Curtain Raiser

War Translators’ Risky Lives, Colltalers

As war serves its grievous menu, new heartbreaking news streams never cease to pop up. Although it’s supposed to be waged by the willing and the well trained, we all know who ultimately pays for any military adventure: innocent civilians, reporters, history itself.
Add to this list too interpreters who risk their lives in the front lines. Liaisons for and between combating forces, they’re often killed for either facilitating communication or for helping turning it into a weapon cocked at them. In either case, most die ignored by both sides.
Stories of translators being denied visa to countries for which they’ve served, frequently against their own family and country, abound, and having helped a departing occupying force is a fatal skill, most likely rewarded with death by those who have been fighting them.
But while troops enlisting help of multilingual locals is probably as old as warfare itself, contemporary notions of conflict globalization and the state of permanent war have increased, even if far from overexposing, this reality. Linguistic skills can often get you killed.
Much of the tactics adopted by rogue armies such as ISIL and others owe to annihilation traditions that date back to pre-Common Era, but going after translators perceived as collaborators is akin to the Khmer Rouge’ s 1970s strategy of targeting college-educated civilians.
Behind such barbaric approach to power, of course, is the fear that people with academic credentials, or who speak the ‘language of the enemy,’ somehow also share its values, and are fair game, after serving their purpose. Education is always a foe for warmongers.
We don’t hear much about war translators not just because they’re mostly left behind by the troops they help, or killed after those leave, but also because few are eager to reveal what they did
at war. As a job, and a extremely hazardous one to boot, serving as an interpreter in a volatile situation, as during an armed conflict, offers none of the safety the profession enjoys within a different context.
It’s fair to say that, as a skill, translating has the potential for allowing many a professional with few other skills to nevertheless fulfill an important, well paid, and culturally rewarding role in contemporary society. Full disclosure: we include ourselves in this category.
That being said, no amount of idealism or gumption would compel us to join the fray and jump in the trenches of warfare. In fact, to most of those who do it’s never a choice. Opportunity arises as the bombs drop, and one has a limited time frame to literally speak up.
In any idealized world, the physical counterpart to the ability of speaking more than one language is a bridge: we build them so people from each bank of the river can join in, collaborate, and understand each other as members of the very same race and species.
In the militarized world, linguists are weapons just like drones and grenades: their sole purpose is to stealthily infiltrate enemy lines and inflict damage from within. Translators are often sent along scouts and public relation officers to gauge the resistance and, if convenient, earn some hearts and minds to their cause. Intelligence of the other side’s resources hangs on their ability for being accurate and shrewd.
But once the talk stops and the actual fight starts, or resumes, there’s little need for them. Thus the thousands of interpreters who worked for years with allied forces and having been denied asylum or protection from those they’ve helped, apart from a Thank You note.
Few are known by name, allegedly to protect their identity from foes. In reality, that’s also a convenient way of ignoring them as flesh and blood combatants, and restrict their existence to an obscure war contract clause. They’re part of ‘local resources,’ along grieving widows and easily co-opted children and informants; acknowledgement of their presence lasts just the duration of the conflict if ever.
While across the world, the role of translators and interpreters is on rising demand, constantly updated and challenged by technology and data-collection robots, in the theater of war they’re a commodity, just like the kind that pool journalism has become: they’re there by grace of the military, on call 24/7, and absolutely refrained from reporting anything that’s not required by the strategic protocol.
There are no stats on how many interpreters have been killed at any one conflict, even if we restrict our search to those hired for their skills, and exclude multilingual soldiers. In fact, there are no figures to estimate how many are being used at any given time, period.
Neither there is available information on the number of new immigrants given legal status, in the U.S. or anywhere, just on the account of linguistic duties performed in the Middle East, and that’s just one region among thousands where different cultures are at war.
Many professional organizations are dedicated to support, train, provide opportunities, and study translation as an occupation. A myriad of categories split it up by attribute, academic background, and professional field. But none is focused on its application to conflict solving or nation building, two concepts used with abandon by ideologues of war and occupation of foreign lands. Not a good sign.
That means that those who happen to live within an area considered important enough to bomb and send armed troops, will most likely be drawn to the action on the sheer assertion of their usefulness for battle goals. Much less certain will be both their freedom to refuse to take part in it, or their own survivability and that of their loved ones. When war comes to town, there’s rarely a chance to stay neutral.
There are a number of reasons why there must be a distinction between those who wage war, either promoting it from the safety of their luxury offices; enlisting to fight in it for idealism or family; or profiting from its fat contracts, and those affected by it simply for being around it; for covering it; or volunteering to help the wounded and the dispossessed. Add to it also those who translate it for the parties.
We said it, there’s no neutrality, no ‘we just work here.’ in this scenario. But the role of those whose particular talents can be used either way, and their immediate need to make a living out of it ought to be computed. Whether they’re manipulated into serving someone else’s purpose, is beside the point; their forced collaboration should give anyone pause once again about the inherent immorality of war.
It’s disturbing, if not unexpected, that some’s ability to speak multiple languages can be degraded and become another instrument of carnage. And that the nobility of understanding others’ tongue can be so mindlessly loaded like a bullet to do harm to human beings.
But it can and it has been since time immemorial. To restore such dignity we must give translators and interpreters working at the front lines of war their due and proper recognition. Above all, safe shelter for the lives they’ve saved. Enjoy peacefully August’s last days. WC


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