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The role of interpreters in conflict zones

Barbara McClintock, C. Tr.
Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council


Interpreters play an important role because they help build bridges between people. In conflict zones, they risk their lives to do their jobs.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, local interpreters, who are native speakers, although not necessarily trained in translation, help foreign troops understand cultural issues and provide them with vital information about unfamiliar situations they are facing. Local interpreters are also essential for journalists because they can negotiate and arrange meetings with insurgent leaders and others, as Times correspondent Deborah Haynes explained in a speech she gave on October 28, 2009, at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, as part of the 25th anniversary of its Master's in Translation program. Go to note 1

As Iraq correspondent for The Times of London, Haynes spent two years in the country. Iraqi interpreters translated her questions into Arabic and then translated the responses into English for her. In war zones, good interpreters are essential to protect the lives of foreign journalists. She relied on interpreters to tell her when the situation was dangerous and when it was time to leave. Go to note 2

Interpreters usually have good contacts. Locally hired people speak the correct dialect and possess an invaluable understanding of the culture. Haynes pointed out in her speech at the University of Salford that professional interpreters flown in from other Arab countries were not as helpful because they did not understand the local culture or dialect. She explained that, because of sectarian tensions, she needed an interpreter to speak Kurdish when she went to a Kurdish area of Iraq. In other areas, she had to be accompanied by either a Sunni Arab or a Shiite Arab, depending on where she was going.

Interpreters targeted by insurgents

In Haynes's opinion, in a conflict zone like Iraq, anyone who works with the occupying forces is regarded by the insurgency as a traitor. Iraqi interpreters are often targeted by al-Qaeda-linked militants and Shia (or Shiite) militias. For that reason, some interpreters prefer to wear a mask to avoid being identified.

The lives of interpreters following the withdrawal of troops

Haynes wrote a series of stories for The Times about the threats faced by interpreters after working with the British forces. For example, Mohammed Motlag, who worked with them in Basra for five years, was refused a place under a scheme to resettle Iraqi employees in Britain because he was deemed to be a security risk. Mr. Motlag told Haynes that his five-year-old son was kidnapped because of his work with the British. Go to note 3

Haynes won the inaugural Tony Bevins Prize for outstanding investigative journalism, also called the "Rat Up a Drainpipe Award," in 2008 Go to note 4. She also received the Amnesty International media award for excellence in human rights reporting Go to note 5. Her series of articles led Britain to offer compensation or asylum to interpreters who had worked in Iraq Go to note 6. More recently, in July 2011, the University of Salford bestowed an Honorary Doctorate of Science on Haynes, "who reported from Iraq for two years and has campaigned for the right of Iraqi interpreters to be repatriated to the UK." Go to note 7

Here's a tip of the hat to all interpreters and journalists working in conflict zones.

Return to note 1 Events at the University of Salford (www) Avis d'hyperliens français (NB: The original link no longer works.)

Return to note 2 Deborah Haynes interview (www) Avis d'hyperliens français

Return to note 3 In The Times [link no longer available] or the forum British Army Rumour Service (www) Avis d'hyperliens français

Return to note 4 Iraqi interpreter series by Deborah Haynes (www) Avis d'hyperliens français

Return to note 5 High profile Salford honorary graduates revealed (www) Avis d'hyperliens français

Return to note 6 Deborah Haynes wins investigative reporting award (www) Avis d'hyperliens français

Return to note 7 High profile Salford honorary graduates revealed (www) Avis d'hyperliens français