September 17, 2018 § 2 Comments
Imagine having to support a family when you are unemployed, poor, desperate, living in a country torn by war, ruled by a despot. Then one day, somebody tells you that, because you speak a foreign language, you can become an interpreter for a foreign army. You are told that you will be paid for that service, and after the war, this foreign government will take you and your family to their country where you will be safe from retaliation, and will live a better life. Those of us living in a western nation cannot even imagine that situation, much less the ray of hope it means to many humans who live in that reality. This is the story, and the dilemma, of a conflict-zone interpreter.
You just noticed that today’s post is about interpreters in conflict zones. Please do not go away! I know most of you access this blog to read and debate topics related to conference, court, healthcare or community interpreting. Today please read this post from beginning to end, show your determination to defend the profession, and do something that will make you feel good as a human.
Throughout history, explorers, conquerors, traders, religious missionaries, and all others who found themselves in a foreign land where they did not understand the local language have used interpreters to accomplish their mission. Often, these interpreters have been local individuals who spoke both, the foreign and domestic languages, and with no formal training, but armed with their natural skills, and some powerful motivation, provided their able services even when it meant risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones. From Malintzin to Squanto, Boubou Penda to Luis de Torres, these interpreters, our colleagues, have contributed to the history of civilization providing a bridge that made communication possible when peoples did not speak the same language.
These interpreters have been essential in all armed conflicts: invasions, liberations, occupations, and peace negotiations. Many in recent history, like the Navajo Code-Talkers who serve the United States armed forces during World War II. Others, anonymously participating in conflict zones like Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, and the Bosnian War.
Western nations have benefited, and still do, of the services of interpreters in conflict zones who assist military forces and civilian contractors in places like Africa and the Middle East.
From the start of the war in Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, western nations participating in those conflicts scouted those two countries looking for local women and men who spoke the local language and that of the western country. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, and others, recruited bilingual individuals, often with a professional education background (doctors, teachers, engineers) who had no employment due to the armed conflict or because of their political opinions, ethnic group, or religious beliefs. Some had openly opposed the local regimes and were personae non gratae in the eyes of the despot in charge of government, others quietly disagreed with the way their countries were governed, afraid to say anything the authorities could perceive as treacherous. Others’ sole motivation was to feed their families.
All these courageous humans knew what they were risking by helping the West. Besides the tremendous danger of being in a theater of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan where they could be killed during a fire exchange, and ambush, or by an improvised explosive device (IED), they knew the consequences if caught. Their execution, and that of their immediate family members was a reality they faced every day the worked with the foreign armed forces and independent defense contractors in their countries. These were (and are) brave and courageous individuals. They also knew that all armed conflicts have a beginning and an end. They recognized the dangers they would face after the foreign troops left their countries. They knew their families, even if not involved in the armed conflict, would face the same consequences. To stay behind after the Western armed forces left would be a death sentence.
The United States and all of its allies were aware of this reality. They knew the only way to recruit much needed interpreters and translators was promising they would not be left behind. These conflict zone interpreters got assurances from the western governments they served that when the time to withdraw their troops came, they, and their immediate families would be taken to their countries to start a new life free from death threats and other retaliatory actions. In other words: conflict zone interpreters agreed to provide their services and the western nations promised they would take them to the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Spain, France, and all other countries to use interpreting services for military and civilian personnel. As we know, the troops withdrew from these countries, but many interpreters continue to wait for an entry visa to the country that promised to take them. Interpreters have been admitted to these western countries, but it has been a fraction. Many of those who have moved to their new countries endured a lengthy and cumbersome process. During this time, as expected, many conflict zones interpreters, and their family members, have been executed as traitors back home while waiting for a visa.
These interpreters, our colleagues, did their part, they rendered the service facing tremendous risk and unimaginable working conditions. They were essential to accomplish a mission; through their work they saved many western and local lives. The West has not honored its word.
This is not a political post, and I am not arguing for or against the admission of refugees in any country. I understand there are very solid arguments for and against admitting refugees. I am not endorsing or condemning the armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq either. Solely this post invites you all, interpreters and translators worldwide, regardless of your political persuasion, religious beliefs, or immigration stands, to join to protect the profession by supporting our conflict zone colleagues, just like attorneys help each other, as Marines leave no one behind. We need to raise our voice and tell the governments of those western nations who made a promise to these interpreters when they needed them, to walk the walk and deliver. We need them to know that we know, and we need to push for an expedient visa issuance system for these colleagues. Countries who break promises look bad and lose credibility. Interpreters who believed their promise continue to die while government authorities drag their feet motivated by politics instead of integrity.
