Maya Hess grew up in multilingual Switzerland and began her US language career as a translator and interpreter in German and French. She went on to establish her own translation agency, which specialized in art litigation and terrorism trials. Post-9/11, she founded Red T, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of linguists in conflict situations and other high-risk settings. Maya holds an MA in Journalism from New York University, a Graduate Certificate in Terrorism Studies from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as well as an MPhil and a PhD in Criminal Justice from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). In 2017, she received the Graduate of the Decade (GOLD) Award from CUNY for her humanitarian and educational work.
The catalyst for the creation of Red T was Maya’s personal experience as head of the court-appointed language agency in a high-profile US federal terrorism trial that resulted in the unjust conviction of an Arabic interpreter for aiding and abetting terrorist activity. This case, as well as reports of linguist persecutions all across the globe, made her realize the vulnerability of some of her colleagues; in response, she drafted Red T’s vision statement of “a world in which translators and interpreters can work free from fear of persecution, prosecution, imprisonment, abduction, torture and assassination” and started building the non-profit.
Aligning with this vision, Red T’s advocacy efforts include the following:
UN petition: Red T’s most pressing initiative is advocating for a UN resolution, akin to those that protect journalists, that will enhance the safety of civilian translators and interpreters working in conflict situations. Currently linguists are not specifically protected by any international legislation. To this end, Maya helps organize informational events at the United Nations and meets with UN diplomats and member-state officials to win their support for the resolution. Several countries have already expressed interest. Red T has been joined in this undertaking by the five major international language associations AIIC, FIT, IAPTI, CLI and WASLI.
Public outreach: Maya speaks domestically and abroad at government hearings, universities and conferences to raise awareness of the vulnerability of T/Is and the corresponding need for protective policies and legal instruments. In addition, Red T maintains an active social media presence on Twitter (@TheRedT) and Facebook and is often asked to contribute to articles and books on the subject.
Individual outreach: To the extent possible, an important part of Red T’s work involves connecting linguists in war zones and those who have become refugees with various resources. Upon request, Maya also writes expert opinions and letters of support in asylum appeal cases.
Open Letter Project: Red T spearheaded a letter-writing campaign on behalf of embattled linguists that is directed at governments. To amplify its voice, the organization partnered with 11 language associations as well as academia (CIUTI) and, depending on the letter’s recipient, often brings in ad hoc signatories from the respective country. Current open letters are available on the website (red-t.org).
Conflict Zone Field Guide: In collaboration with AIIC and FIT, Red T issued the first Conflict Zone Field Guide for Civilian Translators/Interpreters. Available in a number of languages, the guide sets forth the rights and responsibilities of translators and interpreters working in conflict zones as well as the responsibilities of those who employ them. Red T and its coalition partners encourage T/Is who are planning to work in high-risk settings to professionalize as much as possible as a form of protection, especially since T/Is in such settings often have little or no translating or interpreting experience. For example, employers may ask for services that go beyond the usual T/I role, and linguists need to be aware of their right to decline such requests.
Database creation: Compiling and disseminating data is an important tool in advocating for policy changes that protect T/Is. That is why Maya and her team are building a database of incidents involving linguists, some of which are listed on the Red T website. These incident reports show how T/Is often suffer devastating consequences for simply doing their job. To augment the data, Red T is collaborating with the Global Language Justice initiative at Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Language and Society (ICLS). Specifically, Maya teaches a Red T module as part of the Mellon-Sawyer Seminar conducted by ICLS in which the students’ assignment is to contribute to the database.
Circle members can assist Red T by signing the petition to adopt the UN Resolution, which is available on the website (https://red-t.org/our-work/un-petition). To date, 47,254 people have signed; the goal is to obtain a critical mass of 50,000 or more signatures. Members are also asked to share the petition as widely as possible via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Moreover, they are encouraged to write letters to their country’s UN Ambassador urging him/her to support such a resolution (note that at the present time, the post of US Ambassador to the UN is still vacant). If you’re interested, email email@example.com and they will provide a template for such a letter.
The Gotham Translator would like to thank Maya for taking the time to explain her vision and alert us to the importance of adding our voices to the movement to protect our T/I colleagues serving so bravely in conflict situations.