What does ‘proximity’ mean for local interpreters working in zones of conflict?
María Manuela Fernández Sánchez
Few professions have such discriminatory stereotypes as translators and interpreters. Very sadly, the Italian cliché traduttore, traditore is still thought to be true by many people. Nevertheless, both translators and interpreters have also contributed to the persistence of these stereotypes. To make matters worse, the concept of the unfaithful interpreters has been fuelled by sensationalist media as well as by military and political leaders. The following example is from The New York Times:
“Would you mind speaking without an interpreter?” Vladimir V. Putin asked, and his visitor, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s new foreign minister, responded that he could not imagine doing business any other way. The two then chatted in Russian, as if their meeting this month were a homecoming for a local boy who made good (13 June, 2009, “Mideast in Flux. An Israeli Cozies Up To Moscow”, by Clifford Levy).
With regard to local interpreters who work in zones of conflict, positive reports of good work and lasting friendship are counterbalanced by more negative reports that accuse interpreters of being “lazy, inept, or unpunctual” (Freeman 2012). Unsung heroes and unsung villains in equal proportion, according to Colin Freeman, foreign correspondent of The Telegraph. They are the indispensable guides of camera crews, war reporters, and photojournalists. However, local interpreters and fixers are not the only ones accused of unprofessional behaviour. Also harshly criticized are messengers, special agents, mediators and subalterns in general. Because they find themselves in a vulnerable situation between opposing parties, they often feel trapped by their precarious and asymmetrical status and difficult working conditions.
In some cases, the reasons for such criticism are less transparent and the result is more dramatic. On 12 April, 2004, the photographer and journalist Gervasio Sánchez wrote an article titled ¿Un traductor traidor? [A translator traitor?] in the Spanish newspaper El País. In it he stated that most people harbored serious doubts that the interpreter, Al Mayali, had murdered seven Spanish special agents (“Muchos dudan de la culpabilidad del intérprete Al Mayali en el asesinato de siete espías españoles.”).
Gervasio Sánchez is a photojournalist with over thirty years of experience. He has covered countless international conflicts and has received many prestigious international awards, which have highlighted his commitment to both journalism and photography, as well as to the victims of the wars that he has covered. As part of his work, he has taken many iconic images of the siege in Sarajevo and the devastating effects of land mines in civilians. He is one of those photographers who spend weeks, months, and even years in a country to tell the stories of people’s lives in the midst of war. His idea of an extended family includes people whom he had the opportunity to meet as a war reporter. In fact, he often returns to the places where he has worked and visits old friends in order to see what life is like years after the conflict, and to discover how people are coping with the aftermath of war.
The backdrop of Gervasio Sánchez’s article is post-Saddam Iraq. The article was written in Bagdad, a city where he had worked for many years. Flayed Al Mayali was his interpreter at the time and still is each time he returns to Iraq. In the article, Sánchez describes his astonishment at the unexpected news of Al Mayali’s arrest as an accessory in an attack on the Spanish military. This astonishment was also shared by the rest of the Spanish colony in Iraq. On both a professional and personal level, Al Mayali was highly valued. Before beginning to work as a close assistant of Major Alberto Martínez, the head of the Spanish Intelligence Services (CNI) in Iraq, Al Mayali taught Spanish at the University of Bagdad. The attack that killed seven Spanish special agents, including Major Alberto Martínez, occurred on 29 November 2003 during an ambush.
Flayed Al Mayali was arrested on 22 March 2004 and questioned in relation to his possible participation in the attack. He was interrogated for five days and finally declared an accesory to the crime. He was subsequently taken to the Coalition Holding Facility, a detention center in Bagdad, and was handed over to the US military authorities. Al Mayali was then imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. After eleven months of confinement in the Abu Ghraib prison and Camp Bucca, he was released without charges in February 2005 by a commission composed of American and Iraqi military authorities and lawyers.
