“We live on a planet dominated by unbroken conflict in which the figure of the interpreter in conflict zones (ICZ) has been present since ancient times. Tragic situations such as war and conflict are the breeding grounds in which ICZ have acquired and developed their language skills. These interpreters rarely have any previous training in interpreting techniques and consequently tend to learn the job on the ground.”
These words (the emphasis is mine) come from a paper by Maria Gomez-Amich, a graduate of the University of Granada, who has made the study of military interpreters her speciality. Interpreters in conflict zones (ICZ) is a fairly new term for them.
The paper is a very thorough and original study of a small sample of Afghan interpreters working with the Spanish military in Afghanistan. Here’s her summary of it.
The lack of training and agreed rules that regulate ICZ’s work give the wrong impression that this field of interpretation is relatively new. However, there are records of this activity dating back several centuries. As a matter of fact, conflict has always been a breeding ground for language interpreters, and their recruitment is often the result of some tragic situation. Nowadays, interpreters working in contexts as complex as the NATO ISAF mission in Afghanistan usually lack appropriate language and interpreter training. This was the case with the five Afghan interpreters participating in this study.
The hiring of untrained ICZ seems to be the combined result of the law of supply and demand and of particular concerns of the military. During the recruitment process, little importance is attached to the interpreters’ professional skills. This is particularly alarming given that appropriate skills can make the difference between life and death in this setting.
The interpreters participating in this research project displayed a perception of the interpreter’s role that diverges from the idealised notions of professional conduct described in the literature. Accordingly, they have a singular notion of interpreting quality, and they consider the culture, the parties’ needs and their employers’ expectations to be the key factors of quality assessment. The Conduit Model [in which the interpreter is only a neutral and impartial communication channel], therefore, is rebutted one more time, as ICZ seem to act as active and visible participants who take very much in consideration a series of social factors that affect their performance as well as their role perception.
In general, it is fair to surmise that, when it comes to quality, its perception and hence its assessment will vary according to settings. Research would benefit from a re-evaluation of received theoretical frameworks to encompass all settings in which interpreting takes place. In this process, (untrained) ICZ could make a major contribution. Although they are not generally considered professional interpreters, they are actually the most experienced practitioners in their action field.
In spite of the study’s great interest, it is nevertheless surprising in this day and age that the researcher still feels a need to combat the evaluation of her subjects by the standards of ‘professional’ interpreting and has to plead for “a re-evaluation of received theoretical frameworks.” These frameworks were exploded more than a decade ago by the advent of non-professional interpreting and translation studies(NPIT) and even before that by the natural translation hypothesis (NTH).