What about the interpreters resettled from Afghanistan?

November 11, 2021 § 2 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We take this time of the year to express our gratitude and to honor those who serve or served in the Armed Forces. This year, our thoughts and actions must go beyond the brave women and men who serve our country. We need to include our fellow interpreter and translator colleagues who resettled, or are resettling from Afghanistan.

I understand many interpreters and their families are still trying to leave Afghanistan. Their lives are in terrible danger and we must never forget our commitment as allied forces to protect them and bring them to a safe place. I am also aware of the colleagues and their families currently staying at military bases around the world waiting for the day when they will be relocated to a western country. These interpreters, translators and their relatives deserve our help until no one is left behind.

Today I focus my attention on another group of colleagues that grows everyday all over the world: The Afghan interpreters who have resettled in western nations and are facing the daunting challenge of starting a new personal, professional, and family life in a place with a different culture, language, climate, population, and economy.

The plight of Afghan conflict zone interpreters does not end when they land in America, Australia, the U.K., or any other allied nation. In many ways it gets more complicated. Although their lives are not in danger anymore, they now face an unknown society for the first time, and they do it for the most part alone. All countries receiving interpreters assist them with temporary services and financial help, but the help is not permanent. The interpreters need to learn how to survive in countries where individuals are on their own often. In the United States, Afghan interpreters get from the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) a one-time stipend of $1,200.00 U.S. Dollars per person (adults and children receive the same amount). Said amount must be used within 90 days. Local authorities, other federal agencies, NGOs, religious organizations, provide additional help with money, housing, clothes, food, and assistance on learning how to get a job, rent a house, buy groceries, get their children enrolled in school, gain access to healthcare, mental health services if needed, and civics; everything from learning English (or the language of the country where they resettled) to how to open a bank account, pay the electric bill, or use a microwave.

In America, qualifying adults can get monthly refugee cash assistance in amounts that depend on the household size, but a single adult gets about $415.00 U.S. Dollars a month for the first 4 months; then, the assistance goes down to a little less than $200.00 per month, and it can decrease even more depending on the income the resettled refugee is earning by then. All assistance is temporary as these interpreters are expected to get a job and support themselves and their families.

Support service providers’ goal is to get them gainfully employed as soon as possible; so, most of these colleagues end up doing manual labor, even if they have professional education. This is where interpreters, and their professional associations from the host countries need to help.

We need to understand some of the Afghan interpreters were really supporting our armed forces as bilingual cultural facilitators; they may not be ready or may not even want to make a living as interpreters or translators, but many are professionally trained as physicians, nurses, engineers, or school teachers. We could give them orientation as to what is needed to practice their profession in their new countries. I have no doubt bilingual nurses, doctors and teachers will be needed to meet the needs of the rest of the refugees.

There are also many conflict zone interpreters with the gift and interest to professionally interpret. These empiric interpreters would easily make a living as community interpreters, working as court, healthcare, or school interpreters everywhere Afghans are resettled.

Afghan interpreters and translators must understand they could have a bright future if they are willing to learn.  Professional interpreters, translators, and associations can guide them in their efforts to get a formal education as an interpreter, or to get a court or healthcare interpreter certification, license, or accreditation. Once the honeymoon ends, and it will, unless they get prepared, to work in the west, these Afghan refugees will be considered interpreters no more.

There is more we can do to help those who pursue a career as interpreters or translators: We can suggest they settle in big urban diverse population centers with an established Afghan community, where they will not only find more work, but they will also avoid discrimination. We can suggest they contact their religious organizations and mosques as part of the process of integration into their communities; and yes, we should warn them about language service agencies who will try to hire their services for a very low pay when in fact, due to the complexity and short supply of their languages, they should be top income earners. Both, Afghan interpreters and society need to understand these colleagues need our help as much as those they will be hired to interpret for, and all organizations and individuals must have the decency to abstain from asking interpreters and translators to work for free or at a discounted fee. This may be the best help we can offer them as a profession. Please share these ideas with your colleagues and professional associations. Figure out a way to help our newly-arrived colleagues treating them with respect, and protecting them from abusive members of society that will try to take advantage of them.

The U.S. Armed Forces and Memorial Day.

May 28, 2018 § 4 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

On the last Monday of May we observe Memorial Day all over the United States. Many friends and colleagues have asked me who do we honor and why. Others confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a federal holiday for remembering the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces.  It also marks the start of the unofficial summer vacation season throughout the nation. Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving, while Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.

On Memorial Day, the flag is raised briskly to the top of the staff and then solemnly lowered to the half-staff position, where it remains only until noon.  It is then raised to full-staff for the remainder of the day. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon, their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all.

Now that we clarified what Memorial Day is, let’s talk about the armed forces of the United States. There are five branches of American armed forces: the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard. The President of the United States is the Commander in Chief.

The United States Army is the largest branch of the armed forces and performs land-based military operations. With the other four branches of the armed forces, plus the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps, is one of the seven uniformed services of the United States.

The United States Marine Corps is a branch of the armed forces responsible for providing power projection using the mobility of the Navy, to deliver rapidly, combined-arms task forces on land, at sea, and in the air.

The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the American armed forces. It is the largest Navy in the world, with the world’s largest aircraft carrier fleet.

The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the armed forces, and it is the largest and most technologically-advanced air force in the world.

The United States Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the U.S. military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission (with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters) and a federal regulatory agency mission as part of its mission set. It operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during peacetime, and can be transferred to the U.S. Department of the Navy by the president of the United States at any time, or by the U.S. Congress during times of war.

The United States Space Force is the space warfare service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, the sixth and youngest branch, and the first one established since the formation of the independent U.S. Air Force in 1947. 

