Translators and Interpreters in Conflict Zones Need Our Help!

red-t

When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up to be a lot of things. When we learned about Sally Ride and Christa McAuliffe in school, I immediately wanted to be an astronaut. Then we learned about Sylvia Alice Earle and suddenly I wanted to be a marine biologist. Of course, since I have never fully grasped the meaning of the word “impossible”, this meant I was going to be a marine biologist… in space! This went on with every person I ever learned about throughout all of elementary school who had achieved anything extraordinary (especially if that extraordinary achievement began with “first woman to”). I had an amazing role model at home, but I was hungry for more. I was eager to join the long list of women who had stood up for us all and made the world a more equal place. Though I was just a kid, I knew there was work to be done and I was eager to jump in and help out.

As I grew older, my list of options for the future became narrower. Not that I ever fully gave up on the dream of being a “firefighter/marine biologist/ballerina in space” or anything, I simply found a cause I cared much more deeply about and that changed my entire outlook on the future. At some point in school, I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Being the daughter of a non-English speaking, dark skinned, Latin American woman in the U.S., I understood a thing or two about racism and injustice. Justice, therefore, would forever be my raison d’etre. That desire to seek justice would lead me in many directions and I even managed to survive law school with the firm belief that the law has everything to do with justice (an idea too many law students abandon much too quickly and easily in school).

As a lawyer-linguist, I have served as a linguistic bridge between NGOs and other non-state actors and the international human rights system in cases that have pierced my soul. Some such cases included the brutal military dictatorships of Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, sex trade and abuse of young girls and teenagers in Paraguay, sexual violence and sexual torture of young girls and women in Mexico, violation of women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Peru, ethnic cleansing in Ecuador, ethnic cleansing and systematic sexual torture of women in Rwanda, among many others. In my years doing what I do, I have translated testimonies that have brought me to tears and have been outraged by unfair court rulings. Time and time again, my faith in humanity is crushed by the case at hand only to be restored by the hope that my clients can and will find justice for the victims and set the foundations for a better tomorrow. When a case is too tough, the victims too close, the violation too outrageous, I remind myself we can’t change the past or even the present, but we can prevent the same thing from happening again in the future… or at least, we can try. I can’t and won’t grasp the concept of impossible when it comes to justice.

In all these cases, as much as I empathize with the victims, I can take enough distance to get my job done well. I understand the importance of balancing empathy and detachment to render a translation that is neither too cold nor too emotionally charged to be effective. The more you work in the HR arena, the easier this becomes.

But now I’m facing a new reality. One I cannot detach myself from. One where the victims are not far away from me in time or space. The victims are part of my community and reality: they are translators and interpreters who are used by governments in conflict zones and then left behind to be arrested, tortured, and killed for merely doing their jobs. They are recruited for extremely dangerous assignments where they are then hunted down and killed by insurgent groups or military regimes while the governments that employed them do nothing to protect them and refuse to offer them asylum after the assignments are completed. Some examples include the following:

Italy-Afghanistan: Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and his interpreter Ajmal Naqshbandi were both abducted. The Italian government ensured Daniele’s safe return, but left the interpreter behind to be beheaded.

UK-Iraq: The British military lost 21 interpreters in 21 days, 17 of which were victims of a massive killing targeting interpreters.

Central African Republic: Bible translators are suffering aggravated assault and homicide at the hands of extremists.

And the list goes on. We need to take action to help fellow interpreters and translators. To learn more about this, please visit Red-T, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of translators and interpreters (T&Is) in conflict zones and other adversarial settings. Please consider supporting their open letter project, follow them on Facebook and Twitter, blog about these issues, talk about what’s going on, spread the word. We need to raise awareness and get this issue on the international agenda!

On Tunnels, Trains, and the Third IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux

Tunnel

Whenever I say that my brain needs a lot of time to process information, people think I’m kidding. I’m not. “Dress me slowly for I am in a hurry,” said Napoleon Bonaparte; and amusing though it may sound, it’s one of the most reasonable things I’ve ever heard. In my teens I was rebellious, in my twenties I was impulsive, in my thirties I’m trying to master the art of exercising good judgment, and that requires time to think. So on the way back from Bordeaux I thought long and hard about the Third IAPTI Conference. I tried to remember every single person I met there, what we talked about, what their interests were, and what I learned from or about them.

In The Tunnel (Penguin Classics), Ernesto Sabato briefly works his way into what is known to some lovers of literature and philosophy as the “theory of the tunnels” by way of several relatively short passages. In one of those passages, the main character is on a train and looks out the window onto someone’s backyard. At the precise moment when he looks in that direction, a woman steps out of her house, onto her yard, and looks at the train, perhaps even at him. The encounter lasts only a few seconds, but our hero realizes at that moment that if the train had passed that particular place a few seconds sooner or a few seconds later, if he had not been looking out the window or she at the train, their existence would have remained unknown to each other forever. Later in that book, Sabato invites us to think of our own individual lives as tunnels with small windows from which we view, for brief moments, other tunnels. Each human interaction or meaningful encounter happens only when we stop and look out our own window and into someone else’s.

