Lingos: From language knowledge to communication skills

Global governance has expanded over the last two decades into long-term involvement in many countries. This long-term involvement may be compared to earlier European colonial governance, although they follow distinct models of knowledge and interaction. Today’s global multicultural models, which we may trace back to UNESCO’s 1950’s Statement on Race, explicitly reject the racial theories and hierarchies that legitimised earlier European colonial rule. Nevertheless, contemporary global governance has its own divisions and hierarchies, which are evident in its language knowledge policies.

Earlier European colonial governance was strongly influenced by anthropological models of knowledge. British colonial advisers deplored the weak language knowledge of colonial officers and made language and country knowledge a core aspect of its colonial service training. Conversely language and country knowledge does not feature in today’s global governance interventions, nor is it prioritised in the recruitment or training of staff.

So while aid organisations are establishing a long-term presence in many countries, this presence has not accompanied by strong language and country knowledge requirements in recruitment to aid organisations. Or rather the language requirement of global governance is global English, not the language of the country or community hosting the global aid sector. We see here how communication between the different aid organisations supersedes communication with the host population and its institutions. As such we see how international aid organisations are interlinked and evolving into a global community. Meanwhile communication with the host populations is increasingly through the medium of English, and those locals who know English acting as intermediaries. Such trends are reinforced by how the global aid sector is increasingly organised as a fortified aid community behind barbed wire following security and insurance concerns, as Mark Duffield has explored (Duffield, 2012). Consequently, aid workers’ relations with the host population are increasingly circumscribed and organised at what is deemed a safe and securitised distance.

The assumptions of global governance are evident in the skills that organisations require of their staff. In the 1990s, the British Foreign Office shifted its interest to generic thematic concerns such as global human rights and environmental concerns. Thus those recruited were more likely to have a background in international studies or human rights than languages and area studies. The Foreign Office under the coalition government has shifted back to renewed emphasis on language and country knowledge. However the British Department of International Development (DFID), whose status has grown relative to the Foreign Office over the last two decades, maintains the thematic approach, and its emphasis on generic skills, rather than languages and area knowledge.

The outlook of DFID and the global aid sector follow trends in North American and British schooling and higher education philosophy. Across British education there has been a shift of emphasis from teaching knowledge to teaching skills and attitudes. This shift is evident in the re-naming and re-focusing of English and mathematics in primary schools to literacy and numeracy. At the other end, this shift is evident in the behavioural competency models being applied to academics by human resource managers, or the skills components and learning objectives that academics are required to list in their course guides. The emphasis on (communication) skills and attitudes over knowledge is illustrated by how multiculturalism and cultural respect are central to the UK curriculum, yet there has been the decline of language knowledge, evident in the relative, and in some instances, absolute decline of numbers of students taking language exams at school and language degrees at university.

Given these educational and governmental trends, it is unsurprising that knowledge of languages, aside from English, is not central to employment in aid organisations. The emphasis on recruited staff is on market flexibility and communication skills, rather than embedded knowledge, again reflecting broader employment changes (Sennett, 2006). For while international aid organisations are developing permanent presences in many countries, many aid workers are employed on short-term contracts, and are commonly responsible for their own employability skills, rather than the organisation. The experience of casualisation means international aid staff are less likely to develop in-depth country and language knowledge. The demands of market flexibility compound these educational and institutional trends against language knowledge. Furthermore, language skills have little relevance for a bunkered, isolated aid community, discouraged from personally interacting with locals.

The integration of aid organisations into global governance seeks to be a bulwark against the insecurities of globalisation. However, the language knowledge models implicit in the global aid sector suggest the alienating and hierarchical character of contemporary global governance, and its weak relation to the host population. The language politics of global governance belie the idealised discourse of global villages, partnerships and participatory or grassroots development. International aid organisations in their bunkered complexes are increasingly isolated from the host community and the realities on the ground.  As such the evolving global governance has a contradictory character at odds with the sustainable development relations it seeks to engender.

