Launched in 2013, National Translation Month (NTM) is an annual celebration of translation throughout the month of September. As NTM comes to an end, Vedrana Čemerin reviews The Palgrave Handbook of Languages and Conflict. Edited by Michael Kelly, Hilary Footitt and Myriam Salama-Carr, the collection explores the multifacted role played by languages in conflict, with particular emphasis on how translation and interpreting can both facilitate war operations but also enable cultural exchange and support peace-building.
If you are interested in the topics discussed in this review, you may like to explore our 2018 ‘Translation and Multilingualism’ series.
The Palgrave Handbook of Languages and Conflict. Michael Kelly, Hilary Footitt and Myriam Salama-Carr (eds). Palgrave. 2019.
The overarching theme of The Palgrave Handbook of Languages and Conflict, edited by Michael Kelly, Hilary Footitt and Myriam Salama-Carr, is the multifaceted role played by languages in conflict, with a particular emphasis on translation and interpreting that may facilitate war operations or serve as a locus of sectarian violence, but may also help in building bridges for cultural exchange and peace processes.
Organised into five thematic areas, this ambitious volume aims to explore these fraught issues from a range of perspectives and interdisciplinary approaches, building on extensive previous scholarship in the field, such as Emily Apter’s seminal The Translation Zone, Mona Baker’s Translation and Conflict and the results of the Languages at War project (conducted by the University of Reading, the University of Southampton and the Imperial War Museum in London). An equal amount of attention is given to theoretical underpinnings and concepts of translation and interpreting in conflicts, practical considerations facing translators and interpreters in the field and the issues and pitfalls related to conducting research, such as the frequent unavailability and eclecticism of archival sources or choosing appropriate interview techniques.
The selection of contributions is varied, but not haphazard, and is characterised by several strong points. The collection gives a voice to translators and interpreters in actual situations of violent conflict and provides an honest discussion of the complex – and often precarious – agency of language mediators involved, whether those directly operating in war zones as military personnel or as locally recruited civilian linguists (77). Likewise, it constructs the sites of war as translational spaces within a multilingual transnational sphere, following the networks of linguistic cultural transfer and the negotiation of meaning as an integral part and parcel of the sociocultural dimension of a given conflict (152).
In so doing, the volume utilises a plethora of case studies, spanning several historical periods and geographic locations, from the Spanish colonial empire in the Americas, the various ways language mediators participated in the Second World War to the NATO peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the Arab Spring and postcolonial ethnic divisions in diverse locales such as Thailand and Nigeria. At the heart of each study lies the interaction of language and power and the way language can be appropriated in conflict zones with reference to questions of identity and nationalism (5). It is this very notion that makes this edition a thought-provoking and quite relevant book in the contemporary cultural landscape in which the focus has shifted from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’ war, embodied in notions of fake news and hybrid warfare, which uses social media to disseminate misinformation and steer the target audience’s opinions towards its desired objective.
This theme is further explored by looking at the impact of translation on reported stories and events in the media during conflicts and the way media representation of those conflicts is constructed from translated information. The volume again takes a broad view of these issues, by tracing the invisibility of translators in intelligence agencies and media organisations and their ability to shape political, social and cultural narratives (253) and delving into the media manipulation of language which reinforces cultural stereotypes and promotes ethnic tensions (273).
The book weaves together a narrative of language and power and language as power, inextricably linked to personal, national and cultural identity and often weaponised in its various forms, serving either as a vehicle for cultural affirmation and shared identity or as a division point along ethnic, religious and cultural lines. As someone who grew up during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and whose sociolect immediately identifies me as a Kajkavian Croat from Zagreb no matter which part of former Yugoslavia I visit, I was unsurprised to see numerous titbits from those particular conflicts interspersed throughout the volume, including several chapters devoted exclusively to them, such as Ellen Elias-Bursać’s piece on the translation service at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (331), whose activities ranged from interviewing witnesses to translating documentary evidence essential to due process.
Speaking of interviews conducted for the Languages at War project in Croatia and Bosnia (70, 71 and 76), Catherine Baker ascertains the best practice for an Anglophone researcher in order not to harden the emotional boundary between the researcher and the subject and thus jeopardise the interview: ask the interviewee whether they’d prefer to have the interview conducted in ‘my language or yours?’, here meaning English and Bosnian, respectively. Similarly, when describing her personal experience as the chief of the language service at the NATO Stabilisation Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (SFOR) Headquarters for western Balkans in the post-war period (1995-1998), Louise Askew (244) claims that their service interpreters ‘became used to introducing themselves as ‘‘the interpreter’’ rather than with their own names, given that personal names in the western Balkans are often ethnic identifiers’. Stories such as these strike a chord with my personal experience and give rise to questions related to trustworthiness, bias and allegiance in the context of a war in which translators have a personal stake. Likewise, it is not difficult to imagine how they could be easily transposed to other areas across the globe that may engender the same dichotomy of a contact zone/conflict zone, thus evoking the concluding chapter’s claim that ‘turning a blind eye to the role of language in conflict carries the strong possibility that the conflict will not be adequately understood’ (515).
Since every conflict leaves in its wake post-conflict liminal spaces and unresolved issues that reverberate through time and have consequences for future events, possibly even harbouring seeds of future conflicts, the Handbook devotes some of its pages to language relations in post-war occupied Germany as well as the precarious position of local interpreters recruited by the Allied Coalition in Afghanistan and Iraq and subsequently denied visas to emigrate to allied countries such as the USA or the UK. The issues related to post-conflict multilingual crises involving refugees and displaced persons are mentioned only in passing, but since the volume is already substantial in scope and covers a lot of ground regarding the complex problems it tackles, this does not feel an omission. Rather, it may be a fertile field for Translation Studies scholars to intertwine the subdisciplines of translation in conflicts and crisis translations (see, for instance, Moira Inghilleri’s Translation and Migration or Federico Federici’s Mediating Emergencies and Conflicts).
To conclude, this volume is a valuable contribution to the literature on the subject and its inclusion in course curricula as a reference book would be commendable, not only for students of translation and interpreting but also for those in fields dealing with war studies, history, sociology of conflicts or security studies.
Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.
Image Credit: Cropped photo of image 120731-O-ZZ999-017 by Kristopher Radder depicting Royal Australian Air Force flight lieutenant explaining the use of medication for a patient to a translator as part of the MEDCAP project, Sihanoukville, Cambodia, 2012 (COMSEVENTHFLT CC BY SA 2.0).