T is for ‘Terp

by Translation Guy on April 5, 2010

“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.


  1. Sam adams says:

    Who knew that they had to wear such crazy gear, that must be so scary for the Iraqi interpreters!

  2. phillydude79 says:

    Thank you for your thoughtfulness. I am one of the few Iraqi interpreter who made it to the US. I thank all the efforts and support of those who sympathize with people like myself who don’t have home anymore. I have lost personal friends who were interpreters. I need your prayers for their souls.

  3. Crawly says:

    I served in Basra province for six months in 2005 and I can tell you that the interpreters deserve better than this.
    It doesn’t matter if you think that the war was wrong or right – they made a sacrifice for us and they don’t deserve to be left behind to be murdered.

  4. Paula says:

    Yes, a big red T, you might as well paint a big fat target on their chests..

  5. Spiderman12 says:

    Would love to hear Maya’s thoughts on this conversation or maybe your Ken?

    • Ken says:

      I’m on it, Spiderman. I forgot to give Maya a head’s up, and I’ll ping her ASAP, because I’m sure she’ll have much to say. Also I just heard from a cat in Iraq who is on the ‘Terp front line everyday, I’ll publish more on this soon.

      Thanks to all, warmongers and peacemongers both, for taking the time to share your thoughts. Please be careful of insults and profanity tho…. this is a family blog.

      -J. Jonah aka Translation Guy

  6. Zigga says:

    Just another veitnam really isnt it, US couldnt get it’s claws into this one either so they bailed on the whole fukin thing leaving whoever supported them(those stupid enough) to suffer the cosequences ie…total instabilty, power struggles and an insurgency.those asking the US not to leave are sadly having to ask the same people who caused this mess to now protect them from it.

  7. Tyrone Smith says:

    The interpreters in Iraq are not only trying to help the Iraqi government, the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police. They are helping Americans communicate with the local population. ..

  8. hey you people keep in mind that we helped the both sides and whatever you say won’t get us down ,we’ll always be there , we have the skills what do you have ??? nothing but a dirty mouth

  9. Lover 1966 says:

    I am opposed to giving Iraqi interpreters and collaborators asylum in the U.S. for several reasons. They were well paid for their services, worked for the Bush administration and its misguided warmongers not the American people.If what they did was so good for their country why do they fear for their lives from their own people? If the US was invaded what would your attitude be toward another American who would aid a foreign occupier? I would call them a traitor.

  10. Linda says:

    The International Association of Conference Interpreters has launched a project to try to help interpreters – both professional and non-professional- in conflict zones. We recognize their vulnerability and believe they should be helped in various ways: by spreading the ethics of a neutral, impartial profession whose main aim is to increase understanding and dialogue between peoples, and thus a more peaceful world; by being better protected both physically and in law during and post conflict; through reminders to our governments and other organisations which employ them that they should be properly insured and given asylum priorities; and by working to obtain a status which will protect them. We have not come to a conclusion about a protective symbol like the Red T which could indeed target them more. It would be good to hear from people like phillydude to better understand their problems. Our webzine on aiic.net contains articles which might interest you and through which you can contact us.

    • Ken says:

      Good to know about your efforts. I’ve got an interview coming up with former Iraqi Interpreter and master blogger Sam-K which will be super interesting I think, and I’m having lunch today with Maya Hess of “Red T.” I’ll be in touch by email to learn more about your efforts. Thanks!

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