War Zone Linguists

Wars have happened since the dawn of time and will continue to happen until dusk falls over the planet. Wars are either about one nation seizing territory from another, (WW2), or assisting an ally to defend itself against an attacker (WW1), or protecting essential global assets (Iraq, The Gulf 1&2), stemming the tide of terrorism (Afghanistan), or religion (take your pick).

Over There

Since the end of the Cold War the western powers have come to regard their military might as a force to resolve the conflicts of others rather than as a mechanism for global provocation and world dominance. Being the world’s policeman, the US State Department’s principal rationale for the vast US military machine, often requires short-notice deployment to whichever part of the world needs a bit of intervention to maintain the greater global good. If one lays aside the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, there hasn’t been a military war fought on US soil since the American Civil War which ended in 1865.

So, as far as the west is concerned, wars mostly take place in “foreign” countries where the locals and their local enemy speak a “foreign” language. The US and the UK, the two largest going-to-war nations, of course speak English, usually only English. Good local communication in war zones is essential if the objectives of the intervention are to succeed and troops “on the ground” are to remain alive.

Bridging the Gap

Enter conflict-zone linguists – interpreters. The role of interpreters in combat has a long and mostly honourable history. Interpreters are recruited locally by the incoming military. They tend to be peo-ple with a command of English often acquired in the west, whose role is to bridge the gap between one language and another in all aspects of the conflict. A mighty task – and deadly dangerous.

Last week The Washington Post reported that an Associated Press video journalist and his Palestinian translator were killed in series of explosions at an ordnance dump as they were reporting a story about Gaza’s efforts to dispose of a mountain of deadly debris left behind after a month of war, and that the Italian journalist, Simone Camilli, and interpreter, Ali Shehda Abu Afash, were killed alongside four members of the Gaza police force’s bomb disposal unit.

Local interpreters put themselves forward for such work for several reasons; patriotism, in assisting a war effort they side with, financial, as an opportunity to be remunerated for all those English les-sons, and altruism, a selfless desire to help where required. It’s not always the case though. Local interpreters have been known to offer their skills to infiltrate the incoming military force and acquire critical operational intelligence for the benefit of the enemy, or indeed operating on behalf of the enemy as an unreliable narrator for their ostensible employer, causing havoc with intentionally mis-translated information. But mostly they are good guys, dodging the bullets alongside the war corre-spondents, photographers and cameramen. Having a Red Cross or a Red Crescent or the words “Press” “Medic” or “Linguist” emblazoned across a flak jacket is no defence at all against a stray bullet or an indiscriminate landline as you scramble for cover.


Modern warfare does not end in victory or defeat, merely in a withdrawal of the military intervention when local conditions are reckoned to be sufficiently stable so to do. And then what becomes of the small army of interpreters who remain? War is never black and white, it’s always several shades of grey, no matter who you are or how you look at it. Depending on the local perception of the post-war status quo, war-zone interpreters run the risk of being seen as traitors, collaborators or persons with whom a personal score needs to be settled. So, does the receding military force take active steps to protect its once-valued assistants or does it leave them to their local fate? Whilst any right-thinking person would hope for and indeed assume the former, often it is the latter, with reasons such as the difficulty of resettlement for the often large families of translators, the complexities of particular bilateral relationships with the war-torn country in question or the difficulties of immigration and nationality status being cited.

Whilst there are heartening initiatives, such as the work being done by a church community in the USA, it’s essential that an international settlement strategy for post-war military transla-tors is adopted to ensure that war-zone linguists remain protected and provided-for after the war is over.

Perhaps these complexities of war could be avoided, or at least ameliorated by regarding battlefront translation as a professional part of the military machine, rather than as a disposable local commodity. During the Cold War, there was much investment in training linguists, nowadays the volume of people being trained as military linguists is considerably less and those that are tend to be employed behind the lines, in offices, for administrative efficiency, leaving the poor bloody infantry of local translators to take the flak.