Vanessa Pupavac is author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Global Governance, Palgrave, 2012


  • Duffield, Mark (2012) ‘Risk Management and the Bunkering of the Aid Industry.’ Development Dialogue, No. 58, 21-36.
  •  Sennett, Richard (2006) The Culture of the New Capitalism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
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LINGOs: Politics of Cultural and Language Knowledge in Post-Cold War Humanitarianism

LINGOs: Politics of Cultural and Language Knowledge in Post-Cold War Humanitarianism

Humanitarianism has been to core how the Global North has related to the Global South. The Live Aid response to the 1984-5 Ethiopian Famine anticipated how humanitarianism would become entrenched as the prism through which the Global South would be viewed after the Cold War. The humanitarian sector considerably expanded in the 1990s as part of global governance. Nevertheless, this expansion took place in a context when organisations were fundamentally questioning their traditional humanitarian mission. Humanitarian approaches modified under pressure from internal debates and external security concerns. Here I want to highlight the cultural and language knowledge implied by the changing humanitarian models.

One of the new humanitarian policy areas introduced in the early 1990s was psychosocial interventions, including trauma counselling. The introduction of refugee trauma counselling programmes is traceable to the recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the US Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (third edition) in 1980, which spurred the spread of trauma counselling for victims of war and disaster. More broadly, psychosocial concerns, which inform trauma counselling, may be traced backed to interwar western social psychology, especially US social psychology and conflict studies. The spectacular rise of psychosocial programmes may be attributed to three key reasons a) projection of western therapeutic concerns onto humanitarian crises b) reaction against the bureaucratising of aid and attempt to reconnect to disaster-affected populations c) response against accusations of traditional aid feeding killers in war-related crises or undermining local economies. In essence, psychosocial models conceptualise conflicts as arising from dysfunctional social psychology, and see psychosocial work as breaking cycles of trauma and violence. Thus trauma counselling programmes aspired not just to treat present distress, but to prevent future psychosocial dysfunction and therefore future violence and trauma.

The 1990s’ talking cures obviously involved an important language dimension, whether the direct psychosocial inventions or ‘training the trainers’ programmes. Yet the rise of talking cures did not lead to language knowledge becoming treating as an important issue in the humanitarian sector. Implicitly there was a reliance on locals speaking English to mediate the implementation of international programmes. For few reports even mention, let alone discuss, language challenges, or the need for language policies or language training or even how these relations worked in practice. Retrospectively, it is striking how narrow any discussion of language and culture was. Culture was commonly raised in terms of the need to address cultures of violence and promote cultures of peace. While language knowledge as an aspect of humanitarian work is barely mentioned in the 1990s’ humanitarian literature. Only incidental reference to language matters can be found. Translation and interpretation matters were not treated as a standard item for review in internal or external evaluation reports.

Insofar as individual psychosocial programmes mentioned cultural and language knowledge, reference mainly related to the need to make cultural modifications to the training materials and diagnostic check lists, and to translate them into the local language. Effectively cultural adaptation represented a sub-category of the promoted western model. So while international psychosocial initiatives formally acknowledged the need for cultural adaptation, their rather indiscriminate projection of mass trauma and psychosocial dysfunction projected a specific set of western professional norms onto how individuals respond to distress. Conversely, it was the critical literature challenging the western psychological models, which explored questions of cultural knowledge. Psychiatrists such as Patrick Bracken and Derek Summerfield criticised the projection of western psychosocial models onto disaster-affected communities, for marginalising and disrupting local coping strategies.

The last decade has seen a shift from trauma models to resilience models. What is its significance for language and cultural knowledge? Or what understanding of language and culture is implied by the resilience models? Critics of western trauma models initially welcomed the shift to resilience as moving away from pessimistic views of the capacity of disaster-affected populations.

However, the resilience paradigm is distinct from the concept of fortitude and its emphasis on individual or communal moral strength. Essentially, resilience models are risk management models drawing on ecological systems thinking. They are premised on a sense of global connectedness, but interconnected in terms of risks and vulnerabilities, contamination or contagion.

