Within the realm of conflict zones, translators play a complex role in representing, and sustaining, narratives and the everyday stories of conflict-affected populations. Although a body of literature has focused on the role of language in war and conflict, the process of translation and interpretation in conflict zones has not yet found a fundamental place in war and conflict research.[i] Translation is the process by which a text in one language is re-contextualised into another language, yet it is more than purely linguistic arbitration.[ii] Emotions, culture, and ethics can all influence the outcome of translation, and navigating these in conflict situations can prove to be challenging.

In her book on the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Mona Baker describes translation as ‘the mediation of diffuse symbols, experiences, narratives, and linguistic signs’.[iii] Thus, if we understand conflict zones as contact spaces where distinct cultures meet, clash, and fight with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, then we can begin to understand the challenges faced by translators or interpreters, and the regulations that determine the spaces in which they work.[iv] Who is allowed to speak which language? Who can speak when? When should one be quiet? Accordingly, translation goes beyond linguistic challenges – those working in this field are confronted with political, cultural, emotional, and ethical dilemmas.

Can translation be manipulated?

Telling the stories, and navigating the narratives, of conflict-affected populations encompasses sensitive and controversial challenges, which can manifest in a translator’s political beliefs or ideologies regarding certain matters in the text. One challenge faced is that entrenched ethnic, religious, tribal, and sectarian loyalties can affect the output of a translator or interpreter. In this regard, translation can fall prey to becoming a manipulatory act that promotes or changes the meaning of the source text or interview.[v] These changes may manipulate audiences by presenting an inaccurate or fabricated translation that advances the opinions of the translator or the ideology of the translation agency. A translator’s main aim should be to accurately convey the narratives of the conflict-affected populations, yet often they are faced with enormous moral quandaries in adhering to codes of ethics while also balancing tensions between personal/professional and local/global loyalties.[vi]

Another crucial consideration that is often overlooked is the wellbeing and emotional state of someone working as a translator in conflict zones. Listening to the life stories and traumatic experiences of individuals who have lived through conflict can have an psychological toll, and it requires a great deal of emotional regulation to be able to interpret these individuals’ memories, experiences, hopes, and fears with neutrality.[vii] Translating the experiences of conflict-affected populations as part of the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy, and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, I have had to draw on both intuition and resilience to help manage the negative emotional states and responses prompted by such work. Being able to regulate your emotions is an important part of being a successful translator, but it is also important to recognise that translators may experience vicarious trauma, and to ensure that the right support is in place to help those working in this role.[viii]

On the other hand, it is also important to be able to embrace these emotions. The neurologist Antonio R. Damasio argues that “emotions play a critical role in all – also high-level – cognition and decision-making”.[ix] Emotional engagement is a powerful motivating factor that gives translators the chance to feel connected to their job and, most importantly, recall and reflect complex emotions encountered in the realm of conflict zones. One technique that translators may find advantageous in this respect is to keep a diary of their emotions. It gives them an opportunity to vent feelings that they suppress during interpersonal engagements, and, in writing, they may relive these. This enhances the interpretation and translation of the direct word for word emotive responses, so helping to accurately convey the emotions of interviewees.

Understanding local meanings

The English language has around one million words, while Arabic, one of the oldest Afro-Asiatic languages in the world, is hugely derivational, with an incredible lexicon that exceeds twelve million words.[x] When faced with this profusion of vocabulary choices, it is clear that translators are confronted with a difficult task when ensuring the selection of appropriate words and phrases. Working on the Cross-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy, and Trends (XCEPT) research programme, I have had to be sensitive to vulnerabilities and cultural boundaries before deciding which words to choose in certain circumstances. To translate the word ‘militant’, for instance, when I was working on interview transcripts with the families of Lebanese hostages held by the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL or Daesh) and Al Nusra Front, I considered words such as fighter (muqātil), freedom fighter (munādil) or struggler (mukāfih), when referring to non-state Islamist or militant groups, such as ISIL, Free Syrian Army (FSA), Hezbollah, or state actors, such as the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). One lexical choice can affect the perception of an entire sentence, which can put neutrality and impartiality at stake.

