The heart of the conflict – Challenges, complexities and paradoxes intrinsic to the role of interpreters in conflict zones.
The figure of the interpreter in conflict zones has existed since ancient times, making oral communication possible between speakers of different languages and facilitating understanding among differing cultures. It appears with no doubt that the need for interpreters and their services in conflicts has been a reality throughout history. This affirmation is endorsed, for example, by the presence of interpreters during the march of the ‘ten thousand’ soldier army of Cyrus the Younger (Rochette 1996: 325), in the expeditions to Central Asia by Alexander the Great, (Gehman 1914: 33), during the Greco-Persian Wars (Mairs 2011: 65), the Crusades (Delisle y Woodsworth 1995: 246), the expeditions to the New World (Valero Garcés 1996: 63; Alonso Araguás et al. 2008), Napoleon’s campaigns in the Middle East (Roditi 1982: 7), the Opium Wars (Wang-chi Wong 2007: 41), the First and the Second World Wars (Footitt y Tobia 2013: 12; Kujamäki 2016), the Spanish Civil War (Kowalsky 2004), the Balkan’s War (Stahuljak 1999: 34; Baker 2010), and nowadays, the current conflicts in, for example, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.
Interpreters in conflict zones – who offer their services in all stages of a conflict (Baigorri-Jalón 2011) – perform an essential role in a number of war-related scenarios: with intelligence-gathering activities (Gómez-Amich 2016), on the frontline (Inghilleri 2009), during military interrogations (Alonso- Araguás 2015), in interactions with the local population (Hoedemaekers and Soeters 2009), and in advising missions with local armies (Hajjar 2016). In such complex scenarios, a general taxonomy of the figure of interpreter in conflict zones seems to be complicated (Ruiz Rosendo and Barea Muñoz 2017), especially considering that there is a series of different interpreter profiles working in this kind of scenarios, i.e. military interpreters (military personnel who works as linguists), locally-recruited interpreters, humanitarian interpreters, UN language assistants, fixers, and staff interpreter (cf. Allen 2012; Ruiz Rosendo and Barea Muñoz 2017 for a more detailed classification of this figure).
The set of skills required of these interpreters, however, tends to be quite complex and demanding. Nevertheless, some of these interpreters completely lack any sort of training in both interpreting skills as well as first aid and survival techniques. This is particularly true in the case of interpreters locally recruited, i.e. recruited in the country in conflict to which the international troops have been deployed. This group of interpreters, which is the largest of all, refers to interpreters who are local citizens of the deployment country and are usually recruited because they speak the local languages/dialects (plus the troops’ language) and because of their cultural, historical and political knowledge. However, it is precisely this inside knowledge that accentuates their ‘otherness’ in the eyes of the international troops. In other words, it highlights the fact that they do not belong in the military context, but rather come from the same country and the same community as the enemy, therefore their in-group loyalties may be (considered) blurry. This situation is extremely delicate seeing that international troops need to hire a person from outside their institution, and paradoxically, give them access to sensitive information.
In this kind of scenarios, certain theoretical concepts such as trust, loyalty and neutrality take a completely different angle, as conflict zones involve several distinctive features capable of altering the invisibility and neutrality that, in theory, is expected of interpreters, regardless of the context in which they work. In these lines, for certain authors, neutrality in conflict zones is only an illusion, considering that interpreters are torn between allegiance to their native country and the neutrality that is expected from their profession (cf. Stahuljak 1999; Spahic 2014; Gómez-Amich 2017). As a matter of fact, the client (which in this case is usually the international troops) anticipates that loyalty, one of the main concerns in conflict zones (Footitt 2010: 272), will primarily be, in the case of the interpreters, with their own country (cf. CALL 2004: 12) and, that in certain cases, these interpreters may even have hidden agendas resulting from their motivations, needs, ideology and patriotism. And, after careful consideration of such life-threatening scenarios, one cannot help but understand this lack of neutrality. How can your interpretation be neutral when the life of your countrymen, your neighbours, your friends and even your own family is at stake? (cf. the case Hasan Nuhanović during the Srebrenica genocide).
One of the core tenets of interpreting is to maintain neutrality. But how can you remain neutral when some of the people you are interpreting for are trying to kill you, while others are trying to save your life? Obviously, your loyalties will lie with the people who are good for you. But what defines good? What if the group that is paying you to interpret bombed a village where your grandmother lived, killing her in the process? On the other hand, the rebels they are fighting captured, tortured and killed your sister. Where does your alliance ultimately lie? In many cases, it lies with the ability to earn a living and feed your immediate family. (Kelly y Zetzsche 2012: 39)
Consequently, in this type of extreme situations ‘interpreters can scarcely be blamed for pursuing their own interests, no matter how unprofessional or unethical they may seem.’ (Pym 2016b: 255). But this sort of claims are not exempt from controversy, as the concept of neutrality is one of the key aspects intrinsically linked to the interpreter’s role. Nevertheless, we hasten to point that, due to the wide cultural gap between the parties involved in conflict, and the nature of the communicative situations in this kind of contexts, the interpreter’s role may involve more mediation than in other settings, especially considering that relationships among all actors involved – including the interpreters themselves – may greatly shape and condition the interpreting process, as well as the outcomes of the interpreting event. In these lines, it is safe to assume that interpreters in conflict zones, in general, tend to have more latitude when it comes to exercising certain gatekeeping roles, by for example, editing, summarising, omitting or adding certain details to the original message.
Consequently, it appears that the role of interpreters in conflict zones tends to be perceived – by the international troops (Hajjar 2016) but also by the interpreters themselves (Gómez-Amich 2017) as that of an expert in the local culture(s) and language(s). Compared to other settings of interpretation, the interpreter in conflict zones seems to hold considerable power, performing as active agents working for the good of their country against a common enemy, even though, as a result of the pervasive sense of mistrust that characterizes interactions in conflict zones, they are to be potentially perceived by both sides as possible traitors.
We, therefore, conclude that the traditional narrative of the interpreter as an invisible and impartial facilitator of communication requires a more nuanced analysis, as it may not be applicable – and sometimes not even desirable – in this particular context.
María Gómez-Amich holds a Ph.D. in Translation and Interpreting Studies by the University of Granada, a Master’s degree in Intercultural Communication by the University of Alcalá de Henares, and a second Master’s degree in Teaching Spanish as a Foreign Language. She has taught Spanish, Translation, Literature, and Culture at Florida International University in the United States, University of Cape Town in South Africa, and at the UCAM Español Institute in the United Arab Emirates, where she currently resides, devoting her research to interpreting in conflict zones, role and quality (self-) perception, life story research, conflict narratives and concept mapping analysis. Dr. Gómez-Amich also works as a professional translator and conference interpreter, and can be reached by email at any time: email@example.com
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