Putting on the Red T

by Translation Guy on April 15, 2011

T as in Translator. That’s Traduttore in Italian, as in Traduttore, traditore, which, depending on the context, means the translation does not reflect the original, or the translator should be shot.

That’s why Maya Hess started the Red T Movement. In typical TranslationGuy fashion, I scoffed and then became fascinated with what Maya was doing. The Red T is a global advocacy with the mission to protect translators and ‘terps working in harm’s way. Maya figured that linguists would wear a Red T for identification in dicey situations, just as medicos working with the Red Cross do. I figured that T would just be more like a bull’s-eye on the battlefield, which gets to the larger problem of how quickly translators are dumped in the traitor category, whether they’re targeted as adversaries rather than intermediaries by the courts in the US, or they become targets of opportunity in conflict zones.

Matt Grotenstein writes in Targama, “it has been confirmed that at least 360 conflict-zone interpreters working for the US troops have died between 2003 and 2008, and more than 1,200 were injured. The losses for the coalition forces are also grim: one source states that at least 60 linguists have been systematically tortured and assassinated, and the British military reportedly lost 21 interpreters in 21 days, 17 of them in a mass attack targeting interpreters. Of course, some of the people included in these lists were injured or died in the tragic but regular course of warfare; however, the descriptions of brutality such as beheadings, abductions, or death resulting from multiple injuries sustained during torture point to the translator-traitor mentality as the cause.”

Last time I spoke to Maya, I told her she was nuts to think that she could change that fear of the other that drives the fear of foreigners and their interlocutors.

“Hard-wired, Maya, that kind of hate is in our DNA. Can’t be helped.” So there. Harrumpf.  How can you argue with that kind of curmudgeonly cynicism?

Her answer was simple. “Well, we’ve got to start somewhere. Are you in?”

So now I’m in. Here’s the link to the Facebook page, and here’s the priority list:

– Redefine the role of conflict zone linguists and work towards obtaining complete protected-person status
– Unite translator/interpreter initiatives launched by individuals, groups and trade associations under a common cause
– Create and maintain a central data registry for translator/interpreter incidents and compile statistics
– Track policy progress by country (re legal developments, asylum grants, insurance protocols, etc.)
– Raise awareness of the Red T, its logo and its cause in order to secure worldwide recognition

United States:
– Conduct information campaigns to alert linguists to new and present case law
– Formulate policy proposals to mitigate the legal vulnerability of translators/interpreters working in prison settings, etc.

We’re posting the Red T on our site to show our support, and I invite you to do the same.


  1. as a former medic myself, I always found that you were treated differently in a conflict zone by having some identifying mark, like the media, or red cross. Perhaps its because the people know that you can administer treatment

  2. Mariska says:

    I like where this Red T is going, baby steps first. Think globally, act locally…I know that we’re not talking recycling but it would be easier to create the plan on a small scale and then export and replicate that success

  3. Ihadapheo says:

    Of course you’d be treated differently as a medic…an interpretor in a hostile area is usually a native who is risking everything for change

  4. supply lines are a favorite target of military commanders – disrupt your foes food, water, ammunition. Not surprising that they’re targeting a more valuable resource, one that can’t be characterized – communication

  5. nikkibeltran says:

    I’m in! Anything to help clear the fog of war and protect those that are doing it

  6. Bertie says:

    its understood that doing anything to help a perceived enemy is going to be dangerous. By putting a big red T on a shirt, you’ve just made that person easier to identify

    • Ken says:

      I share the concerns of Bertie and Veronica that a “Red T” shirt will stop bullets about as well as a Ghost shirt at Wounded Knee. In my earlier post on Red T, I reported on similar skepticism among those who send interpreters into harm’s way. All too often, when things get kinetic, translators are the favored target of opportunity. Certainly in such situations, the the Red T will not be displayed. It will require a big change in attitudes and awareness for the Red T to become the opposite of a bulls-eye, through efforts behind the lines to change general attitudes towards linguists.

  7. I find it hard to accept that anyone in a combat zone is going to adhere to the rule of law. We expect that if you’re a medic (doctors without borders, the red cross) or a journalist, that you’ll be left alone but that isn’t always the case. It’s admirable to put translators on the same level as doctors, but truth be told, they can do more damage than a doctor can. if the occupying force doesn’t speak the lingo and can’t communicate with the locals they’re going to have a hard time conquering

  8. Tab A says:

    Thanks for bringing this to forefront Maya! I’ll be following the Red T’s progress

  9. Frissy says:

    one of the action items for the U.S. is to “formulate policy proposals to mitigate the legal vulnerability of translators/interpreters working in prison settings, etc.” what are they vulnerable too?

    • Ken says:

      Upcoming post on just what that means, Frissy. Stay tuned.

  10. Icecreamman says:

    Clearly the plight of interpreters in conflicts is not comparable with the more comfortable situations we encounter daily in the developed world.

  11. William says:

    In conflict, not only are the interpreters unable to find the neutral spaces or linguistically neutral spaces but the combatants do not recognise them either.

  12. Ginny says:

    I believe that given the current situation with all the international armed conflicts – that we would be doing them a favour if we contributed to their resolution by pointing out the need for the international community and institutions to grant recognition and protection endowing interpretors with the necessary instruments and protection that will enable them to get on with their job.

  13. how far reaching will this organization go? Will they be brought in as experts on trade disputes or bilateral treaty signings?

    • Ken says:

      Nope. This is about trying to protect translators in the field.

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