Serving as translators and interpreters in a conflict zone is an extraordinary career choice for a linguist. It’s not easy to work in a high-risk environment and facilitate interaction while being vulnerable to attacks.
The stress, threats and the constant fear of death, minus the protection offered to combatants, can be extremely challenging! Translators and interpreters working in conflict zones place their lives at risk and there are many instances where they have been kidnapped, threatened, tortured or killed!
In a globalized society, we cannot function without translators and interpreters. More so, in war zones where they assist as language bridges transcending conflict. In this article, let’s discuss these unsung heroes of war and increase the visibility of their contribution.
Role Of Translators and Interpreters in Conflict Zones
The term “conflict zone” typically refers to a war zone and is usually across borders. Therefore, it’s a multilingual and multicultural environment where clear and honest communication is vital.
Translators and interpreters operating in such situations are usually contracted by the army, the UN peacekeeping forces, ministries of foreign affairs of different governments, humanitarian NGOs and journalists.
It requires a lot of courage, sensitivity and sensibility to spend your day helping troops or refugees to communicate, knowing fully well that each word you interpret could impact in a subtle yet hugely significant way.
Related Post: 5 Interpreters Who Helped Change the World Forever
How Do Translators and Interpreters Help?
In conflict zones, translators and interpreters are sometimes more useful than weapons! The US Army officials have commented on their significance as:
A local interpreter with cultural familiarity can identify a suicide bomber from his suspicious behavior even before a military unit can trace him. A translator acting as a liaison between the Army and the local police can help translate orders and timetables.
There are many cases where having an interpreter on the Army’s side saved them from landmines and dangerous paths.
Translators and interpreters make meaningful contributions in conflict zones by also working with journalists, doctors, NGOs, etc. It’s essential for professionals and aid workers to communicate to the locals using interpreters who can ensure that the message is conveyed effectively.
Challenges Faced by Linguists
In theory, their role is to facilitate communication, but in practice, several issues make the job very challenging.
From a linguistic point of view, it could be either the stressful conditions of the environment or being withheld from rendering the exact meaning (for example in a communist country where censorship is prominent).
In some cases, interpreters could be hired as tools for organizations working to distort the message. This could lead to intentional mistranslation or misinterpretation. It may sometimes be due to their own views clouding their representations or sometimes because of coercing or threat.
Maintaining Ethics in Conflict Zones
In the volume “Translating and Interpreting Conflict,” coordinated by Salama-Carr, an example of intentional misinterpretation is quoted from an RTL-TV1 news broadcast in 1993. In the news segment, Charles Neuforge, a journalist from Luxembourg is seen interviewing an senior woman on a road crowded with several refugees leaving Bosnia. Here’s an excerpt:
The senior woman (in a sad tone):
“We’ve had a hard time finding food, and the water has been cut off. In this icy winter, things are getting worse by the day.”
The interpreter (venomously):
“The Serbs left us to die like dogs.”
The senior woman:
“We couldn’t do anything else; we didn’t have any choice.”
“The Serbs chased us out, destroying everything.”
In the above case, the interpreter is misusing the power of his/her role to broadcast misleading information. It’s not very different from unethical journalist practices. It’s even worse because unlike journalism, where personal views can be expressed, translators and interpreters do not allow this distorted communication.
While working in conflict zones, it may be even harder to maintain ethics and interpret without any prejudice. Faithful reproduction is very hard for war interpreters since societal values are different during conflict than at times of peace.
War Interpreters – Are They Neutral?
Interpreters are often viewed as representing the voice of those for whom they are performing the interpretation. In conflict zones, the lines are even more blur, and the local population tends to view them and the soldiers as being on the same team.
Consider a situation where a soldier is trying to communicate, using an interpreter, with a civilian or a refugee who may have lost his/her loved ones to a bombing. It’s hard for the interpreter to render the soldier’s message or questions without posing to be working with them.
War interpreters are sometimes viewed by the locals in areas of war and political unrest as traitors although they are just sandwiched in the middle!
The locals treat them as their enemies and hunt them down. In countries like Afghanistan, the rebels pay rewards for information that may lead to capturing an interpreter. The organization employing the interpreter may suspect the interpreter of compromised ethics. Interpreters and translators in conflict zones are vulnerable to threat from both sides.
Stress And Threats for Linguists in Conflict Zones
Interpreters and translators in war zones are under constant threat, and so are their families. Often, they are forced to live in hiding or under disguised identities to save their lives, especially if they are from the local community.
Insurgents kidnap them for ransom or kill them because they are considered infidels. Their families are targeted and sometimes tortured to reveal the hiding places of these interpreters. It is a perilous task and requires courage, conviction and commitment.
Unlike combatants, they don’t carry weapons for protection or wear special uniforms. They don’t also receive any special status for protection like doctors, nurses and journalists in war zones. Many of them get seriously injured or killed during the war or soon after the battle because the locals consider them traitors.
Organizations Fighting for Their Protection
Red T, together with five other international language associations (AIIC, FIT, IAPTI, CLI and WASLI), has been fighting for better laws to protect translators and interpreters in conflict zones. They have been pushing for a UN resolution, similar to the one for journalists, that will grant translators and interpreters specific protection under international law.
In an ideal world, these less heard of war heroes should be offered honor and protection. Translators and interpreters in conflict zones should be free to work without fear of prosecution, abduction or assassination.
Do you have a story to narrate about a war zone interpreter? Please share with us in the comments section below.