There is always a complicated interaction at play between text, reader, and the first and second languages, and translators need to clearly understand the main concept of the text they are working with. One consideration that will help translators to unpick this interaction is the use of critical and reflective thinking skills, which are essential for problem-solving, judgement and decision-making, and controlling one’s feelings.[xi] Critical and reflective thinkers should be trustful, flexible, open-minded, well-informed and wise in making judgements.[xii] In translating research interviews on peacebuilding and reconstruction in Iraq post ISIL, I had to critically examine my lexical choices, and their implications, to ensure that the translation considered and respected the sensitivities, vulnerabilities, and cultural boundaries of the local population. In translating words like peacebuilding (binā al salam), reconciliation (almusalaha), and cohesion (tamasuk), I had to underline the fact that this often-used Western vocabulary is controversial and problematic in Iraqi society because they mean different things to different sectarian and ethnic groups. The use of these phrases could isolate local populations and prevent them from engaging actively in communal dialogues.[xiii] Critical thinking helped me, as a translator, to understand, assess, explain, and make decisions swiftly.

Translating and interpreting the narratives of conflict-affected populations is not a straightforward task. War and conflict studies should place translation at its core and engage in interdisciplinary discussions on emotions, culture, and ethics that influence the translation process. Translation is not only a linguistic-textual operation in which a text in one language is re-contextualised into another language. It is a complicated and multifaceted process that requires various skills – cultural awareness, adaptability, subject knowledge, curiosity, and writing, analysis, and research ability – all of which are vital if a translator is to do justice to the stories of those who have shared them.

Mohamad El Kari works as a translator for XCEPT. His translation work focuses on security and stability in Lebanon and peacebuilding in Iraq.

[i] Tesseur, W., 2019. Translating and interpreting in danger zones. Journal of War & Culture Studies12(3), pp.215-219.

[ii] House, J., 1997. Translation quality assessment: A model revisited. Gunter Narr Verlag.

[iii] Baker, M. ed., 2015. Translating dissent: Voices from and with the Egyptian revolution. Routledge.

[iv] Pratt, M.L., 1991. Arts of the contact zone. Profession, pp.33-40.

[v] Hamdan, J.M., Naser, R.S. and Hamdan, H.J., 2021. Arabic-English translation in the Palestinian–Israeli ‘Conflict’: Ideology in the Wings. SKASE Journal of Translation and Interpretation14(2), pp.80-96.

[vi] Tryuk, M., 2020. Translating and interpreting in conflict and crisis. The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Ethics, pp.398-414.

[vii] Cheng, S., 2022. Exploring the role of translators’ emotion regulation and critical thinking ability in translation performance. Frontiers in Psychology13; Hubscher-Davidson, S., 2017. Translation and emotion: A psychological perspective. Routledge.

[viii] Institute of Translation and Interpreting (2021) Position statement on vicarious trauma in interpreters [Online] available at https://www.iti.org.uk/resource/position-statement-on-vicarious-trauma-in-interpreters.html

[ix] Scientific American Mind (2005) Feeling our Emotions [Online] available at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/feeling-our-emotions/

[x] Abdel Fattah, R. (2022) The translator is a traitor: translation in humanitarian response. [Online] https://blogs.icrc.org/law-and-policy/2022/12/20/traitor-translation-humanitarian-response/; Akan, M.F., Karim, M.R. and Chowdhury, A.M.K., 2019. An analysis of Arabic-English translation: Problems and prospects. Advances in Language and Literary Studies10(1), pp.58-65.

[xi] Cheng, S., 2022. Exploring the role of translators’ emotion regulation and critical thinking ability in translation performance. Frontiers in Psychology13.

[xii] Itmeizeh, M. and Hassan, A., 2020. New approaches to teaching critical thinking skills through a new EFL curriculum. International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation24(07), pp.8864-8880.

[xiii] XCEPT (2023) Controversies and Challenges of peacebuilding in Nineveh: Revisiting Post-IS reconciliation in Iraq. [Online] https://xcept-research.org/publication/controversies-and-challenges-of-peacebuilding-in-nineveh-revisiting-post-is-reconciliation-in-iraq/