To complete this brief description of the United States armed forces, I would like to explain the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is a body of senior uniformed leaders in the United States Department of Defense who advise the president, the secretary of Defense, the Homeland Security Council, and the National Security Council on military matters. The composition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is defined by statute and comprises the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Vice Chairman, the Military Service Chiefs from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Space Force; and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, all appointed by the President following Senate confirmation. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is, by U.S. law, the highest-ranking and senior-most military officer in the United States armed forces and is the principal military advisor to the president, National Security Council, Homeland Security Council, and secretary of Defense.  Even though the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outranks all other commissioned officers, he is prohibited by law from having operational command authority over the armed forces; however, the Chairman assists the President and the Secretary of Defense in exercising their command functions.

I hope you find this information useful and I hope that it may come in handy when interpreting national defense or military issues involving the United States. I now invite you to add any additional information you may consider useful and relevant to our practice as professional interpreters.

A promise to the Iraqi interpreters.

January 31, 2017 § 3 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

September 11, 2001 changed the lives of everybody in the United States and in many ways it also changed the way so many live around the world. After the despicable attack on the American people, the U.S. embarked on two armed conflicts in a land thousands of miles away from America, and in so many ways different from the west.

Many young Americans were sent to the Middle East to fight these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of them were brave service men and women unfamiliar with the geography, culture, traditions, and languages spoken over there.  It became apparent that communicating in the local languages would be essential to the success of the military operations and to the safety of all Americans, military and civilian, in harm’s way. It was then that the United States armed forces recruited native speakers from the local population who spoke English, and were familiar with the culture and social structure of local tribes and governments, friend or foe.

Soon, these brave volunteers from Afghanistan and Iraq learned basic military skills and protocol, acquired the necessary knowledge to serve as a communication conduit between the Americans and the local dwellers, captured prisoners, and members of the official armed forces of Iraq and Afghanistan; they became the conflict zone interpreters of the United States Armed Forces. Many of them were motivated by their resentment towards the local governments and the corruption of their local officials, others did it out of hope for a new regime without religious persecution; some participated because of their sincere admiration for the United States and its values.  All made the commitment to serve as interpreters for the Americans despite the fact that they well knew that they were risking their own lives and those of their family members.

In exchange for these invaluable and much needed services, the American government promised these interpreters that at the end of the conflict, those who were alive, and their families, would be taken to the United States to start a new life away from any potential risk they may encounter in their home countries as a result of their cooperation with the U.S. during the war. This was an essential part of the agreement. These conflict zone interpreters knew that their heads would have a price once they started working for the Americans. They understood that they were not just risking their lives during the fire exchanges or door-to-door raids; they knew that if left behind by the United States, they would be subjected to unspeakable harm by those who considered them traitors. These interpreters and their families would be killed without a doubt.

When it was time to honor their end of the bargain, these brave interpreters fulfilled their promise by acting as communication liaisons and cultural advisors, to the Americans they were embedded with. They interpreted under the most extreme conditions: in the middle of a fire exchange, during unpleasant interrogatories, when helicopters were flying over their heads making it next to impossible to hear what a soldier or an enemy were saying, and while they were running for cover.

Once the U.S. decided to withdraw from the region, the surviving conflict zone interpreters expected the United States government to fulfill its end of the bargain and take them and their families to the United States. They had risked it all honoring their commitment to interpret from Dari, Pashto, Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac, Armenian, Turkmen, Hazaragi, Uzbek, Balochi, Pashayi, and others languages, into English and vice versa.  Now they waited for Washington to live up to its promises and protect them from the animosity and rancor that permeated their towns and villages.

The U.S. government slowly responded and started the immigration process for these born-abroad American heroes. Unfortunately, and to the dismay of the conflict zone interpreters, the men and women in the military they had helped and protected during the wars, and the international interpreter community, the process came ever so slowly. The entry visas were granted at a piecemeal pace. In fact, to this day, many of these interpreters and their families remain abroad, waiting for their entry visas, and worrying about the violence that constantly surrounds them back home.

Despite the efforts of many professional interpreter organizations and other non-governmental entities demanding that immigration authorities speed up the process, many of these conflict zone interpreters and their relatives have lost their lives during this wait.  It is important to mention that the United States government is not the only one delaying the issuance of these entry visas; regretfully, most western governments are doing exactly the same.

I have been fortunate to meet several conflict zone interpreters, and I am honored that some of them call me their friend. They are regular people. They have interpreting stories they like to share just like you, and they have tales of horror that leave you speechless after you hear them. Tales of fathers killed right before their eyes, older brothers recruited for the army against their will in the middle of the night, mothers and sisters raped in their presence, friends and relatives they never saw again. They went through so much, and yet they are kind, friendly people full of gratitude to the United States for bringing them to a safe place.

It is in the middle of this environment that President Trump’s executive order requiring “extreme vetting” before allowing entry to citizens of several countries becomes enforceable on January 28, 2017. Immigration officers inspecting foreigners arriving at all ports of entry to the United States are ordered to deny entry to all people from seven countries: Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Iraq. The ban includes those individuals who present a visa to the immigration authority, and even those who have been adjudicated status as lawful permanent residents of the United States.  Tragically, the executive order includes all Iraqis without any distinction; among them: all Iraqi conflict zone interpreters who were entering or reentering the country (certain individuals were excluded from this order for national interest reasons, but that is irrelevant to this post). To add insult to injury, the first Iraqi denied entry to the country at JFK International Airport in New York City was a conflict zone interpreter: Hameed Jhalid Darweesh!

What happened to the promised made to our Iraqi colleagues a decade and a half ago? They fulfilled their commitment to the United States, are we not?

Dear friends and colleagues, President Trump’s executive order covers many issues and has many consequences in the real world. As expected, it was challenged in federal court, and like all lawyers knew, the court granted a stay pending a hearing on the merits in February. I understand that many of you oppose the executive order in its entirety; I am also aware that many of you support it. This is not the place to attack or defend these different points of view. As a lawyer, I believe that some of its content will be overturned and some will be upheld by the courts. Those of you in favor or against the order will no doubt pursue different means to make your voice heard. What I ask you on this entry is non-partisan:  We must protect our profession, we have to support our conflict zone interpreter colleagues.

