“The world cannot function without translators and interpreters.” This is the opening statement of a petition created in part by Red T, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that lobbies on behalf of translators and interpreters working in conflict zones. The objective of this initiative is to draw attention to the plight of linguists who work in high-risk settings, and to urge the United Nations to take measures to ensure that these individuals receive a certain degree of protection in their duties.
In this interview I had the opportunity to speak with Maya Hess, CEO and founder of Red T, about the goal of this petition, the organization behind this project, the risks associated with working as a linguist in conflict zones, and what can be done to help lobby on behalf of translators and interpreters worldwide.
MK: First of all, congratulations on this initiative. The petition has reached almost 35,000 supporters. Can you tell me about Red T, the organization behind this project?
MH: Thank you for your kind words and the opportunity to introduce Red T to your platform.
Red T is a nonprofit organization advocating for translators and interpreters (T/Is) in high-risk settings, whether these are conflict zones, sites of political unrest, detention camps, prisons housing violent extremists, or even terrorism trials. Having worked in the terrorism arena for many years, I experienced firsthand how vulnerable T/Is can be and founded Red T to draw the attention of the public, governments, and other bodies to the often terrible fate they suffer. Ultimately, Red T’s vision is a world in which members of our profession can work free from fear of persecution, prosecution, imprisonment, abduction, torture, and assassination. To achieve this, we engage in various activities championing policies that support and safeguard linguists. In our latest project, the petition you referred to, we are seeking protected-person status for T/Is in conflict situations. Together with the five major international language associations – the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), the International Federation of Translators (FIT), the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI), Critical Link International (CLI), and the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI) – we are calling on the United Nations to issue a resolution along the lines of those adopted for journalists. As it stands now, T/Is are not specifically protected as a professional category, and obtaining such a resolution would constitute an important first step in remedying this omission.
MK: What can language professionals who are interested in supporting Red T do? How can they get involved?
MH: Right now, we are looking to gather at least 100,000 signatures for the petition. To reach that goal, we hope your readers will sign (either by going to red-t.org or https://www.change.org/p/urge-the-un-to-protect-translators-and-interpreters-worldwide) and disseminate it to everyone they know via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. To get the UN to listen, we need critical mass. Also, by circling the world with this petition we can raise awareness about what T/Is do and how important our work is. As we say in its introduction, “The world cannot function without translators and interpreters.”
Another way to support Red T is by donating, which can mean making a contribution or volunteering your time. For instance, we have a great demand for writers to do research and draft copy and would be grateful for any assistance in that regard. We are also looking for translators for the Conflict Zone Field Guide for Civilian T/Is, which we issued jointly with AIIC and FIT. It still has to be translated into a number of languages, so if you are able to help, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MK: Has Red T encountered resistance in certain sectors while seeking to protect linguists at risk?
MH: It depends. Some of our projects have been embraced: For example, our coalition’s UN Resolution proposal has been taken up by Baroness Jean Coussins in the British Parliament’s House of Lords and has received the support of H.E. Bernardito Auza, the Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, who committed to promoting it before the UN Security Council once it is scheduled for debate. Additionally, the Conflict Zone Field Guide has been used as a reference in the British Ministry of Defence’s publication “Linguistic Support to Operations” and in a Danish think-tank’s policy recommendations to the Danish government. Other efforts, such as our Open Letters, in which we urge governments across the world to do the right thing vis-à-vis T/Is, are not always that welcome. We imagine that’s because it is uncomfortable to be reminded of a moral imperative.
Overall, though, once people learn about the current state of affairs for T/Is in conflict situations, the most common reaction we encounter is shock at how unprotected linguists are in this day and age.
MK: What advice would you give to someone thinking about going into this line of work?
MH: I would encourage T/Is who are planning to work in high-risk settings to professionalize as much as possible. As is common in these settings, the individuals drawn upon to serve as linguists have little or no translation/interpreting experience. So, it is very important that they learn the basic skills of the profession and familiarize themselves with their rights and responsibilities. The latter is critical, since employers frequently ask for help with tasks that go beyond the job description and T/Is need to know they can decline any request that makes them uncomfortable. In fact, clearly defined expectations on both sides go a long way, and consulting our Conflict Zone Field Guide (http://red-t.org/guidelines.html) – a primer that lays out best practices, standards, and ethics for T/Is and their employers – is a good starting point. Overall, we believe that adhering to the parameters of the profession serves a protective function, and the more professionalized a T/I is, the safer he or she will be.
MK: You talked in the past about the need for a paradigm shift in how translators and interpreters are perceived. Could you elaborate?
MH: In high-risk settings, especially conflict zones and terrorism-related contexts, T/Is are too often and too quickly perceived as traitors. The results of this perception, or what I call the translator-traitor mentality, are catastrophic and include criminalization of our profession under the cover of due process, wrongful incarcerations, rashes of kidnappings, incidents of unspeakable torture, and brutal murders, not seldom in the form of beheadings. In other words, T/Is may get persecuted for simply doing their job. This must stop. And that is why we need a paradigm shift to change the way we are perceived and treated. I hope your readers will join me in bringing this about by signing and circulating our petition. Together we can make this happen!
Maya Hess is the founder and CEO of Red T, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that advocates worldwide on behalf of translators and interpreters in conflict zones and other high-risk settings. As a forensic linguist, Maya provided language support and expert witness services in many high-profile terrorism trials, among them those related to the simultaneous US embassy attacks in East Africa, the World Trade Center bombing, and the New York City landmarks conspiracy. She holds an M.A. in Journalism from New York University, a Graduate Certificate in Terrorism Studies from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as well as an M. Phil. and Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from the City University of New York.