Though I read the book for the first time in my early teens and have not re-read it in a very long time, this idea has stuck with me throughout my entire life. I can’t help but think about it whenever I take a subway or a bus; and, in France, while looking out the window of the TGV connecting Paris and Bordeaux, I couldn’t help but hope someone would step out of their home on the precise moment that my train rode by and I was looking out the window. It didn’t happen, sadly, but I did see a goat that appeared somewhat interested in my train. So I’m hoping it was an existentialist goat and that now we have peaked into each other’s tunnels and are forever aware of each other’s existence.

My point though with all this ranting about tunnels and the existentialist goat is that IAPTI was to me in Bordeaux what Gare de Nord was to me in Paris: a powerful station connecting several subways to several trains all coming from and going in different directions, but with ultimately the same goal of getting people where they want or need to go. I know when most people go to Paris they are probably fascinated by the Eiffel Tower, the museums, the cafés, the language, the culture, and infinite amount of sheer awesomeness that is Paris. And it’s not that I didn’t love or appreciate all of that, but what really captivated my fascination and imagination was Gare de Nord. People from all over the world, speaking all sorts of languages, from all walks of life, united in one place, walking to and from, getting here and there in the middle of this magical place called Paris via this vast station called Gare de Nord. Sometimes they’d stop and interact in more or less meaningful ways, but even those interactions were somehow constricted to the ultimate goal of getting somewhere in Paris.

Similarly, at the Conference, I encountered people from all over the world, speaking all sorts of languages, from all walks of life, united in one place, walking to and from, getting here and there in the middle of this magical place called Bordeaux via this vast station called IAPTI. Of course my analogy is somewhat imperfect: in Bordeaux almost every interaction was rich and meaningful in its own way. So now that I am fully aware of the existence of all these wonderful people that I met, it seems the next logical step is to decode the meaning of our interactions.

Impressed though I was by Sabato’s tunnel idea in my teens, there’s a part of his thesis I reject: tunnels are inflexible, allowing you to move in only two directions. Perhaps Sabato viewed life with this rigidity. Perhaps to him once you’re on a certain track, you either move forward or backwards, but never to the sides, never in other directions. Or perhaps his tunnels are a metaphor for our journey toward our inevitable end. I can live with the latter, but though the end is certain, the path is not. I refuse to let my existence be reduced to a mere walk down a rigid tunnel. I refuse to see the windows as tiny (or even have walls on which to place windows in the first place), and though I can’t deny that I am indeed walking the time-space continuum toward a state of non-existence, in the meantime, while I am in every possible sense of the verb to be, I can go wherever I please both physically and mentally. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a tunnel and the path doesn’t necessarily have to be straight. I can tear down walls, I can let people in, I can even peak into their existence as much as they let me for as long as they let me, and our paths don’t just meet at complex stations. We are free to make of our existence whatever we want it to be and to meet again anywhere, anytime.

Aurora, Attila, Lorena, and others at IAPTI make of their existence the exemplary cause of raising the bar in benefit of translators and interpreters everywhere. Marta Stelmaszak makes of her existence an example of generosity by sharing everything she knows about business and helping others succeed. Maya Hess and Linda Fitchett from Red-T make of their existence the cause of helping interpreters in conflict zones get on the international agenda (something I will be writing a lot more about soon). Cécile Deniard from CEATL leads an organization that advocates for literary translators throughout Europe. And these are just a few examples of the quality human beings that make up IAPTI and made the 13 hour flight and 4 hour train ride worth every second.

Today, inspired by last week’s experience, I think perhaps it’s time to reflect upon how these interactions have changed my existence for the better. Where I will go from here is (fortunately) a mystery to me at this point, but what I do know is that after crossing this station, I will never be the same: suddenly my path is brighter, greener, sunnier, and filled with more inspiration than ever before; and I’m forever grateful to the people at IAPTI that made that possible.

5 Ways in Which Translators Rock

ILoveTranslators

Translators rock! They just do. Most of the translators I know are wonderful human beings; and I know a lot of translators. Good translators have many traits that relate to their particular kinship to language and culture. Doing a good translation job requires background knowledge, dedication, attention to detail, and patience. When you couple those traits with an excellent command of one or more foreign languages, you get a translator. But what makes translators so amazing, to me, goes far beyond their impressive professional skills. When I say that “translators rock,” what I have in mind are the admirable human qualities of the people I’m thinking of while I write this post.

5) Translators are Interesting People

Whether they are avid readers, poets, writers, painters, photographers, travelers, or athletes, translators are fascinating human beings with varied interests and hobbies.

4) Translators Care

They care about language and culture. They care about doing a good job. They care about their clients. They care about the world in general. Read our blogs and visit our forums, you’ll find thousands of people who pour their hearts and souls into their work, their communities, their families, their pets, and pretty much everything else that makes their hearts flutter.

3) Translators Work Hard

You know that “work hard, play hard” motto? Most translators stop at work hard. They work days, nights, and weekends with dignity and respect for their clients and the task at hand. Translators know the value of a job well done and take pride in their work.

