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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