The resilience paradigm of interconnectedness through risks and vulnerabilities is leading to what Professor Mark Duffield has called the ‘bunkerisation’ of aid work, and risk management codes of aid practice seeking to insulate international aid organisations from the insecurities of crisis situations. Duffield has explored the building of fortified aid compounds, whose barbed wire and secured connecting roads have uncanny echoes of Solzhenitsyn’s gulag archipelago, although their purpose is to secure internationals from locals, their erstwhile humanitarian concerns. Increasingly humanitarianism is deploying systems modelling and remote monitoring, eschewing direct relations with populations. At the same time, UN or INGO MOST compliance codes are requiring international staff to not live in the local community, and avoid informal interactions with local inhabitants. Meanwhile whole swathes of the world are becoming ethnographic voids under risk management concerns, according to Duffield. As such contemporary humanitarianism reinforces global hierarchies and divisions between cosmopolitan elites and excluded populations.

The resilience paradigm with its systems modelling and remote monitoring operates at the level of populations, rather than individuals. Implicitly, the resilience paradigm represents a post-human and post-linguistic naturalised modelling of human populations, which retreats from the ideal of developing a global civil society of speaking subjects, expanding their moral political community beyond the nation state. Professor Julian Reid refers to the ‘disastrous and politically debased subject of resilience’. Indicatively human beings are increasingly seen by experts in terms of the neurosciences, and neural networks, in which the distinctiveness of human individuality and human language is being lost, as Ray Tallis has explored.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism wrote of the dangers of naturalising humanity, treating humans as species, not individuals, and re-organising around the struggle for survival of competing races. The contemporary global governance models are not premised on racial frameworks. Nevertheless, the resilience paradigm with its naturalising of human populations and expert management has its own anti-political and anti-democratic implications. So while the 1990s’ psychosocial paradigm, with its assumptions of vulnerability and dysfunction, involved retreat from belief in individuals’ moral, political and social capacity, the resilience paradigm involve further retreat from belief in human individuality to treating humans as species. In short, contemporary humanitarianism embodies a hollowed out demoralised humanity in retreat.

Author: Vanessa Pupavac is author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Global Governance, Palgrave, 2012




Duffield, Mark (2012) ‘Risk Management and the Bunkering of the Aid Industry.’ Development Dialogue, No. 58, 21-36.

Reid, Julian (2012) The Disastrous and Politically Debased Subject of Resilience.’ Development Dialogue, No. 58, 67-79.

Vanessa Pupavac (2004) ‘Psychosocial Interventions and the Demoralisation of Humanitarianism.’ Journal of Biosocial Science, Vol. 36 pp. 491-504.



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Supporting the LINGOS project

AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters, first worked together with Reading and Southampton Universities in the project ‘Languages at War’ under the leadership of Hilary Footitt in what we hope may become a series of  research projects concerning languages, translation, interpretation and, generally, linguistic and cultural mediation in areas of conflict.

We welcome this interest by researchers and the possibility of launching a new project concerning languages in international NGOs.

From the point of view of one of our own concerns: drawing attention to the plight of civilian interpreters and translators recruited by the military in an effort to protect them both during and after conflict, this second project would be a natural follow-up to the first.

Whilst many civilian interpreters have been forced to flee reprisals for having worked ‘with the enemy’ we nevertheless believe that others could and do find a useful place in their home society following hostilities, either returning to their original source of employment or continuing to work as intermediaries with international NGOs rather than the military, where many of the skills they developed in one context may be able to be adapted to another.

Working for NGOs is, however, as Barbara Moser has said, a very different matter to working with the military. Each NGO has its own objectives and philosophy which must be ‘translated’ into the local context: more and more often by local intermediaries.

It is already known that translators/interpreters, who in this context are often non-professionals without practical or ethical training, bear considerable responsibility during a conflict in which they may become key players, even to the extent of unwittingly influencing a situation or turning it deliberately to their own or others’ advantage.

In many respects, a post-conflict situation still bears many of the hallmarks of the conflict itself. Not only must the local employees of NGOs often still be protected physically and supported mentally in the field, but there may be the same distrust by nationals of a foreign NGO and those who work for it, the same dependence of the foreigner on the cultural and linguistic knowledge of a local employee, the same ‘opportunity’ for the translator /interpreter to take advantage of a situation, the same problem if the NGO withdraws from the country leaving the local employees behind. Local employees in this context will often be required to carry out a number of different tasks apart from translating and interpreting, which may previously have been their sole responsibility. There must therefore be adequate selection procedures, understanding of roles, sensitivity and trust on all sides and, if anything, an even greater understanding of linguistic and cultural differences in a context which brings two or more cultures into very close contact, most obviously in the refugee or medical fields.

