Professionalizing Humanitarian Interpreters?

When I began training interpreters for the ICRC in 2010, I believed that the professionalization of humanitarian interpreting was merely a matter of training and resources. Twelve years later, my thinking on the issue has evolved quite a bit and I am no longer sure that “professionalization and training” is the right approach to humanitarian interpreting.

Why that is the case is explained in the video lecture below:

The tale of the good migrant

Habib is a hard-working father of three who left Syria with his family in 2013 in order to apply for asylum in Germany, where some of his family members have lived for decades. Habib speaks English and immediately signed up for German courses at the local community centre in Karlsruhe. He is a trained electrician, which happens to be a highly in-demand skill in Germany, so it was not difficult for him to find work. Habib is Muslim, but not overly religious. He does not think that Sharia law should apply in Europe, nor does he expect his wife or his daughter to cover their hair when leaving the house. He fasts during Ramadan, but that’s about it. Habib’s children are going to primary school. One of their older cousin’s who was born in Germany helps them with language and homework. Their mother, Fatma hopes to learn German quickly, so that she can start working as a nurse again, which was her profession in Syria.

Habib is a good refugee. He should be given asylum. Right?

The narrative of the good migrant or good refugee has emerged as a genre in its own right – NGOs working with refugees and migrants have “success stories” plastered all over their websites, while the UNHCR tells us “refugee stories” combining text, photos and videos into accounts of suffering, resilience, survival and, quite simply, a deeply shared sense of our common humanity. These stories fulfill an important purpose: they aim to make readers feel empathy. In an age of growing desensitization to human suffering, where we increasingly think of refugees and migrants “in bulk” rather than as individuals, these stories are important and necessary.

However, they also have potentially nefarious consequences.

A rather disturbing example of the “good migrant” genre is Deutsche Welle’s Documentary “Black Skin, German Passport”.

It goes to painstaking lengths to portray the life stories of German nationals who at some point in their lives immigrated to Germany from different African countries. The protagonists seem to have been selected exclusively based on their “black” skin colour, since they do not have anything in common beyond that. The underlying message being conveyed is that these “black Germans” are exceedingly good at being German, to the point where their stories sometimes seem like satire: a young man who came to Germany from Cameroon when he was a baby is training to become a police man, a woman who migrated to Germany from Ghana after she married a German has specialized in the art of cake baking, while a man in his 50s who left Angola in his early 20s to go to university in the GDR and was unable to return after war broke out in his country of origin is now the proud new owner of a “Schrebergarten” somewhere around Dresden. The documentary depicts him listening patiently as representatives of the owners’ association recite dozens of rules about what he is allowed to plant exactly where on his tiny plot of land. I personally would have struggled not to hit those small-scale bureaucrats on the heads with their folders, but then again, I do not have to prove that I am a good German because I am already white…

This precisely is the problem. While different in tone and quality, all these narratives have one thing in common. They produce a one-dimensional representation of migrants or refugees as inherently good or flawless individuals, who are willing and able to seamlessly integrate into Western society by adopting European values. This, precisely, is where these stories can be detrimental. Although they aim to produce positive stereotypes, they are still producing stereotypes. These stereotypical representations are inherently simpler and less nuanced than the underlying reality. They pander to those on the European right who think of “integration” as a process of completely abandoning one’s original culture in order to fit in with a new one. They are based on an understanding of culture as static, set in stone. They aim to reassure those who believe that the arrival of large numbers of individuals from outside Europe will change European culture by implying that this is not the case. That is a wrong and dangerous idea that, in the long run, will create more problems that it solves.

These stories anchor a false narrative in people’s minds, namely that migrants or refugees should be welcomed because they are good, and that what counts as good is defined according to European values.

People leave their countries for different reasons. War, natural disaster or famine are extreme situations pushing millions to leave everything behind. They are deeply traumatic experiences for any human being, that might leave a lasting impact on their psyche and affect their personal relationships for years to come. However, these experiences do not in and of themselves drastically reduce the complexity of human interactions or societies. Before the war, Syria had doctors, nurses, laborers, unemployed youth, secular individuals, religious fanatics, Christians, criminals, old people, children, mentally ill people, rapists, gays, lesbians, progressives, conservatives… whatever groups you like to think of as making up a complex society, Syria had them. Syrian refugees are representative of Syrian society in all its complexity. They differ from anyone else only in that they are victims of a conflict that has killed thousands and left formerly beautiful cities in rubble. They qualify for asylum in third countries, including European countries, because they have been displaced by armed conflict.

Being a good person is not a requirement for asylum, nor is adherence to certain values that we think of as appropriate.

The situation is of course different for migrants. Indeed, some argue that migrants have no inherent or inalienable right to remain in their host country and that their permission to stay could be withdrawn at any point, namely because they are seen as “not integrated enough”. I do not agree with this idea to start with, however, it becomes truly insidious when one considers that second generation immigrants who are born in the host country, as well as naturalized citizens (see Deutsche Welle) are still seen as having to constantly prove their level of integration. The title of Deutsche Welle provides a strong clue in this regard: “Black skin” is seen as the defining feature of these individuals, a feature that no amount of social integration will ever erase, a feature that makes them have to prove their German-ness over and over again.

