Can interpreters be impartial in a war?

Interpreters mediate between speakers of different languages in a variety of settings. Consequently, different professions have emerged within the field, namely conference interpreting, court interpreting and community interpreting. Each with their respective professional codes of ethics. A principle that can be found in almost all of these codes is neutrality or impartiality. An interesting variation on the theme is “multipartiality”, a term I found in the code of ethics for community interpreters in Switzerland. While each of these three terms has a slightly different meaningmultipartiality” for instance, implies that the interpreter is simultaneously on everyone’s side, rather than on no one’s side (impartiality)that distinction is not important for the purpose of this article. Consequently, I shall opt for “impartiality” as my generic term and use this to refer to a positioning of the interpreter in a somewhat imaginary No Man’s Land situated between the different parties to the interpreter-mediated interaction or “trialog”.

If we want to understand the possibility and nature of interpreter impartiality in different settings, we need to take a closer look at the relationship between the two parties and the way in which information flows between them. If we look at a communicative event as a transaction between two parties, then information is the currency they use. As in any context “Follow the money!” is sound advice to understand what is really going on.

Based on my experience as an interpreter, interpreter trainer and (very occasional) user of interpreting services, I would argue that there are three types of transaction: extraction of information, dissemination of information and exchange of information. Each of these presents different challenges and opportunities as far as interpreter impartiality is concerned. Such a typology depending on information flow has, as far as I know, never been presented in the interpreting literature.

Scenario 1: Extraction of information

In this scenario, there is often no mutual agreement to enter into communication. Rather, one party tries to extract information from the other party. The purposes of information extraction can range from noble (a doctor attempting to better understand the patient’s symptoms, a social scientist trying to find out more about the situation of child nutrition in a remote Andean village, a social worker interviewing parents about their child’s special needs, etc.), to controversial (an asylum officer trying to obtain detailed information about the applicant’s past in order to assess the credibility of their story, a police officer interrogating a suspect, etc.), to outright ugly (a member of an armed group interrogating a prisoner of war under torture, a CIA agent using “enhanced interrogation techniques” to extract intelligence, etc.). All of these scenarios have involved interpreters, yes, even the one involving torture:

“Afghan officials are seeking the arrest of an Afghan-American interpreter on charges of murder and torture. The interpreter was reportedly identified in a video showing Mohammad’s abuse.” (Source: Democracy Now!, 22 May 2013)


Although both speakers might take turns in this scenario, sometimes even using similar amounts of speaking time, the information flow is largely unidirectional: A aims to obtain information from B. To achieve this aim, A might ask direct or indirect questions, or use more subtle approaches, such as providing some information of their own in order to encourage B to share their knowledge. Granted, B might sometimes be able to use the information they are holding as leverage (think for instance of a small-time crook who negotiates a mitigation of their sentence in exchange for important information about a larger network of organized crime) but this rarely gives them full control over the interaction.

Scenario 2: Dissemination of information

While this scenario might seem like “inverted extraction of information”, I would argue that what matters is who is in control. In the extraction scenario above, the party extracting the information is generally in control of the communication situation: they select the other party, they define where and when the interaction takes place, and they are the ones paying the interpreter.

In the dissemination scenario, control resides with the holder of the information. Once again, possible scenarios range from the benign (a community health centre organizing an information session for young mothers, a teacher informing parents about their child’s progress in school, an induction seminar for new members of staff), to the ambiguous (an advertising agency presenting the merits of their client’s latest products, a political party on the campaign trail), to the outright detrimental (a cult leader convincing teenagers to cut all contact with their families, a political representative convincing his constituents to take up arms against a minority group).


As in the extraction of information scenario presented above, speakers might take turns, although A will try to provide information to B and use B’s statements mainly to check whether information has been received and understood. As such, information flow remains unidirectional, A is the holder of knowledge that B is supposed to have acquired at the end of the encounter.

Scenario 3: Exchange of information

In this scenario we genuinely have two parties to the interaction. Their intention and willingness to communicate is mutual, and while the amount and quality of information each party is holding might vary, both are actively contributing to the conversation. What distinguishes this scenario from the two scenarios above is that both parties have the power to influence the course of the conversation and change the topic, be it by presenting information in a certain way or asking questions. Both parties are there to learn from and about each other. This type of scenario is quite common in conference interpreting settings (health experts from different countries coming together to discuss a global progress report) or business interpreting settings (a delegation from China comes to visit a car manufacturing plant in Germany). A variation of this scenario are “negotiation settings”, where the clear objective of the two parties is to resolve a dispute and/or reach an agreement about the best way forward. Such negotiations can of course be tense, despite a shared willingness of actors to engage in communication. However, both parties generally have an interest in the interpreter’s impartiality or might sometimes even use two interpreters (each side employing their own, as is often the case in bilateral meetings between heads of government for instance).


