Jumping from the Frying Pan into the Fire: Interpreters in Conflict Zones

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Reprinted with gracious permission from the author Maha El Metwally and the ITI newsletter.

Last academic year, I was invited to participate in a careers day organized by one of the inner city schools in Birmingham. Men and women representing different professions sat at tables where they would receive ten students to talk about their work and after ten minutes the students would move to another table till they have covered all represented professions. The students came with a list of questions which they would pose to the professionals to help them guess what they did. One of the questions was: is your work dangerous? I found myself saying yes, while up till that moment, I had never really considered my work to be dangerous. Maybe I gave that answer because that careers day was soon after the Brussels attacks which targeted places that are very familiar to me. But come to think of it, is it plausible that conference interpreters are among groups that are more at risk since they frequent airports and board planes which are likely targets for terrorist attacks? However, conference interpreters are not targeted. The situation is quite different for interpreters in conflict zones.

Western forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, notably the US and UK troops, used hundreds of interpreters. Those in charge never anticipated that the military would need so many interpreters. Yet as both countries shifted into post-invasion stability operations, the majority of combat units increasingly found themselves interfacing with the local civilian population and for this, interpreters were crucial. “According to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report, at both conflicts’ height of hiring, the United States employed 82,534 Iraqis—including 9,268 interpreters—and 80,725 Afghanis, with a similar proportion of interpreters as Iraq” (Denn, 2014). Due to the enormous risks these interpreters were taking, the US was able to recruit them in part “by making explicit promises of a path toward earning visas and naturalization” (ibid). The UK Government equally pledged to offer safety to Iraqi and Afghan staff who worked with UK armed forces.

Many of these interpreters assisted foreign troops because they believed that they were helping their countries get rid of extremists and start the reconstruction process. This brave move not only put them at risk during army operations, but it also exposed them and their families to retaliatory acts by extremists since they were seen to be cooperating with the ‘infidels’. This is what Maya Hess, Founder and CEO of Red T, a non-profit organization dedicated to linguists at risk, coined the “Translator-Traitor Mentality”. Many of these interpreters and family members lost their lives as a direct result of working for US and UK troops, and significant numbers had to flee their homes and go into hiding.

But despite these harrowing circumstances, resettlement programs often leave to be desired. For instance, while the UK had a welcoming policy towards its Iraqi interpreters, it changed its stance with Afghan linguists. In fact, only a fraction of Afghan interpreters have been granted visas and the Home Office even tried to return those who made it onto British soil and sought asylum there. Fortunately, the courts stopped the Government from deporting them by issuing a ruling that Afghanistan was too dangerous. However, the case was taken to the Court of Appeal and the interpreters in question now risk getting kicked out after a ban on returning them to the war-torn country was lifted.

Until recently, interpreters in conflict zones did not have any organizations to represent them and publicize their plight. This changed in 2009/2010 when the AIIC project to help interpreters in conflict zones was founded in Europe and Red T was formed across the Atlantic to act as the voice of this voiceless group. Red T, the only organization exclusively dedicated to this cause, advocates worldwide on behalf of translators and interpreters in high-risk settings and seeks policy changes across the globe that promote their safety.

In 2010, Red T partnered with the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) and the International Federation of Translators (FIT) to issue a “Conflict Zone Field Guide”. This Guide, which exists in 16 languages, outlines the rights and responsibilities of the translators and interpreters on the one hand and those of the organizations using their services on the other.

Red T also initiated the Open Letter Project with the same partners. This project, which now additionally includes the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI), Critical Link International (CLI) and the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI), aims to research cases of linguists in dangerous situations and advocates on their behalf by writing letters to relevant authorities. So far, this initiative resulted in 15 open letters addressed to various governments.

Unlike journalists who also work in conflict zones, linguists do not enjoy protected status. To remedy this omission, Red T, together with its five partner organizations, is seeking a UN resolution that grants protected-person status to civilian linguists in conflict zones. To obtain popular support, the coalition launched a change.org petition. The current goal is 50,000 signatures and, so far, 41,416 signatures have been collected. As professional translators and interpreters, ITI members are invited to sign this petition.


To make it clear that Red T represents both translators and interpreters, the logo separates the horizontal and vertical bars denoting the T and I: Translators and Interpreters.

Denn, W. (2014). No One Left Behind. Retrieved from http://harvardkennedyschoolreview.com/no-one-left-behind/



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