We have been happy to do what we could to help launch this project and, with an eye to  more distant possibilities, we look forward to further research into other areas also covered by our own ‘Interpreters in conflict’ project and  which was originally intended to cover many sources of conflict , including the lack of understanding about the role and importance of community/public service interpreters as witnessed recently in problems in UK and US courts. As Hilary Footitt says in ‘Sites of transnational conflict’ above: ‘Any space in which an institution engages with the foreign is potentially a site of confrontation’. Prior knowledge, and therefore research, may help to prevent confrontation.

Linda Fitchett ( President of AIIC)

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The language policies of British colonial service

Global governance has evolved into a permanent presence in many countries. As such global governance has analogies to colonial governance, but involves distinct politics of knowledge. The different politics of knowledge and organisational approaches towards language knowledge give insights into the outlook of western donor countries and the contemporary character of global aid relations. The British colonial service was strongly influenced by anthropological models of knowledge, which promoted a concern with language and country knowledge. Language knowledge, or its lack, was a preoccupation of British colonial service, whereas these concerns are not prominent in today’s aid industry. Here I draw on the informative studies of Anthony Kirk-Greene’s Symbol of Authority: The British District Officer in Africa (2006) and Steve Tsang’s Governing Hong Kong: Administrative Officers from the Nineteenth Century to the Handover to China (2007) to highlight the language concerns of the British colonial service.

The British colonial system of indirect rule or native administration, which attempted to contain the influence of European political ideas and rule through traditional authorities, made language training central to the education of colonial officers. There were long-standing complaints about language communication problems and the poor language skills of the British colonial officials, or the limited English of their locally hired staff, or other local languages, alongside concerns. Indeed it was concerns in over the importance of having a pool of local language speakers that pioneered the eventual development of colonial service recruitment through competitive exams.

In particular, concerns over the need for better more developed language skills were expressed in the urban colonial settings, such as Hong Kong. As was summarised, ‘We rule in ignorance, they obey in blindness’ (quoted in Tsang, 2007, p. 11). Specifically, the Caldwell scandal of the mid-nineteenth century vividly showed how administrative over-reliance on a tiny number of staff, who knew the Chinese language, had permitted serious corruption, and that the colonial authorities did not have adequate language skills to communicate with their Chinese subjects (Tsang, 2007, p. 11-16). In the wake of Caldwell’s final dismissal, there was no one adequately qualified in the language, ‘nine or ten interpreters at present in the employment of the local government…have neither education nor sufficient knowledge of the English language to qualify them’ (quoted in Tsang, 2007, p. 16).

The British authorities decided to set up a cadetship scheme devoted to improving language skills of civil service recruits, ‘a certain number of Cadetships be established, the holder of which shall devote themselves for a certain time after their arrival in the Colony solely to learning the language’ (quoted in Tsang, 2007, p. 17). The initial cadets under the scheme did not become interpreters and appear to have had poor language skills, nevertheless a larger pool of at least some senior officials with better language knowledge was gradually developed (Tsang, 2007, pp. 20-21). However, Chinese language skills among the broader colonial administrative staff was limited as colonial administration expanded in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century, and tended to rely on Chinese staff knowing English (Tsang, 2007, p. 32). This problem became more pronounced in the postwar period with the postwar staff shortages, leading to shortened language training, or the redeployment from different colonies of staff, who lacked specific language and country knowledge (Tsang, 2007, p. 69, p. 117).

The colonial literature abounds with discussion of colonial language problems and its implications for colonial administration and order. And alongside the complaints about language communication in colonial administration, there were concerns over the impact of English on local languages and cultures, especially in Africa. For British colonial language policies sought to maintain vernaculars and local traditions as a bulwark against modern nationalism, but its power relations necessitated English language knowledge. Consequently anthropological knowledge was an important aspect of colonial service training, again especially the training of colonial officials to Africa. However, while the language training was generally seen as useful, more negative views were expressed by colonial officers about their anthropology classes. There were complaints they had been given training for simple rural societies, not for modern complex societies they later found themselves confronting (Kirk-Greene, 2006, p. 54).

