This must be a priority to all interpreters worldwide.

June 8, 2021 § 10 Comments

Dear colleagues:


September 11 will mark the twentieth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks in the United States that shook up the world and ushered an era of war and armed conflicts in several regions of the world. This year the date will mark the end of NATO’s military occupation of Afghanistan. The departure of the armed forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands closes a sad chapter of the 21 Century which lasted twenty years; it also shows a vow of confidence in the Afghan authorities, expected to govern the war-torn country on their own (with minimal foreign support) and unfortunately, simultaneously it opens the door for the Taliban to return to its fanatic, inhumane practices, bringing back the terror suffered by the people of Afghanistan before September 11, 2001.


These conflict zone and military interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers are our colleagues. They aided Western armed forces in military operations risking (and often losing) their own lives; they helped NATO forces and international organizations in their efforts to bring peace to cities and villages throughout the country; translated intelligence-packed documents and everyday paperwork; provided language support to contractors in charge of developing infrastructure and construction works that benefitted many soldiers, marines, and civilians (some your family members perhaps); they accompanied Western governments and international organizations’ representatives during campaigns to improve the health, education, administration of justice, and welfare of millions of Afghan citizens. They did the same work you do back in your countries. They just did it under death threats while watching how fellow interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Taliban.


The Taliban has clarified it: they will retaliate against our colleagues after the West leaves on September 11. They will be declared “traitors” and many will be executed. This is not new. It has happened throughout history. Interpreters and translators have been targeted for killing in every war, everywhere. Even when they never held a weapon, even when they did not share ancestry or ethnicity with their victimizers. Even today, after 500 years, many Mexicans refer to Malintzin, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, as a traitor, and they use the term “malinchismo” (Malintzin-like) to describe a treasonous act. This, even though Malintzin was not of Aztec descent, and her own people were enslaved and oppressed by the Aztecs. Fortunately for Malintzin, Cortés won the armed conflict and was never abandoned by the victorious Spanish empire, even after the war ended.


Some question the motivation that drove Afghan interpreters, translators and cultural brokers to work with the West. Undeniably some did it because they needed the income to provide for their families devastated by the years of Taliban rule; others joined because of the adventure, and even hoping to move to the West at some point; others did it because they were tired of the injustices committed by Taliban authorities, they wanted to end discriminatory practices affecting their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters; others were angry with the way their religious beliefs were hijacked and distorted by those in power, and frankly, others did it because their sympathies were with the West. It does not matter; motivation aside, these courageous men and women risked their lives and their families’ to provide a service needed to protect our friends, neighbors, and family members deployed in Afghanistan. They provided their services knowing of this tremendous danger because the West, our governments, promised them protection. They worked understanding that at some point, if they were still alive, when the Allied Forces left Afghanistan they would take them, and their families, with them. This counts. We have to see them as fellow humans.


Some of these conflict zone colleagues have made it to the West, very few, and it has not been easy. Red tape, political posturing, policy changes, and lack of interest, have made it a nightmare, and have caused many dead colleagues, killed while waiting for a piece of paper, or an interview, or a policy change. If not for the pressure exercised by civil society, many more would have died. It is thanks to the efforts of some organizations, especially thanks to Red T and its allies, and the drive and inspiration of its leader (my admired) Maya Hess, that governments have acted. Most NATO members are currently planning and processing the evacuation of many of these interpreters, translators, cultural brokers, and their families. That is great, but it is not enough. Some are slipping through the cracks. And they are running out of time. September 11 is less than 100 days away and there is much to be done; so much, that some of us fear many colleagues will be left behind.


This can be done. There is precedent. The United States did it in Vietnam on April 30, 1975 with the “Saigon Airlift.” Just like now, many Vietnamese who helped the American government and contractors were evacuated and taken to Guam, a United States Territory, for processing. A similar action could take place. Instead of living them behind, and risking a travesty of justice, questionable individuals could be transferred out of Afghanistan for processing. Those cleared shall be admitted to the Western nation they worked with, and those rejected, because the possibility of infiltration exists, shall be dealt with according to the law.


Time is running out and not one of us can afford to be a spectator. We must support our colleagues. If you are or were in the military you know how important these individuals were to your safety and success; if you have a friend, neighbor, or family member who was or is in the military, consider that perhaps your loved one came back because of one interpreter, translator, or cultural broker; If you, a family member, or a friend work for a contractor in Afghanistan, think that maybe your friend or relative had a job that allowed them to feed their families because of the work of a conflict zone linguist. Contact your president or prime minister; your secretary of defense; your legislative leaders, your private sector, and tell them about these folks; ask them to write to their representatives. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper, share this information with war veterans’ organizations in your area. We should all participate. It will take a few minutes of your life, and you will be helping to save lives and defend our profession. Every year, Every September 11 we remember those who died because of a despicable act of terror. On the 20th Anniversary of this day of remembrance let’s not forget our fellow interpreters, translators, and cultural brokers who helped us for twenty years.

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.

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