In this scenario, information genuinely flows both ways. Ideally, speakers take turns and use similar amounts of speaking time. However, even in cases where A is more knowledgeable about a topic, B will remain actively involved in the conversation, for example by asking questions, making suggestions and comments, thereby pushing A to clarify their explanations or change their point of view.

Implications for interpreter impartiality

When a communication scenario is inherently asymmetrical, for example aiming towards extraction or dissemination of information, impartiality is difficult for the interpreter to maintain. Indeed, there is sometimes no imaginary neutral territory between the parties that the interpreter can occupy, no shared space or contact zone that is created by the parties’ mutual agreement to enter into communication. In extraction and dissemination scenarios, the Gricean maxims of communication are often not respected. Instead, one party aims to influence the other party, and often to convince them to do something they would not otherwise have done (reveal strategically important information or quite simply change the way they manage their children’s nutrition). In these scenarios, the ethical space the interpreter needs to consider is not limited to her own code of ethics but to the nature of the communicative event and the ethical implications of the change that the party in control of the situation is trying to create.

Many will agree that teaching young girls about HIV/Aids aims to bring about a positive change, while convincing young men to kill their neighbors in protest against election results makes everyone worse off.

Extraction or dissemination of information are not inherently good or bad. But they make for communication settings with inherently unequal parties, which is important for the interpreter to keep in mind. The interpreter provides a service that helps A achieve their objective. Granted, B might be able to subvert the situation by refusing to supply/receive information or providing inaccurate or false information, but the bigger the power asymmetry between A and B, the smaller is B’s ability to interfere with A’s agenda. I would argue that, in this constellation, the interpreter is not impartial. Rather, in aligning her services with the objective of the communication scenario, she will quite naturally side with A, who is also generally the stakeholder employing her.

Information extraction and dissemination are also the scenarios that are most likely to “turn ugly”, with torture and indoctrination as extreme examples. In these cases interpreter impartiality is a moot point: Who would argue for impartial and accurate interpretation of statements extracted from a person being tortured?

We can, of course, take the easy way out and simply argue that the people translating during torture, enhanced interrogation or cultic indoctrination are not interpreters, or that codes of ethics only apply to trained professionals working in specific contexts. Nevertheless, professional interpreters have in the past expressed their solidarity and identification with colleagues (“colleagues”?) working for the military in active conflict zonesmaybe without fully understanding the limitations of interpreter impartiality in these complex, volatile and often dangerous environments. Furthermore, there are now numerous initiatives geared towards training and professionalization of interpreters working in conflict zones, as such, we cannot simply exclude these individuals from the scope of interpreting ethics.

Codes of ethics for conference interpreters tend to limit the question of impartiality to the attitude of the interpreter during the interpreted event. As such, these codes of ethics seem to presuppose a mutual willingness of parties to communicate, which is often not the case in other contexts. The relevance of these codes in situations where there is a strong power-asymmetry between parties or where interpreters are necessarily also stakeholders is therefore limited. Codes of ethics for community interpreters, on the other hand, have gone beyond the interpreting scenario to address the social responsibility of language intermediaries: part of the community interpreter’s mandate is to help migrants or minority speakers gain access to public services and institutions.

Indeed, sometimes, the decision to interpret in a certain context is already a decision to take sides in a broader ethical space.

Conceptualising interpreter impartiality in such contexts requires an engagement with broader ethical questions. That is something I did not find in the “Conflict Zones Field Guide for Civilian Translators/Interpreters and Users of Their Services” published by AIIC, FIT and Red-Tmaybe because of the authors’ proximity to conference interpreting. Impartiality is listed in the Field Guide as a principle and described as follows:

“Regardless of who engages you, serve all parties equally, without expressing your opinions or sympathies. You cannot be an advocate for any cause and must declare any conflict of interest.”

However, under the heading “Protection”, the same document informs interpreters that they “are not required to wear a uniform, unless [they] consent to do so“. Note that a uniform is not the same as unmarked protective gear, such as the bullet proof vests often worn by civilian journalists working in conflict zones.

I cannot help but wonder:

If wearing a US Army uniform in Afghanistan does not make you the advocate for a cause, then what does?

If the act of wearing a uniform cannot be interpreted by a civilian interlocutor as an act of taking sides and expressing an opinion, then what can?