2) Translators are Supportive

It seems to me translators are hardwired to be helpful and supportive. This is no surprise considering that translators help people communicate for a living in all sorts of different settings. But it doesn’t end there. Translators are generous human beings who are happy to share their knowledge and experience to help support others in their projects, ideas, and dreams.

1) Translators are Kind

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see,” said Mark Twain. And translators are experts in kindness. In my 14 years as a translator I cannot count how many acts of kindness I’ve witnessed from my fellow translators. From helping stray dogs find homes to volunteering for human rights causes, there are translators all over the world who are brave enough to be kind.

This post is dedicated to all the wonderful people I’ll be seeing in Bordeaux this September and in Miami this November and to those I won’t be seeing, but wish I would. You know who you are. 😉

Defamation or Freedom of Expression? Can Translators Share Bad Practices Info Online?

Tricus bully

We all know Mr. Chiosso as the bully in translation thanks to his accusation of “slenderer” (sic.) against Aurora Humarán, President of IAPTI, and threats against IAPTI members. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can read the article that started the whole thing here, Chiosso’s own rambling on the subject here or a coherent version on Kevin Lossner’s blog here or on NOPeanuts! here. In addition to drawing a lot of negative attention to himself and giving reasonable people (who can actually spell in English!) enough comedy materials to last for a lifetime of Chiosso-jokes, he has also raised an interesting question: Can translators share information about unethical business practices or abusive rates or contractual terms online without committing some form of defamation?

Mr. Chiosso’s insistence on turning this into a “slender” (sic.) case and threatening with unfounded legal action has sparked the question of the legality of such information sharing. As a lawyer with a somewhat dark sense of humor, I could not resist the temptation to both poke fun at Mr. Chiosso (because, let’s face it, he’s asking for it!) and to address the legal question at hand. The answer is simple: Yes! They absolutely can share information online, provided that what is being said is actually true and that they are in a Western Country. (I can’t speak for parts of the world with whose law I am unfamiliar.)

Here’s the thing, the Internet is not regulated at an international level, but freedom of expression is. In addition, most jurisdictions in the West still regulate defamation criminally (though there is an increasing tendency to eliminate said criminal regulation worldwide). Regardless of whether you are in a jurisdiction under the civil law or the common law tradition, for an action to constitute defamation (whether in the form of slander [i.e. spoken defamation] or libel [printed words or images] or other), any damage to the victim’s reputation resulting from that action must be unfounded or untrue.

So, if we went around saying that Mr. Chiosso offers submarket rates and tries to convince linguists to learn as they translate in order to pay them less, and that turned out to be a big fat lie, then we would be committing defamation. However, if there were any truth to that statement, then we would simply be exercising our freedom of expression; which as we all know, is a human right contained in pretty much every major human rights treaty on the planet. Similarly, if Mr. Chiosso went around saying that Ms. Humarán wrote the allegedly defamatory article in question and that turned out to be a lie on his part, then he would be commiting defamation against Ms. Humarán (see how the table turns in the second hypothetical scenario?).

But the issue doesn’t end there. Mr. Chiosso, like Ms. Humarán, happen to be located in Argentina, where international human rights law has been part of the Constitutional “block” since the last Constitutional Amendment in 1994, whereby freedom of expression is an especially protected right (for obvious historical reasons that date back to the last brutal dictatorship). Therefore, as per countless freedom of expression precedents in Argentina (which are not binding for lower courts, but still matter a great deal in litigation) and per several rulings of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (in the case of Alex Adonis in the Philippines, for example), the criminalization of libel constitutes a violation of the right to freedom of expression under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In addition, under Argentine constitutional law (article 43 of the Constitution) no person (be it a public authority or private individual) can hinder, jeopardize or threaten the rights and guarantees recognized by the Constitution. What this means is that (unlike under American law, for example, which works a little differently), constitutional rights (like freedom of expression) cannot be hindered by private individuals. So even if Ms. Humarán had written the allegedly defamatory article in question (of which there is no evidence), Mr. Chiosso still wouldn’t be able to do a damn thing about it if the contents of the article turned out to be true, i.e. if he really did incur the actions described in the article.

Whether there is any truth to that is for him to know and the Law to find out, if he really does take this court. However, regardless of the potential outcome of the case, the question here is:

Can we share information about unethical business practices, scams, etc. online?

Absolutely! Provided that, to the best of our knowledge and belief, the information we are sharing is true.

How?

1) Avoid character assassination and personal attacks that could potentially constitute bad faith on your end.

2) Make sure you can back everything you are saying up with evidence.

3) If you can’t back it all up with evidence (because, for example, said evidence is not available or easily accessible to you), phrase everything as hypothetical or alleged.

4) Become familiar with freedom of expression laws in your country.

5) Become familiar with your Constitution.

Remember, it took wars and revolutions for the world to figure out that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Many brave men and women have given up their liberty and even lives to protect this valuable right. Don’t take it for granted! Honor the human rights heroes of yesterday and today! Exercise your rights and don’t let anyone bully you into withholding true and accurate information that could potentially help fellow translators all over the world avoid scammers and bottom feeders!