Is the Language Services Industry Ready for A War?

By: Cheryl

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

As the Russia-Ukraine war broke out, the need of many resources suddenly became urgent, while the supply for the same became scarce. Among these resources, professional language services has always been a prominent one.

People are seeking language assistance. By mid-March, the installation rate of translation apps in Ukraine have experienced a sharp rise by 71 per cent. Translators and interpreters from all around the world have travelled to the borders to help refugees get to safety.

By bridging cultural and linguistic communications, language professionals serve a key role in war and conflict zones. Across the world, language specialists facilitate negotiations between warring countries and assist refugees in accessing information that leads to food, shelter and ultimately to safety. Language professionals’ aids are not only “crucial and complex,” but sometimes has the power to help making crucial decisions during a life-and-death situation.

However, have you ever wondered what is it like to work as a language professional in conflict zones? Who are these interpreters and how are their roles viewed? Brace yourself because the response to these answers can be unsettling.

Interpretation is not for the weak hearted

As history has proven, the majority of war interpreters come from quite diverse backgrounds. Many of them are local civilians who haven’t had any professional training and are pushed into the service merely because they are bilingual; these also include professionals in non-linguistic fields, such as doctors, teachers and even students. Aside from unguaranteed safety, undocumented recognition and unclear job descriptions, these local interpreters often also face challenges like unappreciation of their work from their own communities and distrust that comes from both parties involved in the wars.

Due to the fact that war interpreters speak their enemies’ languages and relay their messages, war interpreters are often seen as traitors by one side while being suspected by the other of sabotaging communication through mistranslation. While an interpreter’s loyalty to the content and tone of an aggressive original speech is tested, their loyalty to their own countries are sometimes questioned. Another threat to war interpreters usually occurs when the war is over: when foreign troops march back to their countries of origin, the interpreters are often left behind to face trials and consequences of working for the enemies on their own.

Interpreting for war: A delicate matter

Contradictory to the popular belief, anyone who is bilingual can work as an interpreter is simply not true. Interpreting in conflict zones is in fact a delicate matter that requires professional training (which is way too often inadequate throughout history, unfortunately). As stated in “The War Interpreter: Needs and Challenges of Interpreting in Conflict Zones” published by Yolanda Moreno from NOVA University Lisbon, war interpreters’ role is not only focused on linguistic differences between participants in a conversation, but also “involved in a violent situation where political nuances of words may become the principal trigger of a conflict.” Language is a powerful tool, and the choice of vocabulary may lead to drastically different outcome.

Other than being careful about the choice of words, there are also quick judgement calls that war interpreters have to make: When the two parties have a misunderstanding between each other, do the interpreter stick to the text truthfully and stay absolutely neutral, or mediate the misunderstanding to ensure a smooth conversation? Is the interpreter’s job to promote understanding and achieve peace, or to be a faithful center of exchange of each party’s original messages and attitudes? In order to make ethical and sound decisions in situations like these, war interpreters require proper and practical training. Unprofessionalism in these scenarios can cause serious consequences.

Today’s Prospect

Since the end of the Second World War, we have believed that the world has entered a relatively peaceful era, and haven’t been asking ourselves these questions about interpretation during wars for many decades. The breaking out of the recent Russia-Ukraine war has forced us all to face the reality and rethink about them. Even today, professional interpreters at war zones are still rare.

Modern technology, on the other hand, upgraded today’s language services sector from decades ago. With advanced video and audio systems, remote interpretation through videos and phone calls (that has stood the test of a two-year-long social distancing due to COVID-19) now allow interpreters to provide services and assistance to those who are in need hundreds of miles away without risking their own health and safety. As a language service provider that has witnessed the evolution of the industry ever since its foundation over 30 years ago, we are hopeful that remote interpretation will be used in more of these situations henceforth, and to see more people, whether in the war zones or fleeing them, benefitting from it.