “Iron Curtain”,
so it had become a major military base for units that were to repulse
a possible Soviet invasion. If war came, we would be frontline troops.
The United States had a strong interest in the fighting capacities of
the Greek Army and as a result the Greek Army had been the recipient of
large amounts of American Army equipment (most of it World War II surplus).
However, the donations were in an awful state of repair, mainly because
the Greek soldiers had little familiarity with machinery. Most of the
“technicians” were from rural areas, where cars were a rarity. They had
been placed in the technical services rather than the infantry through
favoritism, typically because of the intervention of a local politician.
(I should point out that people who were truly well connected would go
the Navy or the Air Force.) On the other hand there were men who had been
mechanics in the Greek Merchant Marine but because they had delayed their
enlistment, they were assigned to digging ditches. Fortunately, the battalion
commander let me look for such people amongst the troops and transfer
them to the repair unit. After all, this meant that the equipment of the
battalion would be in better working order.
It turns out that the High Command of the Technical Services
had its own ideas on how to improve the maintenance of the equipment and
that was to translate the American Technical Manuals into Greek and distribute
them to the technician soldiers. Our unit had copies of some of the manuals
but they were kept under lock and key. Why? The manuals were written in
the official Greek language that was quite different from the common language
spoken by the soldiers. Even worse, most of the soldiers were barely literate
so they could hardly read. I tried to read some of the manuals and I found
them so poorly written that it was hard to find in them any information
that could be used. The repair unit was responsible for the books and
we did not want any to be lost, thus the safekeeping. When an inspector
was expected, the manuals would be taken out and distributed to the soldiers.
It was my job to match the manuals to the equipment a soldier was repairing.
We did not want the inspector to see someone working on a Jeep using a
manual for a 2-ton truck. (We used to joke that I also had to make sure
that the books were held right side up.) Another part of the preparation
for the inspection was to pour some machine oil on the floor and throw
the manuals down so they would be dirtied and appear used.
I had heard similar stories from my former classmates
who served in other units around Salonica. Apparently, the career officers,
who had come up through the ranks like captain B, had a cynical attitude
towards the higher ups. Whenever we received a document marked confidential
we would throw it in the stove to burn. This way we would never get in
trouble if someone found the document lying around.
One day I received through official mail a copy of an
American Technical Manual and I was asked to translate it. Apparently,
some one had noticed in my records that I was proficient in English and
they thought I could do the task. I had quite a busy schedule in the repair
unit and I did not want to devote my few free hours to an Army task, but
I managed to translate a chapter and send it back. A few months later
I received a notice that I was transferred to the Technical Services Translation
Office in the Army Headquarters in Athens. The transfer to Athens was
highly desirable and it seemed an appropriate reward for my translating
Pictures from my army service
The View from the Top
In April 1959 I reported to my new post. However, I was
not going to be a translator, but a technical editor supervising other
translators. The head of the office was a major, an easygoing type who
did not seem to take things too seriously. The translators were civilians,
most of them young women who had some knowledge of English but no technical
background whatsoever. (Yes, I ended up “going out” with two of them;
one during my service and another after I had left the army.) I was supposed
to take what they had written and make sure it was technically correct.
It was an impossible task but now I understood why the manuals we had
were so poorly written. Each manual had a section on destroying the equipment
(so it would not fall intact into the hands of the enemy) and we used
to joke that we need not translate the part. Maintaining the equipment
according to the earlier sections was certain to destroy it.
The head of the Translation Office reported to a colonel
who, in contrast to the major, was all fire and thunder. It was my luck
that the colonel would bypass the major and deal directly with me. He
assigned to me an additional duty: to go to the Army Printing Plant to
approve the galley proofs before the manuals were put into production.
To travel to the printing plant from the headquarters I would ride on
the sidecar of a motorcycle driven by a messenger soldier. I often wondered
what “important mission” people would think I was on as we made our way
through the city traffic.
The printing plant duty turned out to be quite pleasant.
Knowing from experience that no one was going to read the manuals, I was
quick to approve their printing and that made me popular with the staff
(all civilians). They told me that after I had finished I could go home,
and if the colonel called they would cover my absence.
One day an American liaison officer came to the translation
office and, in my minimal conversational English, I explained that the
manuals were translated into the official Greek idiom rather the spoken
language. He knew the difference between the two idioms and he was surprised
that the Greek Army would make such a poor decision. Apparently he spoke
to the colonel who, the next day, thundered to me: “What right did you
have to tell the American that we use the official language? I told him
you were crazy and did not know what you were talking about!”
From then on, the colonel would call me the first thing
in the morning and tell me to go to the printing office. He would shout
“Are you still here?” At first I thought he was anxious to push the production
of the manuals but later I realized that he wanted me out of the Headquarters
so I would not provide any more “leaks” to the Americans. Since the printing
office duty was light, my “mischief” turned out to my advantage. I am
sure the colonel wrote a poor evaluation for me but since I was anxious
to leave the army any way, it did not matter. I completed my two-year
enlistment period and was discharged in late September 1959.