Translators and Interpreters in Conflict Zones Need Our Help!


When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be a lot of things. When we learned about Sally Ride and Christa McAuliffe in school, I immediately wanted to be an astronaut. Then we learned about Sylvia Alice Earle and suddenly I wanted to be a marine biologist. Of course, since I have never fully grasped the meaning of the word “impossible”, this meant I was going to be a marine biologist… in space! This went on with every person I ever learned about throughout all of elementary school who had achieved anything extraordinary (especially if that extraordinary achievement began with “first woman to”). I had an amazing role model at home, but I was hungry for more. I was eager to join the long list of women who had stood up for us all and made the world a more equal place. Though I was just a kid, I knew there was work to be done and I was eager to jump in and help out.

As I grew older, my list of options for the future became narrower. Not that I ever fully gave up on the dream of being a “firefighter/marine biologist/ballerina in space” or anything, I simply found a cause I cared much more deeply about and that changed my entire outlook on the future. At some point in school, I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Being the daughter of a non-English speaking, dark skinned, Latin American woman in the U.S., I understood a thing or two about racism and injustice. Justice, therefore, would forever be my raison d’etre. That desire to seek justice would lead me in many directions and I even managed to survive law school with the firm belief that the law has everything to do with justice (an idea too many law students abandon much too quickly and easily in school).

As a lawyer-linguist, I have served as a linguistic bridge between NGOs and other non-state actors and the international human rights system in cases that have pierced my soul. Some such cases included the brutal military dictatorships of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, sex trade and abuse of young girls and teenagers in Paraguay, sexual violence and sexual torture of young girls and women in Mexico, violation of women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Peru, ethnic cleansing in Ecuador, ethnic cleansing and systematic sexual torture of women in Rwanda, among many others. In my years doing what I do, I have translated testimonies that have brought me to tears and have been outraged by unfair court rulings. Time and time again, my faith in humanity is crushed by the case at hand only to be restored by the hope that my clients can and will find justice for the victims and set the foundations for a better tomorrow. When a case is too tough, the victims too close, the violation too outrageous, I remind myself we can’t change the past or even the present, but we can prevent the same thing from happening again in the future… or at least, we can try. I can’t and won’t grasp the concept of impossible when it comes to justice.

In all these cases, as much as I empathize with the victims, I can take enough distance to get my job done well. I understand the importance of balancing empathy and detachment to render a translation that is neither too cold nor too emotionally charged to be effective. The more you work in the HR arena, the easier this becomes.

But now I’m facing a new reality. One I cannot detach myself from. One where the victims are not far away from me in time or space. The victims are part of my community and reality: they are translators and interpreters who are used by governments in conflict zones and then left behind to be arrested, tortured, and killed for merely doing their jobs. They are recruited for extremely dangerous assignments where they are then hunted down and killed by insurgent groups or military regimes while the governments that employed them do nothing to protect them and refuse to offer them asylum after the assignments are completed. Some examples include the following:

Italy-Afghanistan: Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and his interpreter Ajmal Naqshbandi were both abducted. The Italian government ensured Daniele’s safe return, but left the interpreter behind to be beheaded.

UK-Iraq: The British military lost 21 interpreters in 21 days, 17 of which were victims of a massive killing targeting interpreters.

Central African Republic: Bible translators are suffering aggravated assault and homicide at the hands of extremists.

And the list goes on. We need to take action to help fellow interpreters and translators. To learn more about this, please visit Red-T, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of translators and interpreters (T&Is) in conflict zones and other adversarial settings. Please consider supporting their open letter project, follow them on Facebook and Twitter, blog about these issues, talk about what’s going on, spread the word. We need to raise awareness and get this issue on the international agenda!

4 thoughts on “Translators and Interpreters in Conflict Zones Need Our Help!

  1. Jørgen Christian Wind Nielsen says:

    Dear Paula
    Thank you for this article. You may read a lot more about the work being done for translators and interpreters in conflict zones on the FIT website, some of it collaboration with Red-T

    Conflict Zone ID Card

    Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Francis
    FIT has co-signed an open letter to His Holiness Pope Francis calling for the protection of translators and interpreters at risk. Read the full letter here.

    Click to access Open-Letter_Jun-2015_Pope-Francis.pdf

    Resolution on translators and interpreters in conflict zones

    Conflict Zone Guide in several languages


  2. Claudia Cabrera says:

    Hi, Paula, thank you so much for having written about this. I was and still am horrified. I tried to make a donation on Red T’s web page, but didn’t succeed. I also contacted them via e-mail, through the form you find there too. But they haven’t contacted me, and I would really want to make a monthly donation. Do you by any chance have an e-mail from somebody working at Red T?


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