Interpreters working in conflict zones

Approx read: 2 mins

Considered a necessary evil, ancient Egyptian interpreters were crammed into ships alongside miners and lesser sailors. These early linguists wore garments made of sackcloth instead of the linen that other clerks of the realm wore. Though they were important enough to Egyptians to merit their own hieroglyph in 3000 BCE, interpreters and translators were still regarded by all sides as suspicious characters prone to becoming traitors.

In ancient Greece and Rome, slaves translated the language of the conquered into Greek and Latin. The job was deemed demeaning for the nobility, as it was often bureaucratic and didn’t pay well.

Things haven’t changed much, have they?

Translating and interpreting in dangerous places certainly isn’t boring, but it does come with risks. Getting it wrong, misunderstanding non-verbal cues, speaking in the third person and showing partiality in the business world will get an interpreter or translator fired. In conflict zones, it might get you shot.

Preparation before taking the job is essential. Get to know your client and her goals. Discuss worst-case scenarios. Will you be put in a situation that will challenge your ethics? Learn about your destination. For sign language interpreters, double check to make sure that the sign for “hello” doesn’t mean in your region doing something unspeakable to a chicken in your region. Insist on security and emergency training appropriate for the area. Study maps of the region. Be sure your travel medical insurance covers not only the areas you plan to visit as well as neighbouring areas-plans can change quickly in dangerous places. Check your policy to make sure it has adequate aftercare. Does it cover PTSD? Medical evacuation? Remains repatriation? Consider springing for add-ons like ISIS insurance or terrorism insurance.

Once on the job, make every effort to be and seem impartial. Translators and interpreters are often seen to be working with the enemy, don’t give people an excuse to distrust you even further. Honour your confidentiality agreement. Stay away from wearing a uniform or carrying weapons- you may inadvertently show bias. Try to keep your cool, even when the environment is dangerous or distracting. Maintain eye contact with your speakers, and encourage them to look at each other, not you. This will reinforce their perception of your impartiality.

Bridging languages in dangerous places isn’t for everyone, but it can be the experience of a lifetime.

Sarah is a blogger, writer and amateur palaeontologist from New Orleans. When not writing or digging dinosaurs, she teaches English.