Translators and Interpreters Working in Conflict Zones

Translators and Interpreters Working in Conflict Zones

Content translators and interpreters working in conflict zones

War has always been a part of human history, and oftentimes conflicting parties do not speak each other's languages. Language mediation is necessary, so the importance of translators and interpreters is undeniable. The role of these specialists is largely unrecognized, as they are not at the center of attention and usually remain unnoticed. Certain invisibility in terms of lack of recognition does not mean that translators and interpreters do not face the same dangers as combatants and civilians in conflict zones. In fact, the mediating nature of linguistic work puts experts at higher risk. Let’s find out why this happens.


Morality and Ethics

Conflict zones are not the place for mixed identities and vague positions. All members of society must eventually choose a side. Translators and interpreters are personalities with a certain background, specific knowledge, and personal beliefs who might either seek affiliation with one of the parties themselves or be forced to cooperate. Neither of these facts should make true professionals break the moral principles of the job: clear communication in a multilingual environment.


Translators and interpreters may be contracted by the armed forces, the UN peacekeepers, governmental and non-governmental organizations, or act as volunteers – but honesty is the priority in any case. It is essential to convey the message effectively and without any changes or additional meanings.


Major Challenges, Dangers, and Threats

In order to perform the required tasks and help people communicate, translators and interpreters in conflict zones need not only sensibility but also a lot of courage to face the everyday risk of death. Language experts do not participate in a direct firefight, but shelling or air raids put the lives of people at risk regardless of their status. Performing their duties is associated with almost the same dangers that any member of the military may experience during service in a war zone.


The moral side of the conflict also poses a major threat, since locals may associate interpreters and translators with governmental and military forces that contracted them. Even though language specialists usually do not wear uniforms or personal defense weapons, there is a considerable danger to their lives even after the end of the active phase of the war. During the war in Afghanistan, the Afghan interpreters who cooperated with the U.S. military were treated as traitors and even hunted down by locals. The same situation may happen in many other war zones.


Finally, interpreters and translators face the challenge associated with their direct responsibilities. Even though the language experts are not in the focus, their role is associated with significant power that can be easily misused. Distorting the messages from any of the conflicting parties and either intentional or unintentional mistranslation or misinterpretation will lead to severe consequences, the loss of human lives, and prolong the conflict. Any prejudices and personal views are completely prohibited, as the communication must be clear and truthful.


Impact of Language Experts’ Work

The language gap between the sides of any conflict creates both opportunities and difficulties. From the military perspective, anything that could make an enemy's life harder is beneficial and this includes their inability to understand communication and documents. The impact of language experts may be indispensable in such situations, which can be proved by the example of Afghan interpreters who helped the U.S. army identify terrorists’ locations by listening to their radio communication. Even suicide bombers can be identified and neutralized before they do what was planned. Therefore, saving human lives is the most valuable indirect impact of language experts’ work in war zones.


However, helping locals is impossible without bridging the language gap first. Interpreters and translators assist doctors, journalists, and volunteers in their everyday work and make sure that communication is clear and that all appropriate actions are taken as expected. Language experts are essential in providing support to refugees who had to leave everything behind and flee from the area of armed conflict.


The global impact of the work that translators and interpreters do in conflict zones is often overlooked. Informing the world about war crimes and the terrible price that people are paying during wartime would not be possible without brave foreign journalists - and language experts who accompany them.


Shigeki Miyajima, a photojournalist from Japan, came to Ukraine to tell the world the truth about the terrible consequences of the Russian invasion. He would not accomplish the intended goal without the support of the BABYLON’13 team and interpreters who helped him communicate with people in Irpin, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other Ukrainian cities.


Motivations Behind the Decision to Work in Conflict Zones

People decide to take the dangerous job of interpreters or translators in areas of armed conflicts due to a variety of reasons that may include personal, economic, and political ones. Some people just do their job as part of international missions and organizations. However, locals who want to become language experts during wartime may have different motivations.


The possibility to deal with unemployment and support one’s family during a crisis was the main driving factor behind the decision to interpret for many locals, who have a good command of the required languages. Besides, this is a well-paid job as interpreters and translators have to face increased risks for their life and health.


Though, financial profit is not the only decisive factor. Political preferences and the desire to help people in need as the reasons to do the job are self-explanatory. The chance to have more opportunities such as getting Western citizenship or studying abroad is another thing that motivates locals to become translators and interpreters in conflict zones, for example, the Middle East.


Wrapping Up

Even though armed conflicts could not be avoided in many cases, people must remember the horrendous suffering caused by wartime, learn the lessons, and do everything possible to prevent as many conflicts as possible. Acknowledging the impact of war heroes and all involved individuals is essential because these people deserve honor and protection. This applies to translators and interpreters who work in conflict zones, as they should be able to work without fear of death, abduction, or any other prosecution by one of the parties.


Many organizations such as Red T and international language associations such as AIIC, IAPTI, WASLI, and others are already doing their best to ensure better protection for language experts in conflict zones. A UN resolution should be developed to grant translators and interpreters specific protection under international law, just like the one for journalists. Moreover, there must be a widespread awareness that these people face danger oftentimes without sufficient protection, and that they should not be associated with combatants. The status of translators and interpreters must be equal to that of doctors and journalists in conflict zones.

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