Interpreters in War Zones


InterpretersLooking for career opportunities? Are you brave and specialized in rare foreign languages? Join the Army! Last week we talked about an uncommon career for interpreters and translators in police departments and courts. An unusual choice for a linguist, but it is a job that can be very useful and socially relevant in a globalized society where institutions, public officers and the police need more and more to relate with foreign citizens. In another past entry of our blog, we touched upon the subject of difficulties and problems an Italian translator can face in accomplishing his work.

We are indeed fascinated by the many possibilities given by the knowledge of languages. Today we want to approach the topic from another, different point of view, which is: interpreters and translators in war zones. The news brings us more and more often news from the Middle East, currently one of the most dangerous areas of the world, a place where someone specialized in languages can make a vital contribution, though. Much more dangerous than working for the police or doing cheap translations for agencies as a freelancer (like the mentioned Italian translators). Anyway, this gives you an idea of one of the strangest careers you can have as an interpreter.

Interpreters in war zones, as commented by some officials of the US Army, are more valuable and useful than guns. “Having an interpreter means having hundreds of potential helpers and hundreds of weapons, while having a weapon means having only a weapon”, to repeat their words. Translation is an essential feature. It’s literally crucial for the survival of the soldiers, as many examples demonstrated. It is not just a matter of language, but a matter of culture. A local interpreter, or someone skilled in both language and culture, can for instance identify a suicide bomber from his suspicious behaviour before a military unit. A translator can translate dispatches, orders and timetables in order to simplify the Army’s schedule and its relations with the local police. In several cases, having a permanent interpreter on the team saved platoons from landmines, ambushes, dangerous paths and errors in judgment. Last, but of course not least, an interpreter can also work with journalists, doctors and hospitals. An interpreter can both come from the country itself or can be a second or third generation immigrant who accepts to be in charge of this perilous task with great personal commitment.

Speaking about languages, the most required dialects in the theatres of wars are rather “exotic”. In Iraq you need to have Arabic, Syriac, Turkish dialects and Kurdish. Afghanistan has a huge variety of spoken languages as well, from Uzbek to Pashtun. Not to mention African countries. Depending on the zone, the interpreter must know the specificities of the language. It is very difficult for the armies and NGOs to find such people, therefore they promote campaigns to find interpreters to help them in the missions. Beside the daily stress, in addition to the problems of the profession, a local interpreter often faces the hostility of people who are not always happy to see one of their citizens cooperate with those who are perceived as occupation forces. That’s the reason why (as in the case of Iraqi and Afghan translators) at the end of the missions the interpreter asks for citizenship, if not yet American or British. And it is not always easy to obtain it.

Check this article of the New York Times for further information.


By Matteo Poles

Social Media Specialist

Communication Trainee at TermCoord