Interpreting in Conflict Zones

By Katharine Allen, InterpretAmerica  © 2012

“Rejected Afghan Interpreters Get Second Chance to Come to Canada”[1]

“US Contract Interpreter Missing and Believed Kidnapped in Iraq”[2]

“Families of Dead US Soldiers Sue Over Afghan Interpreter’s Armed Rampage”[3]

“Iranian Refugee Nearly Latest Victim of Poor Translation”[4]

 Japanese Earthquake Highlights the Need for Multilingual Communications”[5]

These are just a smattering of headlines that have become increasingly common in recent years. While international exchange and economic globalization generally represent the 2-stroke engine that has driven positive growth in the interpreting profession for decades, it is all too easy to overlook that conflict and war are often pulled into this engine’s wake.

And just as international business requires multilingual communication, so too does war.

Yet how often do we, as language professionals, pause to consider who is actually providing interpreting services in conflict zones? Who gets sent to Iraq with the troops, or accompanies the Red Cross on missions to Sudan, or works on the ground during interdiction efforts in Colombia or Mexico for the war on drugs? Interpreters who facilitate communication in conflict zones put themselves at great physical and psychological risk, and yet are mostly unknown to other interpreters, because they work in isolation from the rest of the profession. The service they provide is vital, and it is time our profession widens its reach to officially bring them into the fold.

This blog post will consider three groups of conflict zone interpreters: military linguists, contract interpreters, and humanitarian interpreters.

The effort to recruit and train military linguists is where most of the money in interpreting is actually spent. Over the past decade, in an effort to fill the huge communication needs for our troops on the ground, literally billions of dollars have been thrown at training up Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Farsi and Arabic speakers for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others receive training in the less noticed but no less critical languages such as Spanish, Portuguese and French, to provide linguistic resources for the war on drugs in Latin America and the many areas of engagement in French and Portuguese-speaking parts of the world.

Members of the Army’s O9 Lima Linguist program, which has trained many linguists to provide “translation in theater,” provide a good example of whom the military is tapping to provide interpreting services. According to, O9 Linguists “use [their] language to assist officers at military traffic control points, combat troops in the field, and the public affairs office.” It goes on to say that “as a linguist in the U.S. Army, you’ll help shape the course of history by supporting U.S. soldiers overseas with your words and promoting peace and understanding through communication.”  This short video provides a glimpse into the kind of training and work conditions military linguists experience.

Yet despite the many billions of dollars spent on building up language resources, little work has been done to analyze the activities of interpreters in conflict zones, and few troops receive actual training in translation and interpreting. (A notable exception is the development of a few innovative training courses created in the past 5 years, such as the Military Translation and Interpretation Pilot Program designed by the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the Translation and Interpretation Training Capabilities Project, a 3-week curriculum created by Cyracom International for the Defense Language Institute, and the US Army’s 09L linguist training program).

A second critical group that more typically appears in the news cycle is comprised of contract or civilian interpreters. Headlines about this group can be either negative, reporting on interpreters having facilitated attacks on American forces, or tragic, covering their death while on duty or their precarious local situation as “collaborators with the enemy” once the troops pull out.

Contract interpreters provide the majority of interpretation services in conflict zones, from accompanying on patrol to interpreting during key leader engagements.  They are typically either foreign nationals hired locally, or native speakers of the target language who have recently moved to the United States.  In both cases, they are recruited and managed by private companies under contract to the U.S. government and may or may not have formal training. Currently, the starting salary for a contract Pashto or Dari interpreter recruited in the U.S. is well over $100,000. Interpreters with high-level security clearances earn even more.  These high salaries reflect not just the scarcity of qualified linguists, but the extreme danger into which they are sent. In fact, language service providers who bid on these government contracts are sometimes required to supply not just the interpreter, but to also provide for their funeral arrangements ahead of deployment.