Please understand that the stay ordered on Saturday by Judge Ann Donnelly is temporary. Do not believe news reports, like Yahoo News, that immediately informed that the president had lost. That is false. What the judge did this time happens very often in cases when the potential damage caused by a government act could be serious and irreparable.  The court has to hear the case on its merits and then decide. This will happen next month, and at that time, she may decide that the government is right, that the government was wrong, or most likely, that part of the executive order is constitutional and part of it is not. Even in the event that the judge rules the order unconstitutional, the Administration will appeal the decision. I have no doubt that this case will end up before the United States Supreme Court.

This is too much of a risk. We have to defend our profession. We have to make sure that the promises to our Iraqi conflict zone interpreter colleagues are kept; that the agreement they entered over ten years ago is honored by our government. We have an opportunity to set precedent in our legal system so that it is clear that in the future, those foreign colleagues who cooperate with the United States in other conflict zones, regardless of geographical location, are protected and treated honorably once it is time to come back home.

Regardless of anything else you may do for or against this executive order, I invite you to contact the White House and the Department of Homeland Security and tell them to support an immediate exception to the executive order excluding from the ban all conflict zone interpreters and their families. Explain to them that they risked their lives for the sake of our country, and that the United States promised to protect them and bring them to America. Ask them to keep our promise the same way they kept theirs.  If you live in a State of district where your senators or representatives are Republican, please call both: their local and Washington office to let them know that these colleagues are heroes who fought for the United States and saved the lives of many of their constituents’ sons and daughters by putting their own lives on the line.  We have to do this. We cannot wait for the outcome of a court case that could take a long time and could grant admission to some of this interpreters and exclude others, particularly those who have never entered the U.S.

We have to make sure that the exception to the executive order, and any future legislation, will cover three types of conflict zone interpreters and their families, regardless of their country of origin: (1) Those already admitted to the United States who may reenter the country after a visit abroad; (2) Those already granted a visa to come in who have yet to enter the U.S., and (3) Those colleagues whose application for admission is still pending adjudication or pending a final decision after an appeal or reconsideration of an original denial. They all assisted the members of our armed forces. All of them have to be protected.

I know that some professional associations like AIIC, FIT and IAPTI,  nonprofit organizations like Red T, which  advocates for interpreters in high risk settings, and some interpreter programs like InterpretAmerica will make their voice heard on this issue. That is great; however, nothing gets the attention of a legislator like the voice of their own constituents; this is why you must call, email, or physically go to their local office. Let them know what interpreters do and how crucial is our work. Many of you have spent a lifetime educating attorneys, judges, physicians, nurses, agency managers, event organizers, sound technicians, and many others, so this should come naturally to you.

To conclude, I thank you for supporting our Iraqi colleagues, for defending our profession, and for setting aside your personal political agendas for the cause that we all have in common: The interpreting profession. I now invite you to share with the rest of us your experiences with conflict zone interpreter colleagues, from Iraq or elsewhere, you have met here in the U.S. or abroad if you were serving in the military with any of them. I ask you to please do so without any politically charged arguments for or against the administration, and I ask you to limit your comments to conflict zone interpreters or their family members.

How safe are we as interpreters?

April 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

The horrible things that are happening all over the world made me think about the risks that we face as interpreters just by doing our job. It is very true that nobody can claim to be completely safe in today’s violent and fanatical world, but one thing is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and another when your profession takes you to dangerous, or potentially dangerous situations.

Those of us who constantly travel, and are at airports or train stations four or five times a week, live with security checkpoints as part of our daily routine; we are very aware of the potential risks of traveling, and I am not talking about airplane or train accidents.  I cannot say that I have never looked at somebody as a suspicious character, or that I have not considered the possibility of something awful happening while I travel or during the events.

Conference and diplomatic interpreters live with this constant danger every time they do their job; and it is not just the times when we interpret for heads of state or religious leaders and we have to remain by their side, it is also when we are working in a booth during a top-executives’ conference, a summit of high-level government officials, or an international organization session.  The fact that we have to go through security checkpoints several times a day should tell us something about the risks we take just by doing our job. It is exciting to work with the president of a country, or with the Pope, but at the same time, you cannot avoid looking at your surroundings to see if there is something out of the ordinary going on.

Of course, the most obvious example of interpreters risking their lives and physical integrity is that of the interpreters in conflict zones or providing their services as part of a military mission. As we know, unfortunately, these brave friends and colleagues are at risk even after they are not working any longer, and even after the armed conflict has ended, as is evidenced by all the terrible stories of interpreters killed by the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan while they wait for the western governments to keep a promise to protect them, as they assured them a long time ago.

Not only terrorists and war enemies put interpreters’ lives and physical integrity in danger; court interpreters also face the rage of criminals, and perhaps even terrorists who are trying to make a twisted point through violence.  According to the National Center for State Courts in the United States, the number of threats and violent incidents targeting the judiciary has increased dramatically in recent years. At the federal level, the U.S. Marshals Service Center for Judicial Security reports the number of judicial threat investigations has increased from 592 cases in 2003 to 1,258 by the end of 2011. At the state and local levels, the most reliable data comes from studies by the Center for Judicial and Executive Security (CJES). They show that the number of violent incidents in state courthouses has gone up every decade since 1970. I used to do quite a bit of work in court, and there were many times when I had to do a “reality check” and pinch myself to stay aware of the fact that I was sitting next to an alleged murderer.  In fact, I was told once by a U.S. Marshal that I should never sit next to the defendant in court; that I should always sit around the corner of the table in case I needed to dock or run, and he told me to always be aware of what is left on top of the table: “… a stapler or a pencil in the hands of a criminal can turn into a murder weapon in a matter of seconds…”

And we are not even talking about dealing with angry family court litigants who had to stand in line for 30 minutes to go through the metal detector in order to gain access to the courtroom.

