“Traduttore, traditore,” as the Italians say, was a big concern for Maya Hess. She was speaking at the American Translators Association Translation Company Division (ATA-TCD) Conference in Scottsdale, where she introduced the “Red T” initiative to combat the notion that translators were traitors.
In Iraq, interpreters working with American soldiers wear face masks to avoid being recognized. These Iraqi citizens are denounced as traitors, or worse, tortured and killed just for helping Iraqis and Americans talk to one another.
The same life-threatening problems for linguists continue in Afghanistan today, as well as in many other places around the world. Even in the United States, Maya has seen interpreters convicted of aiding and abetting terrorism.
Maya wants to combat this widespread translator=traitor mentality through an ambitious program of global education which she calls Red T. “The umbrella mission of the Red T is to protect translators and interpreters worldwide by rebranding conflict zone interpreters as humanitarian aid workers and formulating policy proposals to mitigate the legal vulnerability of U.S. prison translators.”
I spoke with Maya later about the long history of resentment and distrust directed at linguists caught between worlds, which I’ve posted on here in the past. We discussed La Malinche, interpreter and lover of the conquistador Cortés, who could not have toppled the Aztec Empire without her. Even today, in Mexico her name is synonymous with betrayal.
Maya wants linguists to wear a big red T on their backs so they can be easily identified in the same way a red cross or crescent signifies medical care. Will the Big Red T protect ‘terps (military slang for interpreters) from harm, or just be a giant bullseye?
At the conference, I was talking to a guy whose business card I can’t find now, but who runs contract interpreters for the US in Afghanistan. He briefed me on the procedure for entry into suspected Taliban households by military teams, which usually consist of five soldiers and the ‘terp. Three soldiers enter, then the ‘terp, then the last two soldiers. They keep the interpreter surrounded, forming a human shield, since the ‘terp is the prime target. The interpreter is the key man to the effectiveness of the unit ― the point of the spear, so to speak. How would Maya’s noble effort be realized on dusty plains amid RPGs and AK-47s? I’ll be asking.
Maya’s company, Hess Translations, worked on many high profile legal cases in the U.S., and she has seen an interpreter convicted and jailed for just doing his job. I’ll be following up with Maya to get more details. But are some translators actually traitors? Some seem to think so. That may explain why, for a six-month period, our company trash was being hauled away in black vans before our carting company even showed up to empty the dumpster.