Through my work as a civilian interpreter with the armed forces and defense contractors, and as an interpreter trainer, I have met several military and conflict zone interpreters who have served in different places. I have heard from them some horror stories of killings, kidnappings, rapes, and beatings. I have gotten to know many as friends and colleagues. I have met their families. I have also heard the tales of those less-fortunate still risking their lives while they wait for an answer from the West.
I also recognize the amazing, tireless, work of Red T, its compassionate and courageous CEO Maya Hess who I have the privilege to know personally, and the professional associations that support its efforts and share its values: The International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC) The International Federation of Translators (FIT) and many of its member organizations; The International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI); Critical Link International, The International Council for the Development of Community Interpreting (CLI); and the World Association for Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI). Some time ago during the IAPTI Congress in Bordeaux France, I had the opportunity to hear Maya’s passionate description of their efforts to raise awareness and to get a United Nations declaration of legal and physical protection for translators and interpreters in conflict zones. On that occasion, she was joined by another fighter for protecting these colleagues: Linda Fitchett, Chair, Conflict Zone Group, AIIC. Just this Spring I had the opportunity to hear Maya once again, this time in Zaragoza Spain during ASETRAD Congress where she spoke before a big crowd of interpreters and translators, and was joined by some conflict zone interpreters for a round table discussion. On that occasion, ASETRAD conferred honorary membership to Red T. To learn more about Red T and to support their campaigns, please visit: www.red-t.org
My motivation to write this post at this time has to do with the Congressional elections in the United States this November. On November 6, Americans will vote to elect one third of the members of the U.S. Senate (according to the U.S. Constitution, the Senate renews its membership one-third at a time every two years) and for all the members of the House of Representatives. Political campaigns just started last week and all candidates will visit your hometown, attend townhall meetings, debate their opponents, pay attention to your phone calls, and read your mail.
This is the time to tell your senators and representatives running for office that as a professional interpreter or translator, and as an American who values your country’s word and promises, that you want them to pass an increase on Special Immigrant Visa numbers (SIV) for conflict zone interpreters and their families, and to expedite the visa processing times, at least to comply with the nine-month limit in the books which has not been observed. During the last 2 years the number of SIV approvals has declined and the process has seen considerable delays. The official argument is the security background checks. It is understandable and desirable that the government carefully review case by case, but it is also necessary that authorities consider previous background checks and past performance. Remember, these interpreters already worked with members of the U.S. Armed Forces and risked their lives to do their job. Please call the candidates’ campaign headquarters, your Senate and Congressional Offices back home and in Washington, D.C., and support our colleagues. I guarantee you will feel better afterwards.
Regardless of where you live, contact your U.S. Representative. Remember: They are all up for reelection. Please contact your Senate candidates if you live in these States:
To contact the U.S. House of Representatives, go to https://www.house.gov/representatives
To contact the U.S. Senate, visit: https://www.senate.gov/reference/
If you do not leave in the United States, please contact the office of your President, Prime Minister, or Head of Government. You can also visit Red T to sign the petitions.
Remembering that no political debate will be allowed, I now invite you to share with you your experiences as a conflict zone interpreter, or your ideas on how to press Congress and foreign governments to live up to their promise to our colleagues: the conflict zone interpreters.
May 28, 2018 § 4 Comments
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.
February 22, 2016 § 7 Comments
Like all human beings, interpreters have fears and concerns. Everybody has experienced adverse situations and tough times, and nobody wants to be in that situation ever again. We all worry about getting sick, having no money, experiencing loneliness, suffering a tragic accident, having serious problems at home, and so on. This is normal, and in fact, the possibility of facing one of these scenarios worries most individuals, not just interpreters. Then, we have the career related concerns: losing your job, not getting any assignments, losing your hearing or your voice, fighting with the bad agencies and unscrupulous colleagues, dealing with morose clients who only pay every other leap year, and many others. All these things make us miserable, most of them will never happen to us, and if they do, they will likely come into our lives as a “light version” of the problem; but we worry nevertheless.
Everything mentioned above has the potential to keep us up all night and make us lose our appetite, but not one of them can be truly referred to as our worst nightmare. You see, talking to many colleagues all over the world throughout the years, and reflecting on my own personal fears, I have seen how the things that impact us more, strictly from the professional perspective, are those situations where we cannot perform as expected and, on top of the professional failure, we go through professional embarrassment. We have all experienced situations when a certain term, word, or fact that we know (or should know) does not come to mind. This is usually cause for concern, and more so when it happens often or for a fairly long period of time. For the most part this is taken care of by a note or a whisper from our booth mate with the right term, word, or facts. We correct ourselves, nod at the colleague with a “thank you” gesture, shake up the embarrassing uncomfortable episode, and move on.
