Many interpreters out there will be familiar with high pressured assignments, but few will be able to relate to the hazardous nature of the work carried out by interpreters in war zones and crises. The 10 year anniversary of the British and US invasion of Iraq is this month. Since March 2003, some 300 interpreters have been killed in the country, either as incidental casualties to military action, or as victims of retribution.
In 2008 the US repealed a controversial policy which banned the use of ski masks, worn by Iraqi interpreters to protect their identity. The decision to ban these in the first place was made in light of what appeared to be an improved security situation; however the threat to these interpreters, seen as traitors by many Iraqi people, remained as real as ever. And herein lies the tragedy; that native war interpreters who, by the nature of their work attempt to improve communications and relations between civilians and an invading army, are labelled turncoats by their own communities and often face persecution for their role. As one Iraqi interpreter said: “We have to remember that these forces are leaving one day and we are staying here”.
Since the outbreak of war in 1939 the importance of having trained interpreters has been increasingly recognised by armed forces around the world. In anticipation of the USA’s entry to the Second World War US intelligence officers set up a school for the training of people with basic levels of Japanese, to turn them into skilled field interpreters. By the end of the war the school had trained 6,000 men. This shows a distinct difference from the attitudes of armies towards the importance of interpreting since the First World War, when the BEF left Britain for France with just 300 basic French speakers in their ranks. Thankfully, training for field interpreters is improving even more today. However it is still the case that many, if not most wartime interpreters are not professionals, but civilians who find themselves in this role because of their knowledge of the languages involved.
Fundamentally these linguists have the power to save lives by communicating better intelligence to both civilians and soldiers alike, and can prevent casualties with the provision of information. Their work is rarely acknowledged yet the role they play in conflict is essential. Unfortunately it remains that the perilous task of warzone interpreters is much like war itself; thankless and without victor.
For more information about the role of interpreters in warzones please visit http://hal-confremo.archives-ouvertes.fr/docs/00/59/95/99/PDF/BAIGORRI_BEIRUT_FINAL.pdf for Jesús Baigorri-Jalón’s informative paper on the subject.
Have you or anyone you know had any experience of interpreting during difficult circumstances? We’d love to hear from you.