Amidst the inadequacies, there were repeated initiatives to promote language and country knowledge, illustrating the continuing belief in anthropological forms of knowledge in colonial service training. The language exams were important to moving from probation and being formally appointed to the colonial service (Kirk-Greene, 2006, p. 50, p. 89). The post-1945 Devonshire courses for district officers, primarily aimed at those destined for British colonial African service, illustrates the emphasis on language training. Language was a core part of the course, along with subjects like colonial history, economics, law, anthropology, agriculture and geography (Kirk-Greene, 2006, pp. 50-53). Conversely, the subject of public administration was introduced relatively late to colonial service training.

A study of retired officers reported some frustration among former students over the language training, where the language training was not the same as the language of their district. However, the same study found language training of regional languages like Swahili or Hausa was one of the most appreciated subjects taught on the course (Kirk-Greene, 2006, pp. 50-53). Former colonial officers suggest how language knowledge was vital both formally and informally in their postings, particularly in isolated districts where there were few other Europeans (Kirk-Greene, 2006, p. 165) – an immersion rather different from today’s connected global community with global communications media.

Once in post, the probationary district officer was expected to immerse himself in the district and learn the language, even if a local interpreter or an assistant, who could act as interpreter, was employed, notably for court work. ‘Good district administration was defined as close administration’ (Kirk-Greene, 2006, p. 127). Touring the district was seen as vital to showing the flag, but was also promoted as a key way that new district officers could learn the local language and understand their district. As one informant observed of 1930s’ colonial Eastern Nigeria, ‘if trouble started…. the first question the Resident would ask of the DO of that area would be, “How much touring have you done there?” ’ (H.P. Ellio in Kirk-Greene, 2006, p. 127).

The centrality of language knowledge to the British colonial service training and its preoccupation with the weak language knowledge of its staff contrasts with the virtual absence of concern with the subject today among international organisations involved in the governance of societies. Different models of knowledge and knowing societies prevail in contemporary global governance which do not see language knowledge as essential and do not prioritise it in their recruitment or training of staff.

Vanessa Pupavac is author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Global Governance, Palgrave, 2012


Kirk-Greene, Anthony (2006) Symbol of Authority: The British District Officer in Africa. London, GBR: I.B. Tauris.

Tsang, Steve (2007) Governing Hong Kong: Administrative Officers from the Nineteenth Century to the Handover to China, 1862-1997. London, GBR: I.B. Tauris.

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Strangers Meeting? Global Governance and Global English Debates

Globalisation and global governance have been major preoccupations of the social sciences for the last two decades. Yet the language dimension of the evolving global civil society relations has been neglected in the social sciences and policy thinking on global governance. Strikingly, the discipline of international relations has neglected the critical literature on globalisation and global English in postcolonial studies, sociolinguistics, and language teaching. Notably there are the fields of linguistic imperialism, informed by cultural imperialism theories, and ecolinguistics, informed by global ecological concerns, which seek to influence global politics. Meanwhile contemporary translation studies are addressing translation practices and translators’ experiences in war, and international translator and interpreter associations are developing codes of practices seeking to protect interpreters in war zones. Only isolated studies in International Relations have engaged with this significant growing body of critical studies on global English and global language politics.

Yet while the field of international relations has neglected the global language politics literature, sociolinguistics has been slow to consider critical international relations literature on global governance and global civil society. For while the linguistic imperialism literature condemns globalisation, its global linguistic human rights advocacy or human security ideas essentially see solutions in expanding global governance and expanding role of NGOs. Strikingly the linguistic imperialism literature even ignores fellow linguist Noam Chomsky’s critique of global human rights interventions as forms of neo-imperialism, or other critiques of evolving global interventions as ‘empire lite’. Indeed the proliferating fortified aid compounds dominating the local landscape explored by international relations scholar Mark Duffield might be compared to the Tower of Babel, which the philosopher Jacques Derrida explores as the original embodiment of linguistic imperialism.

Vanessa Pupavac is author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Global Governance, Palgrave, 2012




Derrida, Jacques (2007) ‘Des Tours de Babel’, in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Vol. 1. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 191-225.


