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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