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Tuesday, 28 January 2020 01:10

Meeting report: - #ProtectLinguists panel discussion at the United Nations, New York

On December 11 2019, I had the privilege to participate as IATIS representative in an important event on war and the global  politics of translation held at UN headquarters in New York City and hosted by the Permanent Missions of Spain and the Republic of Fiji to the UN as well as the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). The event - titled #ProtectLinguists - was a panel discussion featuring a variety of speakers representing the world language community and transnational Human Rights activist communities. The panel discussion was co-organized by Red T, a nonprofit organization advocating for the protection of translators and interpreters in high-risk settings worldwide and moderated by Linda Fitchett of the International Association of Conference Interpreters. The audience was comprised of a remarkable number of representatives from the world languages community, including the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), International Federation of Translators (FIT), the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI), Critical Link International (CLI), the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) and the International Association of University Institutes with Translation and Interpretation Programs (CIUTI). 

The event’s hosts, H.E. Ambassador María Bassols and UNDSS Director Bill Keller, delivered the opening remarks and introduced the audience to the plight of civilian translators and interpreters working in conflict and post-conflict settings. Maya Hess laid out in clear and accessible language the reasons why there is an urgent need for the world language community, Human Rights activist organisations and supranational entities like the UN to concretely support professional and non-professional translators and interpreters who get hired to work with and for an army, journalists, NGOs, diplomats, and other foreign entities during and right after war.

At present, the protection mechanisms available under international humanitarian law do not adequately address the specific needs of these local translators and interpreters, as they fall through the cracks in the Geneva Conventions and, unlike journalists working in war zones, are not covered by UN resolutions. As Hess explained, the problem partly arises from discriminatory views that are commonly held about cultural mediators and language brokers. Whilst their employers, who represent powerful institutions and structures like the United States Army, tend to view them instrumentally as “tools” able to decipher an unknown code in a hostile foreign setting, the local communities these interpreters are part of often see them as traitors, an “enemy within”collaborating with “foreign invaders”. By contrast, debates like the one held at the UN seek to reimagine war zone translators and interpreters as professionals who, much like journalists, play a politicised, contested, complex and often necessary role in increasingly globalising societies. 

Red T founder Maya Hess suggested a set of concrete ways to enhance linguist protection through a coordinated international response. These include the establishment of a working group on this thematic within the UN structure; the appointment of a Special Rapporteur by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate, gather data and draft a report on the scope of the issue along with possible solutions; an iteration of the Montreux document that would include a section on linguist protection; and a UN resolution or similar legal instrument that would articulate interpreter rights and establish a normative framework for future protection. Hess argued that a UN Resolution, similar to those adopted for journalists, would be a first critical step towards greater protection and increased safety and that, while such a resolution would not be binding, it would represent a political commitment by the member states. 

The envisioned UN Resolution would first and foremost recognize that translators and interpreters in conflict situations face threats and violence. Furthermore, it would call on states to publicly condemn attacks targeting linguists and urge them to ensure accountability by dedicating the resources to investigate and prosecute such attacks. She concluded with an urgent appeal to member states to firmly place the protection of translators and interpreters in the “Protection of Civilians” agenda of the United Nations. Red T’s appeal was then echoed by Betsy Fisher, Esq., from the International Refugee Assistance Project, Lucio Bagnulo, the Head of Translation at Amnesty International’s Language Resource Centre, Maître Caroline Decroix from the Association des interprètes et auxiliaires afghans de l’Armée Française, and Dr. Simona Škrabec from PEN International.

As a member of IATIS and as a scholar of Translation and Interpreting Studies, what struck me the most about the event was how several of the speakers understood the problem as partly originating from narratives about translation and interpreting which reduce the role of language brokers to that of tools or are enmeshed in a larger contemporary moral panic about cultural and linguistic “contagion” in increasingly post-national societies. This implicitly calls on scholars to pay particular attention to the question of how translation is viewed and imagined in globalised cultures whose post-monolingual reality may often be riven with violence and conflict. The event successfully provided an international platform for raising awareness of the urgent need for greater legal protection of local civilian translators and interpreters in conflict and post-conflict situations. 


Serena Bassi, Yale Translation Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow 

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