Then we have the jails and detention centers where incidents of violence are perhaps less common due to the tight security, but together with immigration courts and hospitals, they present another enormous risk to the interpreter: transmission of a contagious disease.

Unlike conference and diplomatic interpreters, healthcare and immigration court interpreters work with clients from all over the world, many of whom just arrived to the United States from countries where certain diseases, already eradicated from the U.S., are still common among the population. The risk of being exposed to TB and other serious health problems is not small in environments where people from everywhere congregate. Some of these “ideal” places are jails and detention centers where court interpreters work, immigration courts where immigration interpreters provide their services, and the clinics, hospitals, and urgent care facilities where healthcare interpreters work right next to people who could be the carriers of a serious health hazard.

So now the question to you all, my dear friends and colleagues is: What do we do then? Do we quit our work? Do we stop traveling? Should we avoid riskier assignments?

Of course, these questions should be individually answered, but so far, the evidence indicates that our collective answer is: No. We must continue doing the work we love and enjoy. We are providers of a professional service that is needed for most human activities. We cannot become the victims by choice.  The truth is that many of us do our work in dangerous, or potentially dangerous, situations, but we are not alone. There are great professionals who are trained to protect us. The Secret Service, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals, policemen and Sheriff Deputies, our heroic armed forces, other security guards, and our own common sense, will help us when the time comes to make a decision or take a stand. We just need to be alert.

I congratulate so many of you, friends and colleagues, for your courage and sense of responsibility. Continue doing your job; charge accordingly for your professional services, taking into account the risks you take every time you do your work. The client needs to know this, and has to understand it.  It is one of those intangibles that we must include in our fee, not as a separate item, but as part of what you quantify during the process of preparing an estimate. Just like you factor in your professional education and experience. You deserve it.  I now ask you to please share with the rest of us your thoughts about the dangers and risks of the profession, and please do me a favor: Do not take any chances, always use your common sense. Stay safe.

Military Interpreting: For many interpreters the least known part of the profession.

November 10, 2014 § 14 Comments

Dear colleagues:

The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators in the United States (NAJIT) recently published an article I wrote on military interpreting in its official publication “Proteus.”

Military interpreting has always inspired me. I have the greatest respect and admiration for all those language professionals who serve their countries in harm’s way. For this reason, and motivated by my desire to share something about this part of our profession with all those who live abroad and maybe did not see the article, I have decided to post a version of this article with the needed changes to fit a blog format and honor my commitment to NAJIT. On this Veteran’s Day, I invite you to read it and to share your thoughts with the rest of us.

The conquest of Gaul by Caesar in 58 BC, Hannibal’s march across the Alps in 218 BC, the defeat of Persia by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, the Mongol invasion of China in 1279 AD and Napoleon’s victory over the Third Coalition in 1805 have at least two things in common: They are among the greatest military campaigns in the history of the world, and they all involved two or more nations that spoke different languages. On the afternoon of April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant arrived at a small courthouse to meet with General Robert E. Lee. After four years of war Lee had come to Grant to bring the American Civil War to an end. The two generals had a quick chat about a time they met each other in Mexico during the Mexican-American War, politely negotiated the terms of surrender, signed the agreement, and then waved each other off. The whole thing was over in just a couple of hours. Surrenders can be much easier when both parties speak the same language.

The first interpreter appears in history some 45,000 to 60,000 years ago when the Homo sapiens first met the Neanderthals and realized that they could not communicate. That first interpreter could have been a commercial/trade interpreter (unlikely) or a military interpreter that helped negotiate territorial borders, travel rights, and other related matters; perhaps a surrender, maybe a declaration of war. We all know what is the oldest profession, but unlike translation that appears when humans develop a writing system, I am convinced that interpreting is the oldest bilingual profession in the world. Ever since that time, human groups have made war and they have used the services of soldiers and sailors who spoke the enemy’s language. Military interpreting is as old as humans.

What is military interpreting?

military interpreter is a commissioned officer of an armed force who interprets and/or translates to facilitate military operations. According to the United States Army careers and jobs description, a military interpreter is an individual primarily responsible for interpreting and sight translating between English and a foreign language who will first require nine weeks of basic combat training followed by advanced individual training to learn the skills that are required to perform interpreter support in several areas such as checkpoints, medical support, training host nation armed forces, VIP escort, and cultural awareness.   Interpreter officers are used extensively in multinational operations in which two or more countries do not share the same language, or in expeditionary missions where communication with the local population is crucial. Interpreter officers also work in the intelligence gathering and analysis together with civilian interpreters, translators, and analysts. In other words, military interpreting is an essential activity within a country’s armed forces during war and peace times.

A military organization’s demand for interpreters and translators changes according to the location of the military conflict. During the Cold War years the United States military and intelligence services placed particular emphasis on Russian, German, and other languages spokes behind the iron curtain. After September 11, 2001 the demand shifted to Arabic languages such as Arabic, Farsi and Pashto. In recent years there has been a resurgence of the need for French interpreters and translators because of the developments in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

The armed forces need for interpreters and translators also changes depending on the type of war being fought. During World War II the orders were to shoot all soldiers wearing an enemy uniform and interpreters were needed to interrogate prisoners of war, sight translate intercepted messages, and negotiate with enemy commanders. During the Vietnam War and the conflict in Afghanistan things were quite different, U.S. personnel were fighting against guerilla armies with no identifiable uniforms; for this type of military action interpreters are required to develop a close and trusting relationship with the locals; this requires a certain knowledge of the culture and social structure of those whose trust the interpreter needs to gain. In a war zone an interpreter could mean the difference between life and death for soldiers and sailors. The interpreter could overhear, as it has happened, part of a conversation about an ambush or an assassination. Spanish language military interpreters are generally used for natural disaster relief operations and for security checkpoints. Although the United States has no armed conflict with any Spanish speaking country, the fact that there are millions of Spanish speakers in the United States who do not speak English, and its geographical location, make of Spanish a very important language for military interpreting and translating.

