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Navajo or Choctaw

September 30, 2011

I am reading The Code Book by Simon Singh. He includes the stories of decoding the Rosetta Stone, and Linear B, as well as modern codes. When writing about the Navajo code talkers,he  explains,

Before training could begin, the Marine Corps had to overcome a problem that had plagued the only other code to have been based on a native American language. In Northern France during the First World War, Captain E. W. Horner of Company D, 141st Infantry, ordered that eight men from the Choctaw tribe be employed as radio operators. Obviously none of the enemy understood their language, so the Choctaw provided secure communications. However, this encryption system was fundamentally flawed because the Choctaw language had no equivalent for modern military jargon. A specific technical term in a message might therefore have to be translated into a vague Choctaw expression, with the risk that this could be misinterpreted by the receiver.

The same problem would have arisen with the Navajo language, but the Marine Corps planned to construct a lexicon of Navajo terms to replace otherwise untranslatable English words, thus removing any ambiguities. The trainees helped to compile the lexicon, tending to choose words describing the natural world to indicate specific military terms. Thus, the names of birds were used for planced, and fish for ships. Commanding officers became ‘war chiefs,” platoons were “mudclans,” fortifications turned into ” cave dwellings” and mortars were known as “guns and squat.”

Even though the complete lexicon contained 274 words, there was still the problem of translating less predictable words and the names of people and places. The solution was to devise an encoded phonetic alphabet for spelling out difficult words. For example, the word “Pacific” would be spelled out as “pig, ant, cat, ice, fox, ice, cat,” which would then be translated into navajo as bi-sodih, wol-la-chee, moasi, tkin, ma-e, tkin, moasi. The complete Navajo alphabet is given in Table 12. Within eight weeks, the trainee code talkers had learned the entire lexicon and alphabet, thus obviating the need for codebooks which might fall into enemy hands. For the Navajos, committing everything to memory was trivial because traditionally their language had no written script, so they were used to memorizing their folk stories and family histories. …

At the end of training, the Navajos were put to the test. Senders translated a series of messages from English into Navajo, transmitted them, and then receivers translated the messages back into English, using the memorized lexicon and alphabet when necessary. The results were word-perfect. page 195-196

Later the code had to be refined, with an increased lexicon and several values for each of the frequent letters of the English alphabet so that frequency analysis could not be used on the place names.

Here are two different attempts to set up a code using an Amerindian language. In the first case, it was not successful. In the case of Navajo, a lexicon of equivalent terms was developed. When we think about translating the bible from ancient languages into modern, this resembles the Choctaw scenario rather than the Navajo. We don’t have a list of equivalent terms that we know for sure is accurate. We can translate, but we cannot eliminate ambiguity, or create a code book. We don’t have the necessary knowledge. Using a translation of the bible today as if it were an accurate instruction book would be like receiving Choctaw encoded instructions from an officer.

Translating the bible is quite different from the tranlation of modern literature like that of Pamuk or Xinran, who both dialogue with their translators to refine the work. But we can’t actuallly ask the authors of the bible what certain terms mean, and we don’t have a list of equivalent terms.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 12:01 pm

    Readers may find this link interesting.

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