The facts I just described above are part of the interpreter’s nightmare, but they are still missing the coup the grace. For this to turn into a horrendous situation, the interpreter’s mishap has to be in public. This sense of embarrassment and professional shame will make you want to shrink to the size of an atom and disappear for the next twenty centuries. Let me share a story that I witnessed first-hand:
I was retained to work an important high-profile assignment that was going to take place at a country’s top military facility. The name of the country will remain undisclosed for professional courtesy reasons. The event was attended by people, including many journalists, of about eighty different countries, so there were many interpreters in many language combinations. On this occasion I had the fortune to work with an excellent colleague, and although I did not know all of the other interpreters, I also recognized many of the other colleagues at the event who had been hired to work other language combinations. The event presented two tasks for the interpreters: We had speeches and presentations that were to be interpreted simultaneously, but at the end of every high-profile speaker’s presentation there would be a question and answer period that had to be interpreted consecutively. Interpreters had a table at the end of the stage, and one interpreter from each language pair was supposed to go to the table for the questions while the other interpreter remained in the booth for a simultaneous rendition of the answers. If necessary, interpreters were to rotate every thirty minutes.
The presentations were very technical and many of the questions were more of a political statement by journalists from foreign countries, as it often happens in these events. Throughout the day, my colleagues did a superb job in the booth and with the consecutive rendition at the table. Things were smooth until a journalist, from a country where a language other than English or Spanish is spoken, asked one of this “political statement” type of questions. The question was long, but nothing different from what the others had been asking, and definitely something an interpreter at that level should handle without any trouble. Once the question was posed, the interpreter looked at her notes and started her rendition. Once she started her interpretation, I noticed that she was not saying what the journalist asked; I am not an expert in this other language, and I would never dare to add it to my language combinations for the booth, but I noticed a big mistake; in fact, as the interpreter was interpreting back the question, I looked at one of my other colleagues who also understands the language at a level like mine or better, and her face told me that I was right. As the interpreter was speaking, the journalist who asked the question got up from his seat in the audience and without a microphone shouted: “…That is not what I asked. The interpreter is wrong. She did not understand the question, so I will repeat it in English…“ The interpreter sat there quietly, she did not make any noise. She lowered her head and stayed there while the journalist repeated the question in English. The next few questions were in different languages, so this interpreter did not have to intervene anymore.
Dear friends and colleagues, this is an interpreter’s worst nightmare: to make a mistake and be corrected by the person you are interpreting for; to know that this person, who is not an interpreter and does not speak the target language at a level comparable to yours, is right and you were wrong; to have this all happen during a very high-profile event, and for this to be witnessed by many of your colleagues who work at this very top level of the profession.
In this case the interpreter did not do anything, she did not defend her rendition; she did not ask for clarification of something she did not understand; she did not apologize; she did not get up and leave; she did not cry; she did not ask for her booth mate to replace her; she just remain there, sitting with her head lowered and her hands on her lap.
I did not know this colleague, although I believe that I had seen her in the booth a couple of times before. I do not know if she is new to the profession, which I doubt because no newbies start at the level of the event where this happened. I do not know if she is a great interpreter, or if this was not her preferred language pair; I do not even know if she was ill, or going through a personal crisis at the time of the incident. All I know is that she had to endure this interpreter’s worst nightmare, and she handled it by staying there, quiet, without moving a finger.
After the event ended I tried to see if those who knew her best were approaching her to show their support, or to show their contempt as it happens sometimes, but no one did. She continued acting as if nothing had happened for the rest of the day, and for the next few days that we worked together at the event.
That night at the hotel, I thought about the incident and wondered how I would have reacted to that situation. I could not tell for sure. I do not know. Maybe she checked her rendition as soon as she could to make sure she was truly wrong; maybe she reached the journalist who asked the question and apologized afterwards; maybe she talked to the event organizer and explained what had just happened; maybe she cried with a dear colleague in private; maybe she realized that she was not ready for these events yet.
That night I fell asleep with two certainties: That we are all vulnerable to a situation similar to what happened to this colleague, and that nobody really knows how they are going to react when faced with this horrendous scenario; all we can wish and hope is that it never happens to us and that if it does, our training and experience will guide us to the best reaction to minimize the damage caused by our mistake and to control the negative effects this could have on our professional careers. I now invite you to tell us about your worst interpreter’s nightmare and how do you think you might react if something like this happened to you.
July 21, 2014 § 11 Comments
Unfortunately, because of the type of work we do, all of us had to deal with uncomfortable situations at some point during our careers. To a higher or lesser degree, all of us have fielded questions like “Why do you do this work?” “How much money is “spent” (code word for “wasted”) paying for this service geared to those who do not speak the language of the land?” “How do you feel about helping these people who are not willing to assimilate to the local culture”? “Are they really that dumb that they cannot learn the language?” etcetera. Other interpreters have sat there, listening to comments such as: “If they don’t speak the language they should go back to their country,” “They want to speak their language because they like badmouthing the rest of us,” and some others that I rather exclude from this post because they are offensive and spelling them out contributes nothing to this article.