Behind the lines interpreters play an important role in logistics and diplomacy. When an elected official visits a military base, military interpreters serve as escort interpreters for said dignitaries. They also participate in media relations with local news agencies, and in the acquisition of supplies from local merchants. Interpreters also listen to radio reports, watch local TV stations, and skim newspapers to gather information about local issues.

Who are the military interpreters?

Military interpreters have been essential to most historical events in the world. Besides the examples mentioned above, we can think of the arrival of the Spaniards to Mexico and Peru where interpreters like Malintzin and Felipillo played a prominent role during the conquest. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés first met Malintzin after he defeated the Maya-Chontal forces in what is now the western part of the Yucatan peninsula. At the beginning, while she learned Spanish, Cortés used her as his Chontal Maya <> Náhuatl interpreter. She worked together with Gerónimo de Aguilar, a Spanish priest Cortés freed from the Mayans after years of captivity and knew Chontal, doing relay interpreting. It wasn’t long before she learned Spanish and Cortés realized how skilled she was, so she became his personal interpreter. She also taught Aztec culture to Cortés, and even protected him by warning him of an assassination attempt that had been planned while they were staying in Zempoala, the same way modern-day military interpreters are trained to do if they ever find themselves in that situation. After Columbus’ discoveries at the end of the 15th. century were known in Europe, and the Spanish conquistadors got to the Americas at the beginning of the 16th. century, they arrived to conquer and submit. It was a military enterprise, not a good-will tour; thus the interpreters that aided Cortés, Pizarro and the other Spanish commanders were military interpreters, not diplomatic linguists. It is extremely important to keep in mind that most of these native interpreters, including Malintzin and Felipillo, were not citizens of the big empires the Spanish army was fighting against. They were members of other native nations that had been submitted, oppressed, and exploited by the powerful Aztec and Inca Empires.

Military interpreters come from all walks of life. In the United States they mainly come from three different places: The military officers and regular members of the armed forces; civilians who have some foreign experience and language skills such as former foreign service officers who have spent time abroad working in embassies and consular offices; and local foreigner civilians from the conflict area who speak the required language as their mother tongue and have proficiency in English.

In the United States the 223rd. Military Intelligence Battalion provides interpreting, translating, counter-intelligence, and interrogation services, supporting the Army and the rest of the intelligence community. Many of the civilian and military officers who want to become interpreters attend the Defense Language Institute, a United States Department of Defense educational and research institution which provides linguistic and cultural instruction. The Defense Language Institute’s (DLI) primary foreign language school and training of trainers center are at the Presidio of Monterey, California, and it issues Associate of Arts in Foreign Language degrees to those students who come from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and law enforcement agencies to study one of over 40 languages that are taught at this facility. DLI (through the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State) has a facility in the Washington, D.C. area where it provides training in languages not taught at the Presidio of Monterey, and a location al Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. In recent years the United States Department of Defense has held some innovative courses like the Military Translation and Interpretation Training Pilot Program developed by Cyracom International for the Defense Language Institute. The United States Army currently has 14,000 “soldier-linguists” stationed around the globe. Compare this figure to the mere 1,000 interpreters who are certified to work in the United States Federal Court system in Spanish, Haitian-Creole, and Navajo. Of late, the U.S. Armed Forces have been relying more on outsourcing these services to private contractors. This is big business if you consider that in 2007 one of the largest language services contractors in Afghanistan was paid $700 million to provide about 4,500 interpreters and translators. Many of these interpreters are excellent and their language pairs are in high demand, so it is expected that once they leave the Armed Forces they will definitely impact the civilian language services market in the United States and abroad

What do military interpreters do?

Like all interpreters, military interpreters do consecutive and simultaneous interpretation as well as sight translation; however, the way the services are rendered and the environment where they are provided are very different from other types of interpreting. Sight translation is a very important part of their work. There are two kinds of sight translation: The “traditional sight translation” used primarily for strategic and intelligence purposes, and the more widely used summary sight translation. This type of sight translation is used during house searches, enemy searches and searches of local civilian population. The interpreter looks at the document, skins through it, and summarizes its contents for his superior officer. Then the superior officer decides, based on the information provided by the interpreter, if the document merits a more detailed sight translation or even a written translation. Keep in mind that many times during a search soldiers may come across a foreign document written in a language that does not use the Roman alphabet; summary sight translation helps the officer to differentiate a laundry ticket from the directions to build a bomb.

The most commonly used interpretation is a combination of simultaneous and consecutive rendition. When negotiating with the local elders or with enemy forces, interpreters often simultaneously interpret to their superior officer what the counterpart is saying. They do this by whispering into the superior officer’s ear; next, they interpret the superior officer’s words (questions and answers) to the counterpart using a consecutive rendition. Of course, this can vary depending on the number of officers the interpreter is interpreting for; if there are several, then the interpreter will do everything consecutively. The interpreter’s courage and skill are admirable as very often they perform the work under adverse circumstances such as choppers flying over their heads, shots being fired at them, or being surrounded by wounded people crying for help. All of it as they try to interpret and carry a weapon at the same time. Kathryn Bigelow’s movie: “Zero Dark Thirty” shows the role of the military interpreter throughout the film. There is one scene where an interrogation is being conducted through an interpreter performing (as it happens in the real world) a consecutive rendition. And of course, there is the sequence at the end of the movie when during the raid a navy seal turns to the interpreter and tells him to ask a young woman if the man they just shot was Bin Laden. You see the interpreter (previously seen getting off the chopper in full gear alongside the seals) pulling the woman aside, asking her, and reporting back to his superior.

Essential principles of military interpretation (Ethical considerations)

Because of their function, military interpreters work under a different code of professional responsibility. Yes, they are ethically bound to do a professional job, to interpret with accuracy, to prepare for the assignment and to interpret to the best of their ability. They are also ruled by a different set of values and constraints: A military interpreter’s top priority and obligation is to his country and to his fellow soldiers, sailors, marines, or airmen. His rendition can and should suffer when he must take care of other priorities such as cover a fellow soldier, take cover himself, assist a wounded soldier, or comply with an order from a superior officer. Their loyalty is to their platoon or battalion. They are not neutral communicators; they are partial and serve one side: their armed forces. Military interpreters are required to interpret everything that the enemy or counterpart says, but they should only interpret back what they are told to interpret. If a superior officer tells them not to interpret to the counterpart either a portion of a speech or a paragraph of a letter, they must remain silent. They are always on duty as they may come across valuable intelligence at any time. It is important to understand that military interpreters are the only interpreters who work in an environment where one of the parties may be the enemy, and may want to kill him. Other interpreters, even court and diplomatic interpreters work in scenarios where there is an adversarial situation, but never with an enemy. Military interpreters are the only ones who hold a weapon while doing their rendition, and the only ones who, if necessary, have to be prepared to shoot one of the persons they are interpreting for. Military interpreters are motivated and moved by the highest principles of love of country and protection of their fellow citizens. This is important because the ethical justification to their job comes from this top values that most societies embrace. Military interpreters go to work every day ready to give their life for their country, and indeed this is common occurrence. Native military interpreters work under tremendous pressure and face incredible danger. They are repudiated by a big chunk of their communities, and are considered traitors by many. American military interpreter officers and enlisted personnel are at constant risk of fire and roadside bombs. Not long ago State Department Foreign Service Officer Anne Smedinghoff and her escort military interpreter were killed in Afghanistan while participating in a book give-away to local Afghan kids. She was 25.

The future of military interpreting.

A very pressing issue about the future of military interpreting has to do with another ethical and moral question: Should the nations who hire local military interpreters protect them after the conflict is over, and should these governments take the interpreters with them when they leave? This is a question that many military interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan are asking and to this day they have not received a clear answer. Countries like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Australia need to decide how they are going to handle this delicate situation. A negative or an affirmative answer that comes too late could have an impact on the recruitment of local military interpreters in the future.

As already stated, military interpreting has always been around and it is expected to continue to be an essential component of the armed forces. Languages may change and tactics could differ, but the profession as such will remain basically the same. One day military interpreters may not need to put themselves in harm’s way. The U.S. military already has automated airplanes and it is working on the development of a robot interpreter. In April 2011 the defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued a call to tech companies to design a robot interpreter that must be able to perform sight translations and interpret local gestures as well. It is unlikely that the armed forces will turn over their military duties to a machine, especially in the near future, but maybe space travel will be a place where robotic military interpreters will star their careers as the new “rookies” in the profession.

Although the Pentagon will not turn over its military interpreting and translation services to a machine or to a computer programmer in the near future, military interpreters will have an unprecedented impact on our profession during peacetime. Every day very capable military interpreters are coming back to civilian life, and they are joining civil society with language pair combinations that not long ago were next to impossible to get. These professional interpreters will flood the market with a new kind of interpreter: one who is used to work under a lot of stress and in very tough conditions, one that will bring to the table language skills and the cultural knowledge of their clients; if the government lives up to its promise and does not abandon those local military interpreters who served during the war, we may be able to choose native speakers for these assignments. That would certainly be a wonderful way to write the final page on the armed conflicts that we have lived now for over a decade, and a way to thank our military servicemen and women who worked as military interpreters, and at the same time render tribute to this little known but vital part of our profession. Now I invite you to share your thoughts on military interpreting with the rest of us.

Can the interpreter tone down, change or omit anything?

January 13, 2014 § 22 Comments

Dear colleagues:

We know that there are different types of interpreting and they all have their own rules and protocol that must be met in order to achieve communication between parties that do not speak the same language.   It is clear that court interpreting does not allow much flexibility.  These interpreters must interpret everything that is uttered in the courtroom and this is understandable because an interpreter’s rendition in the courtroom has a different goal than any other kind of interpretation: It is for the judge or jury to evaluate the credibility of the individual being interpreted whether he is a witness, a victim, or a defendant.  False starts, stutters, redundancies and statements full of hesitancy must be known by the trier of fact.  There is also a second reason for this complete interpretation: The parties have the right to appeal an unfavorable decision, and they do so to a higher court where the original proceedings will be studied and analyzed for possible legal errors.  The court of appeals scrutinizes these proceedings by reviewing the record.  This record for the foreign-language speaker is the rendition of the interpreters who worked the original trial.  We can see that the “simple” goal of achieving communication between the parties is not the only goal in court interpreting.

In conference interpreting the goals are different.  For a conference to be successful there has to be communication between the parties.  It would be worthless for a conference attendee to go to a presentation and not being able to understand what the presenter is saying.  Knowledge could not be spread, policies could not be developed.  A conference interpreter has to make sure that this communication happens.  His voice and pace should be such that the foreign-language speaker can concentrate on the subject matter without having to spend his energy on trying to hear or understand the interpreter.  The pace is not as fast as it is in court interpreting where everything must be interpreted.  A conference interpreter can achieve his goal even if some redundant, obvious, or irrelevant things are left out of the rendition.  A better paced and clear interpretation is preferable over a rendition where the interpreter has to rush in order to say “Welcome to the Twenty Fifth General Meeting in beautiful Las Vegas Nevada.” It would be perfectly fine to interpret “Welcome to the General Meeting.”  People already know it is the twenty fifth general meeting. It is written all over the convention center.  They already know they are in Las Vegas. They had to pay for a ticket to get there. The interpreter’s omissions did not have an effect on the communication; in fact, it helped because the interpreter was able to speak clearly and at a good pace.

