From the Founder

From the Founder: Communications Under Stress

Sad to say, this year, 2021, has been a particularly awful one for communications, a subject dear to Planet Word. In 2021, for example, young children, often not attending school in person due to Covid, missed the important opportunity to talk and chat and learn with their peers. Our airwaves and social media grew more and more littered with misinformation. Critical thinking was undermined by the onslaught of disinformation, often issued by sources on whom we rely for the facts.

And then consider the wider global picture: International travel and much commerce were curtailed by the pandemic, so cross-cultural communication was necessarily curtailed as well. Journalists were forced to stay home due to Covid but also due to the growing numbers of countries where journalists were either barred or at risk.

But it has been the abrupt withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan and the danger faced by anyone who came too close to us that has focused my attention on another major reason that communications has suffered mightily this year: the stresses faced by translators and interpreters who work there and in other conflict zones. While the horrific events of Thursday showed the mortal danger that our troops face in Afghanistan, alongside them, also facing similar danger, have been thousands of people, many of them civilians, who work in the translation and interpretation fields.

For them, too, this really has been an annus horribilis.

For several years Planet Word Advisory Board member, Professor Barry Olsen, and a coalition of professional associations have called for an international agreement to protect interpreters and translators, based on the reality that “linguists working for the military are kidnapped, tortured and beheaded as traitors; prison camp translators are prosecuted as spies; court interpreters receive death threats; fixers are persecuted for doing their job; and literary translators are incarcerated for content. The simple practice of our profession makes thousands of us vulnerable to loss of life, limb and liberty.”

These professionals helped Americans and their allies during the 20 years of our engagement in Afghanistan, not to mention, as Professor Barry Olsen, wrote me: “The Taliban themselves, now in a position of power, are now employing interpreters to be able to get their message out to the world. Governments, organizations and enterprises cannot function without interpreters.”

We saw a similar chaotic situation unfold upon America’s departure from Vietnam. While only history will tell us whether the current situation in Afghanistan should have been anticipated or could have been avoided, it leaves me thinking about some more general lessons we should take from this debacle, lessons pertinent to Planet Word’s focus on communications. Perhaps this regrettable state of affairs — when many thousands of Afghans who assisted Americans may be left behind to face hardship or worse — will move the world to recognize the need for international agreements to protect the people working to aid communication between combatants in conflict zones, where communications can be such a matter of life and death.  Ultimately, perhaps there could even be some form of internationally recognized identification card for the people providing these essential communications services.

And in the U.S. itself, perhaps both political parties will now agree on legislation to speed up visa processing for the people who assisted us, people whose skills were invaluable to our troops, and to those working for aid organizations and other NGOs. Many of them fear, legitimately, for their safety after working for or on behalf of U.S. forces, so they look to the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) program to provide safe passage to the U.S. after they have worked in that capacity for a minimum 2 ½ years.

But in a letter last week to the New York Times, Lois Feuerle, wrote that in 2014, “when Joe Biden was vice president and I was on the board of directors of the largest national translator and interpreter organization in the United States, our organization was already urging the Obama administration to increase the number of visas for translators and interpreters because of the dangers to them back then.”

Nevertheless, the number of such visas issued has remained woefully inadequate: A total of just 34,500 visas has been allocated since 2014. Even an emergency supplemental appropriation made in July 2021 authorized only 8,000 additional SIVs for Afghan applicants, although the need now might be as high as 80,000. And the application process is burdensome and often frustratingly unsuccessful — not a proper way to express gratitude for the important service these applicants and allies performed.  Fortunately, thousands of people, with or without these visas, were airlifted out of Afghanistan to temporary safety over the past week, but that heroic effort should not relieve us of working toward a long-term, permanent program to protect the safety of these indispensable partners.

Let’s not forget, to paraphrase Professor Olsen, that if warring sides could understand each other without translators, they would. But as much as interpreters and translators are crucial to both sides in a conflict, they are essential to ensuring the peace — the peace that we all pray may soon be imminent.

— Ann Friedman, founder, Planet Word