Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Death in Afghanistan

If you read the press today, whether paper or electronic, you’ll have certainly seen one of the many reports about the dramatic commando rescue of American journalist Stephen Farrell in northern Afghanistan – and the death of his Afghan “translator” (i.e., interpreter) in the shoot-out.

The interpreter’s name was Sultan Munadi. Here’s how the New York Times recounts his end:
Mr. Farrell said as he and Mr. Munadi ran outside, he heard voices. “There were bullets all around us. I could hear British and Afghan voices.”
At the end of a wall, Mr. Farrell said Mr. Munadi went forward, shouting: “Journalist! Journalist!” but dropped in a hail of bullets… He was so close, he was just two feet in front of me when he dropped.”

The death of yet another unsung hero of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the interpreters and ‘fixers’ without whom NATO and the Americans and the journalists who report on them couldn’t operate. They number in the hundreds now. But what makes Sultan Munadi’s death particularly poignant is that only a few days ago he’d published an article in the NYT under his own by-line explaining why he’d gone back from Germany to his country as an act of patriotism (

Another NYT journalist with whom Sultan had worked, David Rohde, had this to say of him:
Mr. Rohde, who worked with Mr. Munadi in Afghanistan, called him “an extraordinary journalist, colleague and human being. He represented the best of Afghanistan. It was an honor to work with him.”

As an interpreter who worked regularly with the NYT and other news organizations, Sultan was a Professional Translator but not an Expert Translator. He had an advanced Western university education, but not in translation. It seems that, like pretty well all the interpreters in his line of work, he fell into it because he was bilingual in English and a local language. They start out as Natural Translators and quickly become Native Translators. They need a lot of courage.

I hope to write more about this kind of liaison interpreter in the future. A Canadian friend, Roy Thomas, who was a major in the Canadian Armed Forces at the time, was put in charge of the UN team of interpreters at Sarajevo in an earlier conflict; and he was so appalled at the way the UN abandoned them afterwards that he campaigned for them when he got home.

1 comment:

  1. Hi! I'm an italian interpreter and translator. I'm actually writing a thesis on war interpreters to try and raise awareness on this matter, largely unacknowledged. I came across an article that your friend Roy Thomas wrote, that is really impossible to find via web, and I wonder if you could get me in touch with him. First-hand witnesses are really difficult to find!