Duffield, Mark (2012)  ‘Risk Management and the Fortified Aid Compound: Every-day life in Post-Interventionary Society’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, Vol. 4, pp. 453-474.

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Language Research

  • The linguistic landscape of crisis zones

The policy and practice of languages in conflict areas has become an issue of increasing interest to academic researchers, policymakers, and language practitioners over the past five years, an interest at least partially stimulated by recent Western military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before this, traditional war studies’ scholarship had been markedly ethnocentric, adopting a nation-state ontology of conflict which eschewed what Tarak Barkawi calls the, ‘cultural mixing and hybridity of war’ (2006, x). In such work, ‘foreignness’ was largely positioned as an unproblematic given, so that any conflict appeared to exist monolingually, with enemies and allies obligingly speaking our own language.

More recently however, a number of detailed case studies have examined the role of foreign languages in war zones across the world, in periods ranging from the Hundred Years War to Afghanistan today. This has involved challenging many of the unspoken preconceptions in our representation of theatres of conflict. Thus for example, Ardis Butterfield (2009), Sylvie Kleinman (2009) and Christopher Tozzi (2012) have looked at armies themselves as linguistic coalitions which manage internal language diversity as an integral part of their military effectiveness. Other writers have concentrated on the role which languages play in military/civilian relations ‘on the ground’, both in macro and micro relationships. Catherine Baker (2012a) for example traced the effect which the British presence in Bosnia / Herzegovina had on local societies between 1995 and 2007, whilst Simona Tobia (2012) examined the problematics of one-to-one interrogations in prison cells. In the aftermath of war, as Constadina Charalambous (2012) argued in relation to the situation in Cyprus today, the way in which languages are positioned can  nuance and reposition the continuum between conflict and peace, between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ war.

In all this work, the presence of languages is now understood as an integral part of the dynamics of conflict, affecting the composition of armies and military deployment, conditioning the nature of military/civilian relationships on the ground, and influencing post war peacebuilding and peace keeping. From these studies it is clear that international conflict has a visible and audible linguistic landscape.

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Language Policy

What has been much less evident in such research has been the existence of institutional markers, policies which recognise the key importance of languages and prepare in advance for the language dimensions of conflict. The general pattern emerging from case studies of past conflicts has been what Michael Kelly terms ‘bricolage’( 2011), an early phase in which linguistic resources are hastily found, assembled and pieced together in response to an unexpected/emergency deployment, followed by later attempts to regularise and professionalize language provision.

Where languages do impinge on policy making – the MOD’s integrated inter-services languages unit (Defence Operational Languages Support Unit, DOLSU) for example – their role (Lewis, 2012) is largely defined as one which is fully embedded within army structures, the concern being to train and deploy military linguists who will be operating on the ground as army personnel. Recent case studies however have particularly underlined the part which civilian linguists (as opposed to military linguists) play within most conflict situations, an area which is generally outside the interests of official policymaking.

Recruiting such linguists is most often a responsibility subcontracted to others outside the military, or left to a relatively junior officer in the actual theatre of conflict. The key role of locals in crisis zones – their functions (often engaged in multiple extra-linguistic tasks), their relationship with the local communities, and their protection and after-life beyond the terms of the specific deployment – is generally well outside the pressing concerns of policymakers. Local linguists are either invisible, or if seen at all, are considered to be something of a second order problem.

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The invisibility of language intermediaries

The occlusion of non-military linguists, their apparent absence from policy-making for conflict, is in many ways related to a much more fundamental problem, a classic tendency to ignore the presence of language intermediaries altogether, to deny personal subjectivity to those ‘middle’ men and women who stand between institutions and foreign populations. Two discourses, one from those who employ interpreters, and one from the profession of interpreting itself, arguably contribute to the continued invisibility of the linguist.