If the first two groups are at least occasionally brought to our consciousness, a third group, interpreters working on the ground with international aid and news organizations, flies almost completely under our radar. Yet their expertise is just as critical and sought after. When the Red Cross moves into Somalia or the Sudan, they need interpreters. When journalists flock to Egypt and northern Africa to cover the Arab Spring, they need competent, reliable linguists in any number of obscure languages. And though not strictly related to conflict, when relief agencies converge on a devastated Haiti, flooded Pakistan or earthquake and nuclear disaster shaken Japan, qualified interpreters have to be on the ground to facilitate the massively complex logistics such aid efforts require.

One organization, in particular, has dedicated itself to training interpreters who work for humanitarian efforts. In 2011, the University of Geneva’s Interpreter Department formally created The Center for Interpreting in Conflict Zones: InZone. The Center’s website lays out the mission for this new initiative: “Whether they work in Gaza, Kabul or Nairobi, humanitarian field interpreters work in isolation and are often ill prepared for their job. Improving communication in conflict zones has become the key objective of the Interpreting Department’s latest initiative, InZone, which delivers virtual skill training to interpreters in the field.”[6]

InZone’s groundbreaking work is seeking to establish for conflict zone interpreters what other sectors in Interpreting have already accomplished: to define the most basic elements required for any profession – ethics and standards of conduct, basic education and training requirements, and minimum standards for workplace requirements.

Another agency worth noting is the National Language Service Corps, which was established in 2006 through a congressional mandate “to test the idea of a national corps of individuals who spoke languages other than English to offer their support to Federal agencies during times of crisis, such as relief efforts after hurricanes.”[7] Since then, NLSC has continued to provide training and placement for linguists during natural disasters and the US military and government agencies. While very different in scope and mission from InZone, it represents one of the only organizations in the US that targets humanitarian interpreting.

Despite playing catch-up inside our profession, military and conflict zone interpreters have a lot to teach the rest of us. How to stay safe when interpreting in unsure settings, how to handle vicarious trauma, and how to stay focused and effective under extreme circumstances are just a few of the challenges they face and overcome on a daily basis. These examples represent the tip of the iceberg of a rich and highly relevant dialog that our own profession has yet to engage in with interpreters, agencies, and other stakeholders who have worked to provide language services in conflict zones.

To jumpstart that conversation, InterpretAmerica is holding a first-of-its-kind panel on Interpreting in Conflict Zones at the upcoming 3rd North American Summit on Interpreting, June 15-16 in Monterey, California. Panel members represent individuals who have been immersed in many aspects of interpreting in conflict zones, including one of the principal authors of Cyracom’s TITC curriculum, an O9L combat linguist from the 51 Translation and Interpretation Company at Fort Irwin, California, a military officer who has served multiple missions working with interpreters, a contract interpreter with vast experience working in conflict zones and subsequently training military linguists, and Dr. Barbara Moser-Mercer, who spearheaded the creation of InZone for the University of Geneva.

For complete details, visit or email

[1] The Globe and Mail: ttp://

[2] GALA:

[6] InZone: Virtual Institute, University of Geneva:

[7] National Language Service Corps:

7 thoughts on “Interpreting in Conflict Zones”

  1. Gio says:

    “And though not strictly related to conflict, when relief agencies converge on a devastated Haiti, flooded Pakistan or earthquake and nuclear disaster shaken Japan, qualified interpreters have to be on the ground to facilitate the massively complex logistics such aid efforts require.”

    That’s the thinking behind the volunteer interpreter initiative created by the Interpreters Division for the ATA and all those that followed in its wake.

    Great subject, Katharine! Thanks for shedding light onto it.

    1. Gio – yes the ATA Red Cross initiative, which became reality because the of hard work you put into it, was my exposure to these issues on a scale larger than my local domestic violence interpreting work. You, as always, were way out on front!

  2. I’m interpreter in UK and we have similar situation over here

    1. We’d love to hear more about your experience in the UK. Can you share some more?

  3. like reading the web log and see that the journey you are connected decide charge a really valuable journey toward the condition of others. Thank!

  4. Dilip Kulkarni, PhD says:

    Based on the findings of my doctoral dissertation about the meditation of international conflicts, I am exploring the possibility of conducting a phenomenological study to discover the lived-experience meanings that are experienced by interpreters that assist the mediation of international conflicts. I would be grateful if you would be kind enough to provide recommendations.
    Dilip Kulkarni

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