Of course, those of us who have been more than once around the block have lived through these situations more than our younger colleagues, and for the most part, we have come to understand that those making the remarks are the ones with the problem. In other words, we do not have time for this nonsense, so we just ignore them. This has been my strategy for years and it has worked fairly well.
Unfortunately, an incident happened a few weeks ago. I understand that when we think of bigotry and interpreting, we immediately picture a courtroom, a police station, a government agency, a public school, or a county hospital. You think of court, community, and healthcare interpreters as the ones dealing with these issues all the time. That may be so, but other interpreters (conference, military, media, etc.) have faced their share of this evil when practicing their profession. On this particular case, I was doing some escort interpreting for a foreign dignitary who was visiting the United States from a Spanish-speaking country. This was an important visitor, but he was not a head of state or celebrity; you see, bigotry tends to hide away when the potential target is surrounded by the media and some bodyguards. In this case I was providing my services to a very important foreign government officer who traveled alone. This individual was very sophisticated, formally educated, well-traveled, and very important back in his home country.
After a very successful visit, and once he took care of his business in the United States, we headed to the airport for the check in process. This was the last part of my job. After escorting this person for several days in different cities, after business meetings, formal events, flights, hotels, and other activities, all I had to do now was to take the dignitary to the airport, help him with boarding passes, connecting flights, immigration and customs, and send him off. I have done this thousands of times, all of them uneventful. We arrived to this domestic airport in the American south, and we proceeded to the airline ticket counter. The airport was pretty empty and we walked straight to the counter where we found a middle-aged Caucasian male wearing the airline’s uniform. I handed the passport and other required documents, identified myself as an interpreter, and told him what we needed. He looked at me and then he turned sideways in order to exclude me from the conversation and he addressed the visitor directly. This person, a guest in our country, looked at me and told me that he did not understand. I interpreted what the airline clerk had asked him, and once again told the clerk that the visitor did not understand him because he did not speak English. I explained to him what my role was, and asked him to ask his questions as usual. He looked at me once again, and this time he completely turned so that I was fully excluded from the conversation. He continued to address the visitor in English. The visitor looked for my help and this clerk did not let him. He told him that he “had to listen to the questions and answer them himself.” The guest told him in broken English that he was sorry but he did not understand the questions because he did not know English. The clerk smiled and asked him with a smirk: “You don’t understand English and you live in the twenty first century amigo?” I continued to interpret all this time, and when I saw that this clerk was going to give the visitor a very hard time, I asked the dignitary to step away from the counter and have a seat. I told him that I was going to take care of this situation. The visitor honored my request and went to a chair that was at a good distance from the counter so that the guest would not have to hear what I was about to say. As this was happening, the clerk yelled at him: “hey, ‘amigo’ you cannot leave, I am talking to you.” Once the visitor left, I addressed the clerk directly and once again explained to him the circumstances, including my role as the escort interpreter. He first looked at me for several seconds, then he laughed, and finally he told me that at his airport (remember this was a domestic airport with no international flights) they spoke English because “it was located in the United States.” He told me that he was going to ignore me because his job was to make sure that “this guy” would be able to get around once he was alone. He even told me that he was considering denying him a boarding pass because he was not going to find his way at the hub where he was supposed to take his international flight. He also told me that it made him mad that “…this country was letting in people who didn’t even care to learn English before coming to the United States…” At this point he told me that he needed the guest by the counter alone or he would deny the boarding pass. He then walked away and left. I looked around to confirm what I already knew: there was nobody else from the airline in sight.
Because of time constraints and due to the lack of infrastructure at this airport, I decided to tweet the basics of the incident with the airline hashtag. I immediately got an answer, and in a matter of minutes (maybe seconds) a different airline clerk met me at the counter. This individual took care of the visitor addressing him directly through the interpreter and the rest of the process was completed without incident.
After the visitor left, I decided to follow-up on this incident and I filed a formal complaint against this individual. I did it so that others do not have to go through what we did, and to raise the awareness of the airline. Professionally, I was satisfied with my performance: I took care of the problem, the visitor left as planned, and he noticed very little of what happened, thus avoiding an uncomfortable situation for this person who was a guest in the United States. This episode reminded me that despite the way things may be in the big cities, there are still plenty of places in the United States, and elsewhere, where we as interpreters must be on our toes and be assertive to do our job even when we face adverse circumstances. This time it was an escort interpreter assignment, but these situations are prone to happen in the courtroom, at the hospital, the public school, the government agency, and everywhere unsophisticated individuals are found. Always remember: bigotry could be around the corner, so be ready to act. I invite you to share with us some stories of your interactions with bigots who have directed their hate to you or to your client.