Translating and Interpreting – 13. The Ultimate Sacrifice

One or two previous blogs in this series have described some of the potential difficulties and disadvantages which may face interpreters (or translators), especially those who work in newsworthy national and international environments and occasionally find themselves being used as scapegoats to save the face of their prominent employers. Number 13 of the series deals briefly with the most negative consequence of this career choice: death on duty.

The conduct of the seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and their close (“in our face”) reporting by the international media – would have been impossible without the contingents of intrepid cameramen and local interpreters, translators and ‘fixers’ who have helped the American and allied forces and the battalions of foreign correspondents. A small proportion of these civilian interpreters (etc.) have paid the ultimate price for their work: death. (Others, as in other foreign wars, may well pay a similar price, when the coalition forces finally depart.)

On assignment in North Iraq in March 2003, Eric Campbell, a correspondent for Australian ABC TV was injured and his cameraman was killed in a terrorist attack (virtually on camera). When New York Times correspondent Stephen Farrell was taken hostage recently in Kunduz province, Afghanistan, he was freed in a subsequent commando raid but his “translator”, Sultan Munadi, was killed.

In an account of his own experiences in South Lebanon, another war correspondent, Sam Kiley, narrates the death of Abed Takoush, the fixer for the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen. Kiley also provides this background information on the unique job description of a fixer and an insight into the close bond between foreign correspondents (or the military) and their invaluable local assistants, referring also to the case of Sultan Manadi. (See The Spectator, 16 September 2009)

“Abed was a “fixer”, like Sultan Manadi, who was killed last week during a NATO operation to free the British journalist Stephen Farrell from Afghan kidnappers. ‘Fixer’ is an ignoble title. The word is sleazy and demeaning: it implies the local people hired by the foreign media are mere higglers. The reality is that without a worldwide network of local freelance drivers, translators, and general all-round fixers, there would be a lot of dead journalists, and pretty soon no foreign news at all.

Any nitwit, and I am living proof, can be a ‘war correspondent’ if they are lucky enough to come across a great fixer. These men and women usually earn no more than $100 a day. For that they provide introductions to gangsters, war lords, terrorists, politicians – as well as navigate, drive and give instant tutorials on Albanian politics, Somali clan rivalries and Balkan history. More important, they keep us alive. Behind our backs they apologise for our cultural insensitivity, anticipate our needs before we know that we’ve got them, and from time to time literally lead us through minefields.”
(The Spectator, 16 September 2009)

A happier ending: 30-year-old Australian SAS Trooper Mark Donaldson was recently awarded the Victoria Cross (Australia’s first for 30 years) for rescuing an Afghan interpreter under heavy fire in 2008. He was subsequently received by Queen Elizabeth II in Buckingham Palace.

Note: Sam Kiley is the author of Desperate Glory: At War in Helmand with Britain’s 16th Air Assault Brigade (London, Bloomsbury).

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