I first met Kristen Datta in a freshman seminar during January of 2015. We were both pretty interested in languages and were both considering pursuing a major in Linguistics. One thing that I immediately found fascinating about Kristen was her interest in learning both Japanese and German, a pair of languages that were completely foreign to me. As I was studying Portuguese at the time, another not-so-common language on campus, we quickly connected over our interest in languages and our struggles to understand the often painfully dense literature we were discussing in class.
In the three years that followed, I’ve had at least one class with Kristen every semester — honestly not that unusual of an occurrence in the Linguistics Department — and every semester I have learned a little bit more about her. For example, she comes from a family of science-minded individuals, but has branched out to pursue a dual major in Linguistics and German. I also found out that her grandmother was Japanese, which guided her interest in learning that language. And as I discovered just a couple months ago, Kristen is also doing an internship with a nonprofit called the World War II History Project that aims to discover and preserve the firsthand accounts of participants and survivors of World War II.
First off, could you describe the project that you’re working on?
So the project is for an organization called the World War II History Project. It covers interviews with a lot of different sorts of World War II veterans, but a decent number of them were German prisoners of war in the United States actually. So they were captured in North African and brought to the US as prisoners of war. We have these video interviews, but no transcripts – so I’ve been doing a lot of transcribing for sure. My supervisor is writing a history book on this, although I’m not sure about all of the details. So a lot of what I’ve been doing is mainly focused on these German prisoners of war.
How did you find out about this project and get involved?
It was actually through the German Department, you know those weekly emails about all the things going on in the department. Well, they had this list of internships and stuff so I sent in my application and did a Skype interview. And then, yeah, it worked out!
So this is clearly part of a larger project. Is this based primarily in the US or somewhere else?
Yeah it’s based mostly out of the US. My supervisor’s in Florida, I think. But some of the other people working on this are in Germany.
How much time do you put in per week?
During the summer I was doing a lot more, obviously. I usually did a few hours a day then, but recently I haven’t been working on it as much. Coursework and all that stuff kind of gets in the way, but I’m still working on it here and there when I can2
Of all of the things you’ve translated, what do you think is maybe the most interesting?
I know a decent amount about World War II history through my German studies and history classes in general. But it’s really interesting to have a perspective from the prisoners of war, especially the Africa campaign because that’s not a lot of what I know about. I guess also, it’s personally interesting to me to here about this as well because my grandmother was Japanese-American, and she was actually in internment here in the US…so kind of looking at the comparison of how Japanese-American citizens were treated in internment camps versus prisoners of war. It’s also interesting because these interviews
Can you tell me a little bit about the videos you’ve been working on?
The main guy whose interviews I’ve been working on, well he was an interpreter so he speaks both German and English very fluently. The only problem is that he switches back and forth between the languages throughout the interviews. You know, it’s kind of fun to see the ways he incorporates the languages and how he talk about specific things. Also, my military vocabulary has become a TON bigger.
Oh that’s interesting! Tell me a little more about that.
Yeah, the worst is definitely place names! So like I said, he was part of the Africa campaign which I’m not that familiar with. So I’m trying to use all these clues like ‘I know they’re in Tunisia, and this name sort of sounds like this so…?’ I usually end up Googling a name that I think I heard and look at maps, trying to see what things like cities and lakes and bays that they’ve referenced. But yeah, thankfully my supervisor knows the history of this way better than I do and she did all of the interviews, so she can give me a lot more information than I would have otherwise. Also, a lot of times they use the German names for locations, so I really have to backtrack and try to recreate the German pronunciation and spelling.
You’re a German major, right? Have you found that you linguistics background has helped you in this?
I’m mostly relying on my German honestly. I like to think that it helps, but one of the nice things about German, at least, is that the spelling is a little more understandable. The spelling and pronunciation aren’t exactly the same, but at least they’re close. If there’s a word I don’t know, I can usually just transcribe it how I think it’s spelled and then refine as I go.
You’ve probably listened to quite a few hours of footage at this point. Is there anything he’s said that particularly stuck out to you?
I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t really know in general. I think it’s also really interesting to hear how his work as a translator in the prisoner camps kind of affected how he interacted with both Americans and the German prisoners of war. After the war, he actually ended up living in the United States for quite a few years actually, so I think it’s kind of interesting to see how he went from being a prisoner of war to being a long-term resident of the country that captured him. He talks a lot about the fights that did break out or some times that they were mistreated by the guards, but overall, it is an interesting dynamic to look at both the good and the bad interactions and how that influenced his decision to stay in the United States.
-Interview by Anjali Alangaden