In military interpreting it is necessary to omit certain statements. On one occasion a sergeant from an occupying military was training the newly-created armed forces of the occupied nation.  The sergeant did not speak the local language and he had to scold some members of the other country’s military because they had not been performing as expected.  The episode took place outdoors in the desert. The sergeant was surrounded by members of his military who worked under his command and understood everything as they spoke his language.  There were about 30 or 40 members of the other country’s armed forces who were at attention and listening to the sergeant who was speaking through an interpreter.  Because the interpreter was a local individual, and many local residents resented any type of cooperation with the occupying armed forces, he had to interpret while covered by a blanket and he had to disguise his voice for his own protection.  The sergeant began his “normal” scolding, heard many times by the members of his own military.  It was a crude speech where the sergeant called the foreign soldiers many ugly names, including remarks about their mothers.  He referred to their sexual preferences and told them that they were acting like a bunch of sissys (although he used a more offensive word) The sergeant was not whispering these insults, he was yelling as loud as he could. This went on for about ten minutes.  At the end of the speech, one of the members of the other country’s military stepped forward and replied. He apologized to the sergeant. Told him that they understood his message, and assured him that this would never happen again.   The sergeant seemed pleased with this reaction.

This was a scolding that is customary in the sergeant’s armed forces. The name calling has a purpose and it usually works within that military culture.  The members of the other nation’s military however, came from a very different cultural background. They came from a more religious society, and name calling that included remarks about family and homosexuality were considered an unforgivable insult. Keep in mind that the only reason for this meeting was to motivate the foreign army so they did a better job.  Hardly the type of goal that you would achieve by insulting them.  The military interpreter was facing a situation where his main role was to create communication between two groups of people who spoke a different language, lived on opposite sides of the world, and had a very different culture.  On top of being worried for his personal safety, he knew that communication and understanding through the insults in the sergeant’s speech was not an option.  He also knew that approaching the sergeant and asking him to tone-down his remarks would not be possible.  The sergeant was speaking in front of his own soldiers. He had to be seen as fair, tough and impartial.  Delivering a different speech to the foreign soldiers would have been perceived by his own troop as unfair, as preferential treatment.  This left the interpreter with the important role of being the interpreter and cultural broker.  What he did is that he communicated the message in its integrity, but instead of interpreting the offensive remarks of the sergeant, he substituted them with remarks about honor, justice, love of country, respect for the elders, and other similar cultural values that conveyed the same message and achieved the goal of communication and understanding without anybody feeling offended by the other party.  This remarkable rendition by this military interpreter was recorded. I have seen the video just like many interpreters and linguists who are associated with the armed forces.

This is remarkable, but it is not new or different from what many of us do every day when we replace a local or regional sports remark with another similar one that the listener will understand. I have changed baseball expressions for soccer examples many times because I know that “three and two with two outs in the bottom of the nine” does not mean much to a listener from South America. On the other hand, “la última oportunidad para anotar ya sobre el minuto noventa del partido” conveys the same message. It is just a different sport; in this case soccer.

There are other situations where the interpreter selects certain words and terms depending on the target’s culture and values, and he does it without changing the message.  There is a well-known episode of a sight translation of a diplomatic document involving two heads of state; one of them was a woman and the other was a man from a country where women were not considered suitable to govern.  The negotiation at hand was crucial for both countries. When the interpreter received the document he immediately noticed that the document started with a paragraph that addressed the problem that it would create to negotiate with a woman because of her gender.  On its next paragraph the document went on to spell in clear and certain terms the willingness to reach an agreement on the part of the man’s government.  After reviewing the document, the interpreter decided to leave out all the sexist remarks and instead of them voiced some formal greeting. Then he went on to interpret the essential points of the document.  At the end of the day there was an agreement to the satisfaction of both parties. This may have never happened had the interpreter decided to do a full and complete sight translation of the document.

It all comes to the role of the interpreter and his function as a cultural broker.  Many colleagues, particularly those who come from the court interpreting field, sustain that the interpreter’s job, regardless of the type of interpretation, is to render a full and complete interpretation no matter what.  They base this position in legal and ethical considerations that regulate their field.  Canon 1 of the United States National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT) states: “…Canon 1. Accuracy.  Source-language speech should be faithfully rendered into the target language by conserving all the elements of the original message…and there should be no distortion of the original message through addition or omission, explanation or paraphrasing. All hedges, false starts and repetitions should be conveyed…”

The New Jersey Code of Professional Conduct reads: “…CANON 2: FAITHFUL AND ACCURATE CONVEYANCE OF MESSAGES. Interpreters… should faithfully and accurately reproduce in the target language the closest natural equivalent of the source-language message without embellishment, omission, or explanation.”

Others, mainly those colleagues working in the conference, diplomatic, and military fields, acknowledge that the main goal is to achieve communication and understanding between the parties by conveying the message in a way that is properly received by the target as if heard in his own language.  The only way to reach this objective is by factoring in all cultural values of the individual: Adapting the words to transmit the same message with accuracy.

Hatim and Mason define the role of the translator along these lines by saying that: “…The translator has not only a bilingual ability but also a bi-cultural vision. Translators mediate between cultures (including ideologies, moral systems and socio-political structures), seeking to overcome those incompatibilities which stand in the way of transfer of meaning. What has value as a sign in one cultural community may be devoid of significance in another and it is the translator who is uniquely placed to identify the disparity and seek to resolve it…” (Hatim & Mason 1990: 223-224)

Pöchhacker applies it to the specific job of the interpreter when he states: “…Since an interpreter’s actions have a much more immediate effect on the progress and outcome of the interaction, it has become increasingly common to construe the interpreter’s mediation activity as one of ‘moderating’ or ‘managing’ the interaction to guide it toward a felicitous outcome…But mediating interactive discourse would of course go further than that [resolving overlapping talk, asking for repetition, or choosing which utterance to interpret, and how] and include actions designed to overcome obstacles to communication such as ‘cultural differences’. Examples include explanatory additions, selective omissions, persuasive elaboration or the mitigation of face-threatening acts…” (Pöchhacker 2008: 13)

Moreover, some would argue that even in the most-strict court interpreting environment language has to pass through the mind of the interpreter. The interpreter then selects from his repertoire the best terms and expressions that will produce a full and complete rendition, but in doing so, he will put forward those words and expressions that his own ideology, background, and culture will provide.

