Thursday, November 19, 2009


An earlier post (October 11) pointed out how essential family NT had been to Åsne Seierstad for gathering the material of her book The Bookseller of Kabul.
Towards the end of the book, there’s a chapter about another kind of translator whose name is Tajmir.

Tajmir is liaison interpreter for an American journalist called Bob. Since both he and Bob are employed by “a large American magazine”, he must be considered a Professional. Indeed his motivation is strictly money:
“When the journalists streamed into Kabul [in the wake of the Taliban retreat] the American magazine picked him up. They offered to pay in one day what he was normally paid in two weeks. He thought about his poor family...”

Tajmir is a Native Translator. He speaks exceptionally good English thanks to the education forced on him by his mother, Feroza:
“Feroza’s burning ambition was that Tajmir would grow into something important. Every time she had some spare cash she would enter him for a course: English classes, extra maths classes, computer courses.”
When the civil war came, she fled with her family to Pakistan, and there Tajmir went to more English classes. After they came home, he found work with a foreign NGO, which no doubt gave him some interpreting experience. Finally he left the aid work, went to the magazine, “and started to interpret, in an imaginative and artful English.” At some point, Seierstad implies, he was employed as an interpreter for the American military. But he didn’t train as a translator or interpreter. Nobody has certified him.

Liaison interpreting has always had an extra-linguistic element of arranging things for clients besides the actual interpreting. When I was a liaison interpreter for Spanish businessmen visiting London, I used to change their reservations for them, get documents notarized, take them sightseeing, book a day at the races (the only time I saw the Derby live), and so on. I even knew an interpreter in Rome who could provide an audience with the Pope. But that was a peaceful occupation. Tajmir, on the contrary, lives dangerously alongside the intrepid Bob. They drive out of Kabul towards the Pakistan border, where the intelligence services believe “that if Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar are still alive... then this where they are.”
“Tajmir is trying to find them. Or at least find someone who knows somebody who has seen them... In contrast to his fellow traveller, Tajmir hopes they’ll find absolutely nothing. Tajmir hates danger. He hates travelling into the tribal areas, where trouble can erupt at any moment. In the back of the car are bulletproof waistcoats and helmets, ready for action.”
Nevertheless, he ends up getting Bob into heavily armed strongholds for interviews with some of the local warlords. On the way, he finds food and lodging and whatever else the travellers need.

In a word, Tajmir is a fixer. Fixers are a variety of liaison interpreter that has come to be associated particularly with the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A fixer is someone who offers assistance to foreign journalists who are trying to get a story. Fixers use their local experience and contacts to smooth the way for their employers and many receive a high rate of pay, especially when compared to locally available wages. For traveling journalists, fixers are crucial, because without a fixer, it can be very difficult to get a story or to connect with the people of a country.”
Tajmir’s contacts are invaluable. The first warlord he and Bob come across, surrounded by his bodyguard, is Padsha Khan (see photo).
“Padsha... greets Bob rather coldly but embraces Tajmir warmly... They had often met during Operation Anaconda, America’s major al-Qaida offensive. Tajmir had interpreted, that was all.
'My men are prepared,' Padsha Khan tells Tajmir, who translates while Bob scribbles in his notebook... The men look at him, then at Tajmir, then at blond Bob who is frantically noting everything down... Tajmir receives a slap on the thigh for every utterance; he translates automatically [i.e., mechanically, at a steady pace]...
A little later, Tajmir gets Bob an interview with Padsha Khan’s arch-enemy, who is holed up in the fortress-like provincial police station. The interpreting is hard work, even if it’s repetitive: “Tajmir translates and translates. The same threats, the same words.” Like most liaison interpreters, Tajmir works alone, in consecutive, and often for long hours.
“Tajmir and Bob disagree fundamentally about what constitutes a successful trip... Bob wants violent action in print; like a few weeks ago when he and Tajmir were nearly killed by a grenade [which] got the car behind them... those things make Bob feel he is doing an important job, while Tajmir curses ever having changed his. The only plus about these trips is the extra danger money.”


Åsne Seierstad.The Bookseller of Kabul. Translated from Norwegian by Ingrid Christopherson. London: Little, Brown, 1993.

Photo: BBC News


  1. This is both an interesting and extremely informative story. Learning what a fixer is and the story of Tajmir and Bob. It sounds like being a fixer is really dangerous, gambling your life with money. Yet, it's innerly satisfying to know you've helped retrieve impossible stories across the public.

  2. I recently entered the Interpreting profession. As I was reading a text related to the profession, I came across the term "fixer," which I was unfamiliar with. Your post was very helpful in understanding its meaning and the reality that comes with the position. THANK YOU!