The Spanish government did not inform the public or even acknowledge his arrestor detention. During his months in prison, Flayed Al Mayali was abandoned by the same government that he had served so faithfully for four years. Although Gervasio Sánchez repeatedly denounced to authorities that Al Mayali had been unjustly arrested and imprisoned without any proof and requested an investigation that would clear his name, the Spanish Secret Service silenced all news related to the ambush.
In an interview with Gervasio Sánchez on 29 November 2013 for the Spanish newspaper El Heraldo de Aragón (link to article), Flayed Al Mayali remembers the tragic events which took place ten years ago. He explains his deep sorrow when he learned of the killing of his close friend and employer, Major Alberto Martínez. He also recalls the beatings, insults, and threats received during his interrogation by Spanish military personnel as well as the total neglect and feeling of abandonment that he experienced in the American prisons.
Interestingly, he mentions the circumstances of his proximity and familiarity with Spanish special agents as one of the reasons for being singled out as scapegoat. In his opinion, since they did not have the means to investigate the ambush, it was easier to accuse the person who was closest to the victims, and that happened to be him (“Yo creo que como eran incapaces de investigar el tema bien, la víctima más cerca de ellos fue yo (sic)”).
The case of Al Mayali came up recently in a conversation that I had with Gervasio Sánchez on 21 June 2015 (The context of the conversation was the summer course “What matters is dignity” given by the journalist on 20 and 21 June 2015 in Laredo (Santander, Spain). I am very grateful to him for having taken the time to answer my many questions), when I asked him to tell me about his experience with local interpreters. I was curious about the interpreter profile that he required, given that the nature of his work demands an immersion in the local culture. He told me that he preferred to hire a local interpreter who was able to interpret into Spanish rather than English since that way communication was more fluid. He also said that, ideally, the interpreter should be a versatile person, able to drive and with a network of local contacts. As part of his war coverage, one of his priorities was always to obtain personal stories from the people living in the zones of conflict. He thus asked the interpreter to give him a faithful and complete rendition of what the person was saying, and if necessary, he would even give the interpreter specific instructions about the kind of work that he needed.
The rest of our conversation dealt with photography and interpreters. Photography is an act of selection (Fink 2014: 115). Why are there so few photographs of local interpreters? Is their presence not a reminder of the linguistic and communicative involvement present in the coverage of wars and in the resolution of conflicts? Is the presence of local interpreters linked to the failed linguistic policies of governments as well as those of military and international organisms?
Gervasio Sánchez has occassionally taken photographs of some of the local interpreters that have worked for him, but they are mostly private photographs, in other words, photographs taken for affective reasons. In fact, in a post published by Sánchez nine years after the detention of Al Mayali El honor perdido de Flayeh al Mayali (The lost honor of Flayeh Al Mayali link to article), the photojournalist also included various photographs of Al Mayali. Two of them possibly show Al Mayali working with military authorities, whereas the other two depict the interpreter respectively with his family and with a group of students in Bagdad.
In fact, there is nothing surprising in having a close relationship with someone who is your partner in very dangerous situations. Friendship and a sense of hospitality often come later if the collaboration persists in time. Other journalists such as John McCarthy (2012), author of the book You can’t Hide the Sun. A Journey through Israel and Palestine, describes the important job performed by Suha Arraf, her interpreter in Arabic and Hebrew. He also includes a personal photograph of her in which she resembles a tourist engaged in sightseeing. The caption reads: “Suha Arraf, my friend and guide, in trademark sunglasses”.
In conclusion, every image is a construction in which absence is as meaningful as presence. We also know that the value of images is defined by their use, whether private or public. If, as translation historians, we find it interesting to study interpreters as photographic subjects in zones of conflict, this is because such photographs provide us with a window through which we can view interpreters in their physical characteristics and in their professional roles. Such photographs also provide us with a unique opportunity to understand the complexity of the often covert wars and conflicts in which they participate as linguistic mediators and in which their proximity cannot be taken for granted.
Fink, Larry. 2014. On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture.
Freeman, Colin. 2012. “Fixers-the unsung heroes (and villains) of foreign reporting”, The Telegraph, 28 November.
McCarthy, John. 2012. You can’t hide the sun. A journey through Israel and Palestine. London: Random House.