Language Actors in the Theaters of War

No death incident has spurred great public opinion in Afghanistan, not after the videotaped beheading in 2007 of Ajmal Naqshbandi, the interpreter of the Italian La Repubblica reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo. This was after the supposed interview of the journalist with the Taliban, which ended up as a trap, leading to the horrifying death of the fixer. Although the Italian government was able to ensure Daniele’s liberty after the abduction, the civilian interpreter was left behind in the arms of militants with his throat slit.

In Iraq, at least 21 interpreters working with the British military in Basra were shot in the head, 17 of them executed in a single mass killing. After being hunted down, their bodies were dumped in different parts of the city, and no one has taken legal responsibility for the attack.

Since foreign forces have been withdrawn from these war-torn areas, no less than a thousand language professionals, who have served as their ears for war, lost their lives on the battleground whether in the course of helping the public remain informed by serving journalists or acting as language bridges for armed forces.

Today, interpreters continue to perform their roles as key to the administration of peace and justice, but they remain unprotected by international laws. Unlike journalists, their rights have not been specifically covered by any legal resolution and are still falling through the cracks of the Geneva Conventions. This is why formalizing interpreters’ security provisions has been long overdue.

To address this, Red T, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of language professionals in highly dangerous areas and other adversarial settings, together with the four major international language associations—the International Association of Conference Interpreters, the International Federation of Translators, the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, and the Critical Link International—have called the attention of various society leaders in raising public awareness on the terrible fate of our linguists today.

War and conflict know no linguistic boundaries, but with the honorable profession of our small army of translators and interpreters serving as mediators between state and nonstate actors in a warfare, bridging the gap of misunderstanding—a mighty task both dangerous and deadly—becomes critically possible. Given the workforce limitation in this service industry, we cannot simply afford to see another brave linguist become a mere target for retaliation.

An online petition is being geared up toward the drafting and the enactment of a UN resolution that mandates member states in prosecuting crimes perpetrated against language professionals.

Just recently, the death of NPR’s Afghan interpreter Zabihullah Tamanna and David Gilkey, one of the network’s well-known photojournalists, struck headlines after their armored Humvee was hit by grenades while doing an assignment in Afghanistan. If you are one with us in urging intergovernmental organizations to protect translators and interpreters worldwide, check the given link below and sign the petition now: