At the Edges of Peace – Interpreting Conflict and Diplomacy

At the Edges of Peace – Interpreting Conflict and Diplomacy

Specific training for interpreters assigned to conflict zones is rare. The primary tools an interpreter takes into a conflict zone are their personal skills. The most powerful of these are their ability to speak the target language and their understanding of the culture.

“Your interpreter is way more important than your weapon,” US Army Major Cory Schulz was quoted by the New York Times as saying in 2009*. He led a tactical US team embedded with Afghan troops, a group he indicated he was able to command solely because of his interpreter. His gun, on the other hand, was only helpful for self-defense.

Major Schulz spoke also of the multiple roles of his interpreter in Afghanistan: “…he saved my life more than once.” For example, that interpreter helped identify a would-be suicide bomber in a large crowd by spotting nervous behavior that Afghans could recognize and Americans were oblivious to. Military personnel are not usually instructed about the culture they are going to be immersed in, so good interpreters will translate all manner of cultural details in addition to language.

The technical difficulties of interpreting at the site of a conflict go beyond the inherent danger and hardships of war zones, and there is not much that can be done ahead of time to mitigate them. An interpreter’s preparation before an assignment includes studying key words likely to arise, acronyms that are commonly used in the situation, maps and other documents, and key names of people and places. However, while it’s helpful to memorize details relevant to potential conversations, interpreters are also likely to encounter chaotic situations and speakers with jumbled, even incoherent speaking styles out of which the interpreters must construct sense. Dialects and languages they are unfamiliar with might also arise. In order for the interpreter to be able to synthesize clear communication, they must have a strong background in both spoken languages involved as well as the terminology specific to the conflict. Even with experience and preparation, the work is extremely challenging, and sometimes interpreters can become scapegoats for the emotional, flawed dialog the two sides are attempting.

It’s heroic work. Interpreters at the edges of peace where war rages or diplomatic negotiations are underway have played a critical role in international history for thousands of years. Considered traitors in some circumstances – because by translating for the “enemy” they can be seen as being sympathetic to them – wartime interpreters are under constant threat. Often enough they are forced to live in hiding, especially if they are originally from the local community.

Yet the names of these brave, important interpreters at historical events are almost never available to us afterwards the way the names of text translators are known. The author of a paper exploring the nature of interpreting in conflict zones over the centuries** theorizes three reasons for this:

1. The primacy of the written word over the spoken
2. Social status and gender of those recruited to interpret, who were often enslaved women, members of sub-castes, prisoners of war, or victims of the troubled circumstances
3. Reporters and historians are not ever able to record every detail of an event, and interpreters are viewed as incidental

The two main styles of interpreting used in these dynamic situations are simultaneous and consecutive. Consecutive requires remembering what is being said and then quickly, accurately phrasing that meaning for delivery in the target language. Simultaneous translation is somewhat different – for this style the interpreter must think even more quickly, creating a flow of translated language at the same pace as the speaker is speaking. With either style, by tuning in to key words and closely following main concepts, the interpreter’s adrenalized mind can create a bridge between people that opens possibilities completely unavailable without their skills.

All this must be done while paying attention to the nuances of words, innuendos, idioms, and emotions. The interpreter must convey meanings accurately without bias and also without censoring words or ideas in order to affect the outcome of the communication. Working on behalf of military personnel, journalists, doctors, political leaders, humanitarian aid workers, and so many others involved with war and diplomacy, interpreters enter conflict zones and peace talks as catalysts to understanding. They are indispensable to any effort toward peace.


J. V. McShulskis

* https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/22/opinion/22foust.html

** Interpreters & interpreting in conflict zones and scenarios: A historical perspective, by Lucia Ruiz Rosendo, 2016