Interpreting in a War Zone
As long as human beings have used spoken language, someone has needed to interpret when people with different tongues want to communicate. Whether in friendly situations or in times of strife; by trained and professional linguists or simply someone who happens to speak two or more languages, individuals, businesses, organizations, and the military rely on the human skill of hearing one language and speaking another.
Interpreting is not something that every bilingual person can do easily, no matter how fluent they are in both languages – and especially not in times of stress. It is a skill that must be learned, developed, and practiced and – as recent events have emphasized - it can be a risky business, especially in times of conflict.
There have been famous interpreters throughout history – Lawrence of Arabia, for example, is said to have interpreted for Emir Feisal. Sacagawea, a native American woman, interpreted for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Valentin Berezhkov was a Russian diplomat who interpreted for Joseph Stalin and other Soviet officials in their meetings with Atlee, Churchill, Hitler, Roosevelt, Truman, and other world leaders. Not all interpreters reach fame (or infamy), but all can have a profound effect on other people’s lives.
Children of immigrants and refugees who quickly grasp their new home country’s language often become de facto interpreters for their elders at an incredibly early age. Whether accompanying parents and grandparents on a shopping trip or to a doctor’s appointment, these young people are relied on to make the new world understandable – often even when another authority, such as a healthcare provider, should bring in a professional.
Realities of an Interpreting Career
When considering a career in interpreting, the attraction might be a glamourous image of working with high-flying celebrities and world leaders or the more mundane but respected task of allowing politicians to communicate or conference attendees to understand proceedings. While these are often the most visible faces of interpreting work, the reality is that many career opportunities intersect with the most stressful, traumatic, and even dangerous moments in a client’s life.
For example, professional interpreters on call for courts or refugee and immigration services must listen to and discuss traumatic stories, day after day. Staff at hospitals call interpreters for help delivering life-changing news to patients, every day of the week. Interpreters work with social services in situations where people – often children – are at risk of abuse or already harmed. Working with the police, interpreters must listen to and then explain stories of sexual assault or other violence. This can all lead to vicarious trauma – the effect of absorbing someone else’s tragedy through repeated exposure to traumatic information and having to channel it so that others understand.
Once aware of this, wise linguists and their LSPs can take action to protect themselves and their teams. But risk can be hard to mitigate. Medical interpreters working on the frontlines of COVID-19 often work with all necessary safeguards in place. Yet interpreters have died from exposure to COVID on the job.
Imagine then the additional psychological burden of being an interpreter in a war zone or occupied territory. Not only are you responsible for ensuring accurate communication and information, but you are also living every day under the pressure of the conflict. You might have begun interpreting because a friendly soldier needed help, but it developed into a full-time role – and now you worry that your fellow citizens think of you not as a professional, but as an informant or worse. If you do not pass on information that is correctly understood by others, even something simple like a street name or a house number, peoples’ lives may be at serious risk. And you may live in fear of the “other” side finding out about your role – and worry about what will happen to your family as a result.
The fate of wartime language allies was mostly the focus of those who understood first hand the value of these interpreters – military veterans or fellow interpreters. But the recent, rapid withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan has turned the concern into a mainstream ethical issue. While American, British, and other Western military have safely evacuated some interpreters and given them and their families the right to settle elsewhere, many others remain in Afghanistan, frightened and traumatized by the sudden change in the country’s leadership. Unfortunately, interpreters are commonly hunted down in such situations.
How to Help
If you are eager to help these linguists, there are organizations aiding interpreters and translators from Afghanistan, for example No One Left Behind for those who worked with the US military. The Interpreting Freedom Foundation was created by an Afghan interpreter for US special forces to aid others during their experience of settling in the US. Red-T strives to support and protect interpreters and translators worldwide. We found lists of many other organizations and ways to help here and here. There are resources asking for your help and support in all the Western countries that had a military presence in Afghanistan. Remember that permission or a visa is only the beginning of the journey: it may take many months, if not years, to reach settled status. And it is not just a few people: reports show that as many as 50,000 interpreters have worked with the US military alone.
The recent situation in Afghanistan may seem like a sudden and one-off crisis that will not repeat – and we can hope that will be true. But history shows interpreters have been at risk, repeatedly, with every war, occupation, and conflict. This is unlikely to be the last crisis for language workers – not until the day when we all have access to infallible, accurate, and compassionate machine interpreting. Projects such as the Machine Foreign Language Translation System (MFLTS) are trying to provide language tools for soldiers in the field. Are we nearly there, yet? Not by a long way – but maybe the Afghanistan crisis will be a catalyst for more intense development. Should this put anyone off a career in interpreting? We hope not – because helping people to successfully communicate in times of trouble can be intensely rewarding. Let’s all give a big thank you to all interpreters – you are very much appreciated!
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