Hermans puts it this way: “… (The translator and interpreter’s) textual presence cannot be neutral, located nowhere in particular. The way a translation overwrites its original may be deliberate and calculated on the translator’s part but as often as not it is unconscious, or barely conscious, dictated by values, preferences, pre-suppositions and perceptions built into the individual and social beings that we are. (Hermans, quoted in Pöchhacker 2008: 15)

Dear colleagues, we see that there is not a clear universal answer to this dilemma that interpreters face every day all over the world.  Some of you may think that the interpreter should just interpret everything as said. That it is not his job to explain or to create a cultural outreach.  Others may agree with those who believe that interpreters and translators are language facilitators and cultural mediators whose mission is to transmit the message from the source to the target in a way that accurately conveys the message even if this means that there has to be some cultural adaptation.  A third group may conclude that it depends on the type of work that the interpreter is asked to perform because his rendition is dictated by the type of interpretation. Please tell us what you think about this fascinating and complex issue.

The role of the 16th. Century interpreters in the newly discovered world.

January 17, 2013 § 14 Comments

Dear colleagues:

My posting about Malintzin, the first interpreter of the new world, a few months ago was very welcomed in Mexico and other countries, but some people, mostly from countries other than Mexico, did not like what I said and attacked her and other interpreters who assisted the Spanish conquistadors during the conquest of the newly discovered world.  I welcome the debate as I think it is fruitful and helpful; it is interesting that some interpreters posted comments criticizing the role of Malintzin in Mexico and Felipillo in Peru and other South American countries as bad interpreters due to their lack of impartiality. These comments motivated me to write this post as I believe that their role is being misunderstood and therefore wrongly criticized.

Malintzin, Felipillo, and all other interpreters used by the conquistadors were military interpreters.   I understand that many of my colleagues come from a court interpreting background where they have been told that the interpreter must be impartial. That is true in a court setting, but it does not apply to all fields of interpretation.  As a military interpreter instructor at the Defense Language Institute I can tell you that the role of the military interpreter is very different. When interpreting for the armed forces, the interpreter needs to be loyal to the platoon that he or she belongs to. A crucial part of a military interpreter’s job is to do everything possible to assure the success of the mission.   The military interpreter interprets for the party he works for, not for both parties. He conveys to the enemy what his side needs him and wants him to know, nothing else.  A military interpreter brings up to his commander his impressions and suspicions about the enemy’s words, attitudes, and everything else he may consider important and relevant to his side. There is not such a thing as impartiality in military interpreting as the parties are not equal; one of them is called enemy.  After Columbus’ discoveries at the end of the 15th. Century were known in Europe, and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Americas at the beginning of the 16th. Century, they arrived to conquer and submit. It was a military enterprise, not a good-will tour; thus the interpreters that aided Cortés, Pizarro and the other Spanish commanders were military interpreters, not diplomatic linguists. It is extremely important to keep in mind that most of these native interpreters, including Malintzin and Felipillo, were not citizens of the big empires the Spanish army was fighting against. They were members of other native nations that had been submitted, oppressed, and exploited by the powerful Aztec and Inca Empires. In other words: They had no duty of loyalty to their tyrants; in fact, they had a very understandable resentment and perhaps hatred for their oppressors.

Felipillo is shown in color

There were big differences between Malintzin and Felipillo, the two best-known interpreters of the new world.  Malintzin was, by all accounts, an extremely capable interpreter, very effective, talented, and hard-working.  During the conquest of Tenochtitlan she got the respect and maybe the admiration of many Spaniards. Considering all circumstances, she had a good life.  On the other hand, there are many reports that describe Felipillo, who appears on the records as an interpreter almost a decade after Malintzin, as a mediocre interpreter; he did not command any of his working languages as he should, apparently he had a problem with alcohol and found himself entangled in intrigue and gossip involving women.  As part of the criticism to Felipillo, most historians argue that he misinterpreted for Pizarro, conspired with the natives, used religion to advance his own interests, and when in Chile he sided with the locals against Diego de Almagro committing a capital sin for the military interpreter: to be partial towards the enemy. This sole act that has been considered by some as his vindication with the indigenous cause, and maybe that is true and correct from a moral point of view, was his worse professional and ethical act as an interpreter, and ultimately cost him his life. In other words: There were good and bad interpreters during the conquest of the new world.

The last issue that has been raised by many begs for an answer to the question: Were the native interpreters a bunch of traitors?  We know that at least the better-known ones were not fellow citizens of the empires to be conquered (Aztecs and Incas) We also know that their job was to do military interpretation, and their faults and mistakes came from their mediocrity as interpreters, personal problems, their own ambition, and perhaps a change of heart after they realized what the Spanish armies were doing to the peoples of other native nations. Then, why is it that some people view them as traitors anyway? This is a very difficult question. Most of those who attack these interpreters, particularly Malintzin, because she did a good professional job, believe that they had to side with the other local natives and not the Spaniards. To arrive to this conclusion we have to ignore the reality of the times: The Aztecs and Incas were oppressors to these people; the Spanish conquistadors had done nothing against them. The topic is even more complex when we realize that most who complain and criticize Malintzin and the others are not indigenous people, they are the result of the fusion of the two cultures and races, and most of them have Spanish last names, speak Spanish, and follow one of the European religions. One could say that to attack Malintzin and the others is to attack their very origin. There is a verb “malinchismo” in the Dictionary, but it does not mean to betray anybody. It means “Attitude of attachment to the foreign and contempt for one’s own.”  Malintzin was not a member of the Aztec Empire. I would like to read your comments and opinions about the professional duties of military interpreters as it is applicable to many who are currently interpreting for our military forces in conflict zones around the world.

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