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What is neutrality and what are its limitations?

Watch this video of translators describing their views on neutrality, and what its limitations are. Let;s explore.
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Text on Screen: Can translators get emotionally involved in their work? Yes, I mean, some translations, you get very involved and carried away with. I translated– I used to do some work for a translator– sorry– for a solicitor who represented people who got caught at Heathrow Airport smuggling drugs. And one of them was a personal account of a drugs mule who was a young girl who had been persuaded to carry some cocaine into England. And they basically sat her down in her cell and told her to tell her life story up to the time when she was caught.
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And it was so heart-rending, the situation that she lived in and the reasons that had led up to her agreeing to carry the drugs. I really felt as if I didn’t want– my sympathies were very much with her. And I didn’t want to misrepresent anything that she’d said. And you do sometimes find yourself in that situation. It’s very hard to be neutral in that situation.
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Text on Screen: Should translators be neutral? Oh, yeah, I think you have to be. Yeah. You couldn’t slip anything into there that would make her seem more innocent, for example– that translation. But at the same time, you feel extra strongly that you don’t want to get one word of what she said wrong.

Watch the video and note what the translator thinks about neutrality. Should translators remain neutral towards the content and people they work with?

The translator’s view on neutrality is in line with contemporary professional standards and codes of ethics. It also echoes the perception of the translator as an impartial messenger mentioned earlier.

Interpreting in conflict zones

One important context is interpreting in conflict zones, where interpreters tend to work for a particular side. They’re not parachuted from another planet to act as detached go-betweens. Instead, they’re likely to have complex linguistic, cultural, educational and personal ties with different sides of the conflict. This makes the idea of complete neutrality problematic.

Moira Inghilleri’s (2012) chapter on interpreters working for the US army in Iraq shows that interpreters in war zones find themselves in a precarious position. Local Iraqi interpreters, often wearing army fatigues, were associated with the occupier. Whether they personally believed the US was liberating Iraq from a dictator, or tried to minimise the damage of the invasion by facilitating communication, or needed a job during war time, they were not external to the conflict.

Moreover, they would often be considered collaborators and targeted by other sides. In many cases the US and their allies failed to protect interpreters in the Middle East, leaving them behind, without sufficient re-location opportunities. Recognising the risk interpreters face, some associations campaign for a better protection of interpreters in conflict zones. See for example the International Association of Conference Interpreters campaign.

Interpreting the extreme settings of war camps

A further example related to conflict documents interpreting in the extreme settings of war camps. Małgorzata Tryuk’s study (2015) focused on interpreters in Nazi concentration camps, mainly Auschwitz-Birkenau. German-speaking prisoners who were made interpreters needed to relay cruel orders, severe sentences and degrading insults.

Many survivors remembered the ‘welcome speech’, when new inmates learnt that the only way to freedom was through a chimney (bodies were burnt in camp crematoria). Interpreters relaying these words knew that they applied to them as well, which makes the notion of detachment rather inapplicable.

Interpreting roles didn’t in any way guarantee survival, although they sometimes offered access to life-saving information. Accounts show that some interpreters helped other prisoners: e.g. Egbert Skowron helped sick inmates avoid the hardest and deadliest labour (Tryuk 2015: 81). Others were remembered for beating fellow prisoners or interpreting humiliating jokes with amusement (Tryuk 2015: 78; 64).

How interpreters were treated after WW2

Another example shows how interpreters were treated after WW2. Kayoko Takeda (2016) has researched the role of interpreters in a Japanese prisoner of war camps. One of her findings was that about 40 interpreters were found guilty of war crimes in a series of post-war trials in the Asia-Pacific and nine were sentenced to death (the total number of convictions was about 1,850).

In some cases there were testimonies indicating that particular interpreters actively participated in torture and beatings and they were given higher sentences. Other interpreters were not accused of using physical violence but, as the voice of the torturers, were still considered complicit and guilty. Some interpreters argued that they were ‘only’ interpreting and that refusing to interpret would’ve been a suicide but that didn’t constitute sufficient defence. Their role was not considered neutral.

It’s also worth mentioning a contemporary example that is not related to war, namely activist translation and interpreting, where people volunteer for projects they care about. The actual linguistic transfer may well be accurate but translators and interpreters join relevant exchanges as participants, with their own agendas.

One example is Babels, which describes itself as ‘a network of interpreters and translators’ and ‘a player in the “anti-capitalist” debate’. The activist translation is an interesting area of translation, where translators and interpreters may play a more active and independent role than in some commercial and strictly regulated areas of translation and interpreting.

Tip: whether you are acting as a translator/interpreter or working with them, remember that emotions can play an important role in translation – even when everyone involved is an experienced professional.

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Working with Translation: Theory and Practice

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