For institutions in conflict situations, interpreting and translating are often seen through the lens of logistics. In this perspective, language intermediaries are one element in the overall matériel of war, as interpreters in Bosnia/Herzegovina explained: ‘That was our favourite briefing for soldiers when they were going on a patrol. Don’t forget your kit. I don’t know, helmets, body armour. Don’t forget your satellite box, the orange box of the satellite phone. Don’t forget your interpreter…as if I am a tool’; ‘ …the Americans used to call the interpreters “lips”. “ Hey, lips”, you know, and the lips would come over and do the interpreting and they were supposed to be invisible’ ( Baker b, 2012, 208). Paradoxically, this tendency to deny personal visibility to the interpreter can be reinforced by the traditional discourse of professional interpreting, developed and codified after the Second World War, in which the primary ethical requirement is for the interpreter to be impartial at all times.

Both the reification of the language intermediary as a part of operational logistics, and the neutrality paradigm of professional interpreting contribute in their different ways to an invisibility of language mediation in accounts of conflict.

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The place of translation/interpreting

Among translation and interpreting scholars however there has been an increasing interest in the role of languages in conflict, and in particular in the part which translators and interpreters play in military situations (Apter, 2006; M. Baker, 2006; Dragovic-Drouet, 2007; Inghilleri, 2008, 2009; Rafael, 2007; Salama-Carr, 2007; Simon (ed.) 2005; Stahuljak, 2000, 2010). Often informed by a legacy of thought from cultural studies and literary theory (Bermann and Wood, 2005), such work seeks to enlarge contemporary concepts of translation in ways which might be appropriate to, ‘translating culture in an age of political violence’( Tymoczko, 2009).

Three particular approaches have characterized this research. One perspective examines how the processes of language mediation are themselves constitutive elements in constructing discourses which permit and support war. Thus Mona Baker (2006; 2010) studied the ways in which translators are positioned as contributors to narratives of war, and Vicente Rafael (2009) examined what he called the ‘weaponizing’ of language by the American military. Other writers have concentrated on the role of the interpreters themselves, adopting a Bourdieusian lens to focus on the figure of the interpreter within the social and professional contexts of war (Inghilleri, 2005, 2009), or using frameworks of testimony and witness in order to make the voices of interpreters in war more audible to those around them (Stahuljak, 2000).

Finally, some commentators have argued that  the praxis of interpreters in conflict has presented particular challenges to more traditional understandings of a professional interpreter’s role and training: ‘ “ You don’t make war without knowing why”: the decision to interpret in Iraq’( Inghilleri, 2010); ‘ Relationships of learning between military personnel and interpreters in situations of violent conflict’ ( Tipton, 2011).  In all this research, languages are being perceived as central to conflict situations, and the traditional paradigms of interpreting and translating are challenged to varying degrees. The emphasis is on recovering the visibility, the individual subjectivities and lived experience of those who act as language intermediaries in war and conflict.

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Sites of transnational conflict

Whilst the setting for all this research, both the detailed case studies and the translation/interpreting scholarship, has largely been one of war and conflict, the fundamental points that are being made are arguably of high relevance to any study of languages in crisis zones: the linguistic landscapes created by those who intervene; the relative absence of institutional policy-making for languages; the invisibility of local civilians who interpret; the implication of translation and interpretation in constructing narratives which situate intervention; the social and professional roles of the interpreter; and the challenge which ‘on the ground’ operations may pose to more traditional understandings of the appropriate role and training of local linguists.

More broadly, there is a growing recognition that war is by no means the only site of transnational conflict. Any space in which an institution engages with the foreign is potentially a site of confrontation. Thus for example, Inghilleri (2011) places asylum adjudication side by side with war in her research on ethics, politics and language, and the linguistic anthropologist and sociologist Jan Blommaert (2009) includes asylum application as a site of transnational conflict in his study of the sociolinguistics of globalization. With the growth and recognition of public service interpreting – in police interviews, in courts, in the NHS – the issues which researchers have signalled as being of relevance to interpreters in war are increasingly being seen as vitally important in other sites and for other situations.

To some extent at least, the assumed benignity of a situation (peace or war) is less important than the site itself – transnational, with an institution which is engaged in negotiating its understanding of the foreign. The asymmetries of power which characterise war are equally present in these other contexts. More generally, as Myriam Salama-Carr argues (2007, 1-9), interlingual mediation often involves some form of confrontation. Translation and interpreting are themselves sites of conflict, constructing and reordering identities in the power relationships of geopolitical confrontation.

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