Migrants and refugees are not all good or all bad. They are full-fledged human beings, who have exactly the same level of complexity as everyone else. Everywhere in the world, some people are great, some people are assholes. But all of them are people and they have rights just by virtue of being people.

Time has always changed societies and cultures. My worldview has been shaped by that of my parents but it is not identical to it. Every new generation radically changes a country. It is therefore only logical to expect that individuals who arrive in a country not through birth but through migration have exactly the same effect. The sooner we accept this reality, the better.

Both asylum and a life in dignity are rights. They are not privileges one earns for good behaviour.


Men on a Plane – Development Sector Edition

I recently watched Paula Stone William’s Ted talk, which I can warmly recommend:

In it, Paula describes how her life has changed since she transitioned from male to female. She starts with an anecdote about a man refusing to let her sit in her assigned seat on a plane.

This anecdote struck a nerve with me, and probably with any other woman who frequently travels for work. Day after day we experience countless small humiliations. We intuitively know that a man would not have these experiences, but we don’t fully understand why.

I recently returned from a short work trip to a country where frankly not many people would go for tourism. Most international travelers go there on mission for their national government, a UN agency, development NGOs or humanitarian organizations. I was travelling as a consultant for one of these organizations.

The flight back, one of the rare connections with the possibility of an onwards flight to Geneva, turned out to be a genuine ‘Who is Who’ of the Swiss development sector: SECO, the SDC, and many major Swiss development NGOs were represented on the medium sized plane. You might wonder how I know this…

There is a reason I choose the aisle seat when I travel for work. I like to get up regularly without bothering anyone. This was a very early morning flight so my hope was that I would spend most of it asleep. Apparently my fellow travellers had other plans. The gentleman sitting next to me, a Swiss national in his 40s (let’s call him ‘Jacques’), had a friend or colleague on the same flight, whose seat was a few rows behind. Given that he was “stuck” in the middle seat, his friend, also a Swiss national but probably in his late 30s (let’s call him ‘Bernard’), eventually decided to stand in the aisle, just next to my seat, for a lengthy chat.

Bernard also seized this opportunity to introduce Jacques to another guy (let’s call him ‘Thomas’), who was sitting directly in front of me and promptly stood up as well, turning around. Thomas was German, in his late 40s. The three men formed a rather close triangle around me and started talking about work. It turns out Jacques was from SECO, Bernard from the SDC and Thomas was country director for a major Swiss NGO.

Bernard, Jacques and Thomas had me surrounded. They talked loudly, directly over my head. It was blatantly obvious that I was trying to sleep – while I was initially listening to their conversation with my eyes closed, I eventually opened my eyes, making it o-b-v-i-o-u-s that they had just woken me up. They never even flinched. They exchanged contacts, tips about where best to go hiking in some of the countries they had been, discussed people they might know in common. They even tried to draw another guy into the conversation “So, do you also work in the development sector?”

As Bernard was travelling back home with his family, his kid eventually joined the conversation, contributing to it mainly by repeatedly pushing my chair and bumping into my leg.

At no point in their conversation did it occur to these gentlemen that I was trying to sleep, that they were invading my space and being extremely inconsiderate to another human being. What was even more obvious: at no point did it occur to them that they could have tried their networking catchphrase (“So, do you also work in the development sector?”) on me and that, unlike the guy sitting next to them, I would actually have been able to answer it.

For twenty minutes, these three men were talking over my head, completely oblivious to my existence. They had created a circle of equals that was literally and figuratively placed above the head of a young woman. Men networking with men. Guys exchanging notes on guy stuff to do in remote regions of the planet (outdoors activities and extreme sports, obviously, it is always about sports). Since they never bothered to question their assumption that I was probably just a student or some kind of volunteer travelling back home, they remained unaware of the fact that I am currently studying the communication practices of the Swiss development sector and that I was furiously taking mental notes. Anthropologists call it direct observation – it is what you do when you are not a participant-observer. That is usually difficult because most human beings acknowledge the existence of another person that is situated in their immediate physical environment… I realized I had inadvertently made a methodological breakthrough: Being a young woman  provides you with an invisibility cloak – who would have known?

Initially, I was angry at myself for remaining silent. Yet, in the face of such an obvious lack of consideration from people whose path I might cross in a professional context one day, I simply did not know what to say. “I am trying to sleep” seemed such a stupidly obvious thing to say to people who supposedly earn their income by being attentive to the needs of others.

After having to ask for permission to cross the aisle four or five times, the flight attendant finally lost it and asked the two gentlemen blocking her path to kindly sit down. They were visibly unhappy, promptly made faces at each other and joked about her being bossy. This was a young woman whose job actually involves telling passengers what to do on a plane.

Had she been a male flight attendant, these men would have complied without so much as a frown. Had I been a male passenger, they would have never dared talk directly over my head and invade my personal space as much as they did.

How do I know this? It is one of the things you learn when you grow up as a woman. By the time you are an adult you have internalized it, by the time you are a few years into your professional life, you have normalized it.

On ne naît pas femme, on le devient.

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.