War and civil strife are a time when good communication is essential, but what about the dangers to those who carry out this essential work, translating for soldiers, civilians and peace keepers?
The situation of those who acted as interpreters in Afghanistan is currently in the news as their supporters are trying to persuade the government to offer a safe haven in the UK. At least 20 interpreters were killed in action while translating for British troops in Afghanistan and dozens were wounded. Six more were murdered by the Taliban while off duty and five have been hunted down since UK forces left.
The government Armed Forces minister Penny Mordaunt, said she did not know of any translators working for British forces who had been killed but one, Sam, called her comments an ‘insult’ and said he had given British officials the names of two witnesses to the murder of his brother Parwiz, also a translator. An attempt was also made to kidnap 20-year-old Sam and when he could not be found at the family’s home his two younger brothers, aged 14 and 17 were beaten by the Taliban.
The same problem occurred in Iraq when the British army was there. Interpreters would get a letter warning them to stop co-operating with the occupation forces, then they would be killed.
It’s hard for a military interpreter in these situations to keep their work a secret – neighbours, the police and even people in the street can see them, and that makes it difficult to keep their identities secret.
This danger is nothing new – after American forces left Vietnam interpreters and translators who had worked for the United States were targeted and many killed. So why do interpreters and translators take the risk?
Interpreters are often paid better wages than is typical locally, and many interpret as a way of supporting a cause, such as helping defeat the Taliban. Others may hope that interpreting for British forces will open the door to the UK.
The former overall commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John Allen says the interpreters are Afghan patriots. “They’ve been wounded, they’ve died alongside us and they are tremendously dedicated to the cause. I think we have an obligation to look after them.” However, although the US and other NATO countries have programmes to help their interpreters to apply for asylum, Britain has not.
Julian Lewis MP, Chairman of the Defence Committee, said that ministers have continued to deny translators a safe haven in Britain, despite a “clear and present threat” to their safety. So translators and interpreters continue to pay a high price for their services until and unless a solution can be found. Interpreting in war zones is a matter of life and death, and continues to be even after the war ends – let’s be thankful that our work in the UK is mostly danger-free!