Information, as interpreters are well positioned to know, flows not only through words. Our presence, our demeanor and our physical appearance also communicate a message. Let us not forget the fact that the military uniform is designed for the specific purpose of distinguishing military personnel from civilians and that, from the perspective of the law of war, there a reasons to doubt that a military uniform provides “protection” to an interpreter:

“The military uniform distinguishes the members of armed forces from the rest of the population. In international armed conflicts, members of the armed forces can lawfully take part in combat on the battlefield. Inversely, they can be lawfully attacked. The absence of a military uniform usually indicates that a person is a civilian, is therefore not allowed to perform military functions and must not be attacked.” (Source: Pfanner, 2004: 94

Furthermore, “civilian” interpreters working for the US military in Afghanistan for instance have gone far beyond wearing a uniform:

“Being a translator in a place like Kandahar conveys a distinct isolation; the high salary is coveted, but many feel that such work with the foreign soldiers is tainted. Working with the Special Forces is doubly so. Interpreters are not supposed to be armed, but the U.S. Special Forces have largely ignored those regulations.” (Source: Rolling Stone, 6 November 2013)

The quote above refers specifically to locally recruited interpreters, i. e. persons who are neither members of the armed forces nor US citizens but Afghans carrying weapons while also working as language intermediaries between the US Army and the local population. 

In sum, many difficult and painful ethical questions remain to be addressed with regards to civilian interpreters working in conflict zones. Despite their problematic status, we should of course not forget that some interpreters have been killed when left behind in their home country by nations who benefited greatly from their services, yet then refused to grant them asylum. I am not defending this decision nor minimising the human suffering that has resulted from it. However, my argument is that the status of these individuals from the point of view of professional interpreting ethics is problematic, in particular regarding the practical possibility of impartiality.

Interpreters are ambiguous actors, who, depending on the nature of the interaction they find themselves in, have the ability to either reinforce or subvert established power relationships. More often than not, the decision to act impartially during the interpreted event only reinforces the status quo.

The term “interpreter” has been and will continue to be used to refer to individuals with very different backgrounds, levels of training, job descriptions and roles. Professional codes of ethics are useful for specific sub-groups of interpreters (conference, community, court, humanitarian, military) and their strength resides precisely in their specificity. However, placing the question of interpreter impartiality in a wider context spanning different groups of interpreters and types of scenarios helps us analyse the wider implications of impartiality.

In particular, we need to take into account that interpreters might work in an institutional setting that is in itself highly partial and that impartiality at the micro-level of an individual interaction might not mean much when communication primarily serves the purpose of furthering an agenda.

In short: Interpreter impartiality is about much more than what the interpreter says or does not say. It depends on who they are, who their employer is, what kind of communication scenario they are working in, what they wear, and why they are there to begin with.

Language and development

The current buzzword in development cooperation is “participation”.

Participation can mean all sorts of things but it most commonly refers to the (more) active involvement of beneficiaries at all stages of a project, and in particular during the initial stages, when the content and objectives of a development project are defined based on local needs. Indeed, modern development cooperation is supposed to be aligned with the real “needs” of “beneficiaries” so as to avoid the pitfalls of old (creating and maintaining dependency, building infrastructure no one uses, imposing change from the outside that no one wants, using development projects simply as a modern form of colonialism etc.).

In order to allow beneficiaries to participate, one must, of course, communicate with them. Surprisingly, the literature on participatory development has very little to say about languages. It seems that communication between NGOs in the North and the South and aid recipients (often rural populations who have not had access to formal education) happens seamlessly and essentially without hick-ups, despite considerable differences not only in terms of language but also in terms of culture, level of education, individual experience and exposure to development thinking.

As a trained interpreter familiar with several so-called “developing countries” I had reasons to believe that things are not as simple as that. Indeed, a development project involves a long chain of actors: institutional and individual donors, NGOs in the North and the South, grass roots organizations, beneficiary representatives and, finally, beneficiaries. It is safe to say that not all of them speak the same language and that no commonly shared lingua franca (no, not even English…) spans the whole chain.

When development workers meet potential beneficiaries they create a strange kind of hybrid communication space, a contact zone where different ideas about change, progress, development, work, life and the world come together. Negotiating difference can be enriching and valuable, but it is rarely a simple or painless process.

So how exactly does participation work? Who brings back the “stories” and “first-hand accounts” from the field that we find in every development aid publication? Who communicates with whom? Who are the people who broker encounters between different links of the chain?

That is what I am trying to find out in my current research project. You can view a short summary of it here.

Humanitarian Interpreter Training

Numerous interpreters work in conflict zones, not as military interpreters, but as civilians working for humanitarian organizations.

These interpreters might be individuals with a strong interest in humanitarian work and knowledge of English and a “rare” language used in the humanitarian context, who are recruited specifically as interpreters by a humanitarian organization. For instance, the interpreters working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are generally expatriate aid workers who have no direct family links with their country of assignment.

Alternatively, interpreters may themselves be beneficiaries of humanitarian organizations who speak English as well as the language used by beneficiaries. The interpreters ensuring communication between encamped or urban refugees and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, are themselves refugees.

This difference in background has direct implications for training, which is what I explore in the talk below given at the University of Reading (UK) in the framework of the Translating in Danger Zones seminar series in October 2016.