Linguists in Battle: A Post-war Dilemma

From the translator sat at their computer in the early hours, to the interpreter tucked into a booth at a conference, a linguist’s role largely takes place behind the scenes and unfortunately often goes unrecognised.

But their role is essential in many walks of life – diplomacy, politics, trade and war.

Here, we will focus on the final point. In Afghanistan, many generals and soldiers have acknowledged the essential role that ‘terps, as they are known in military circles, have played in the surge – from providing local knowledge of both culture and area, to being the vital communication link between troops and locals.

More than 600 local interpreters have risked their lives by working closely alongside British troops. Many have followed troops directly into Taliban strongholds and as a result more than 20 have been killed in action with dozens more injured.

But although the danger begins on the frontline, it follows the ‘terps long after the gunfire has ceased.

A BBC report in February highlighted how many linguists have now gone into hiding since working with coalition forces. Working with coalition troops has exposed them to daily threats from locals and made them and their families the primary target for Taliban revenge attacks.

Zah, one linguist who worked with British troops, told the BBC: “They call us infidels – you work for the infidels so you are infidel!”

The risks will dramatically increase once British troops withdraw next year.

The coalition has counted on these interpreters for protection. Now the interpreters are counting on the coalition.

As a result, most NATO countries have implemented a form of resettlement programme for these linguists. The outstanding exception so far is the UK, who provided assistance following the war in Iraq, but on this occasion it seems less supportive of cases for asylum.

This has led three Afghan nationals to threaten the UK Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defense with legal action, to benefit from a resettlement programme similar to that introduced following Britain’s withdrawal from Iraq.

At Today Translations, we take great interest in all matters that impact the linguistic profession and have been touched by media reports about the UK Government’s reluctance to grant asylum to interpreters who have served alongside our armed forces in Afghanistan. We work with some of the world’s most talented linguists on a day-to-day basis and hugely value their linguistic skills.

As such, we and many of our partners would like to help raise awareness around this important issue.

On Tuesday, April 2nd, Today Translations will host a panel discussion on the UK Government’s reluctance so far to introduce a resettlement programme for local interpreters who worked alongside British armed forces in Afghanistan.

Taking part will be “Mohammed,” one of those interpreters affected. He is currently pursuing legal action against the UK Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence to benefit from a resettlement programme similar to that introduced following Britain’s withdrawal from Iraq.

“Mohammed” will be joined by his legal representative, human rights solicitor Rosa Curling, along with Kevin Hurley, Crime Commissioner for Surrey and an army reserve veteran of the Iraq War. For many years, Hurley vigorously campaigned for the rights of Ghurkha soldiers to settle in Britain.

The discussion will be moderated by Today Translations advisory board member David Clarke.

Due to the sensitive nature of the discussion, we will not be publishing or using “Mohammed’s” real name.

Although allocated seating is very limited, we will be tweeting from the event and be uploading a video of the entire panel discussion that very week.

If this is a subject you are interested in and passionate about, please get in touch with us by commenting or engaging with us on Twitter. Our profile is @translation_uk where we’ll be using the hashtag #linguistsinbattle.