Translation: a matter of life and death

As permanent in-house translators at our office in Münster, we have enviable job security, in every sense of the word, with both a regular income and the good fortune of working in a generally safe and stable society. Not all translators have such luck. In some parts of the world, the job of a translator or interpreter is fraught with risk.
To mark International Translation Day, we’re looking at various aspects of the profession. In this blog we’re going to examine the risks translators face when mediating in conflict areas or other situations where lives are on the line.

Crystal-clear communication

The need for impartial translators and interpreters is high in war zones and other conflict areas, where clear, unambiguous communication between the various parties to the conflict, the general population, peacekeepers and humanitarian organisations is essential. In these areas, translators do much more than just communicate with words. They try to bridge the gap between different cultures and sometimes bitter enemies.
During the first months of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, for example, information regarding preventative measures was only available to the local population in English and French. As around 80% of the population didn’t understand these languages, the information was about as useful to them as a pamphlet in Norwegian would be to English-speakers. A group of volunteers from the “Translators without Borders” organisation came to the rescue. They set themselves the task of not just translating the posters and flyers into six of the local languages, but also adapting the content to the culture and needs of the illiterate members of the population.
Meanwhile, the Afghan interpreter Abdul Hafiz wrote an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in which he explained that he occasionally tells his boss what not to say so as to avoid causing offence.

Caught in the crossfire

Nevertheless, it’s very hard for translators to avoid getting caught in the crossfire, particularly in conflict areas. When the USA withdrew its troops from Iraq, many translators and interpreters feared repercussions for themselves and their families. In 2012, their counterparts in Afghanistan who had worked with the German army submitted a petition to Germany’s parliament requesting asylum in Germany as the German forces withdrew, well aware of the threat they faced from the Taliban.
Local translators can hardly keep their identity a secret, given that they often appear in public and are seen by police, militias, neighbours and others. For as long as they serve foreign military or international organisations, they receive special protection, but the end of the working relationship can leave them in an extremely vulnerable position.

Fighting for a good cause

So why are translators and interpreters willing to expose themselves to such risks? Money is one reason, of course. Working for international organisations often means a higher and more stable income for them and their families, particularly in unstable times. Wanting to make a positive contribution in areas beset by conflict or crises is often another important factor.
According to TWB, however, translators often arrive too late on the scene in areas facing conflict and crisis, even though their contribution is widely recognised as essential by international organisations. The organisation says that those providing such linguistic services need to be much more fully integrated in the process of crisis and conflict management.
In 2017, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to establish the first ever “International Translation Day”. Under the heading “Translation and Diversity”, numerous events around the world were planned for 30 September to raise awareness of the importance of translation in both the past and the present, and to shine a light on the people whose work we benefit from on a daily basis, in the form of literature, theatre, film, advertising, and instruction manuals – or even, as in the case of, these blogs.


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