Advocating for Interpreters in Afghanistan With Red T Spokesperson Rebecca Petras

Rebecca Petras, Red T, joins SlatorPod to advocate for the protection of interpreters in Afghanistan

Rebecca Petras, Spokesperson for non-profit Red T, joins SlatorPod to bring awareness to their advocacy for the protection of translators and interpreters in high-risk settings.

Rebecca shares details of her professional background in journalism and discusses how she began her journey in the language industry through the humanitarian sector. She talks about the current situation of interpreters in Afghanistan and explains how the rising danger for linguists over the past few months led to her becoming involved with Red T and its Founder Maya Hess.

Rebecca explores the role of linguists in conflict zones and explains who they typically work with. She discusses the lack of official status for interpreters (unlike, say, journalists) and highlights Red T’s efforts to ensure protection for these linguists by speaking at the UN, working to change policy, and issuing a conflict-zone field guide for linguists with AIIC and FIT.

The Pod rounds off with Rebecca outlining Red T’s current initiatives and what the language industry can do to support this cause. In particular, she draws attention to Red T’s Open Letter Project, which involves sending letters of appeal on behalf of the world language community to governments or intergovernmental agencies to implement change for these embattled linguists.

First up, Florian and Esther discuss the language industry news of the week, starting off with the sudden growth of ‘scanlation,’ where fans post their own translations of webcomics without the consent of the copyright holder.

Florian then shares the news of TransPerfect’s debt refinancing with a new lower-interest term loan and revolving credit line amounting to USD 500m, replacing the existing credit facility they secured in 2019.

Meanwhile, Esther goes extraterrestrial as she talks about NASA awarding a translation contract worth up to USD 59m to TechTrans International to support space station operations in Russia and Kazakhstan. She also reviews Slator’s latest Language Industry Job Index, which continued to climb for the seventh month in a row.

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Transcript

Florian: Rebecca, you joined Red T after a long career in the language industry with GALA, Translators Without Borders, and H2H Network, but tell us more about your background and how you got into this and also the humanitarian action space.

Rebecca: My background is in journalism and I went from journalism into communications and then into the language industry because I have always had a great interest in language and I have a degree in German, but I was never a translator. I got involved with GALA running the Communications in 2007 and continued with GALA for about five years. In the meantime, we had the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and that was when a number of folks in the language industry recognized the issue around language in the humanitarian sector. It was completely absent despite the need to really communicate well with people in crisis. 

I got involved with Translators Without Borders and helped build it as a board member and then as a deputy director until 2019. During that time, I was very aware of Red T and the Founder’s work in Red T because of the issue around the protection of linguists. It is something where we are dealing with conflict areas and humanitarian crises. There are so many issues around communications, linguists, translators and interpreters. When things became very public in the last few months around the Afghanistan issue, I decided that I would love to help and get more involved with Red T. I am no longer involved with TWB at all, and I have not been for a couple of years. It was a really good opportunity for me to pull together my background and to see how I could assist Red T as they try to advocate for the protection of linguists in Afghanistan and also beyond.

Esther: Can you tell us a bit more about the background to Red T? 

Rebecca: Red T came to Maya, the Founder, back in the mid-2000s when she was working as a Forensic Linguist in federal court and in a particular setting realized that the issue around the protection of linguists in high-risk areas was really critical and there was very little protection. This gave her the idea to put together a dissertation to discuss that issue, and how the prosecution and the threats around linguists are very real. She wrote her dissertation and then in 2010, she established the nonprofit Red t to advocate for translators and interpreters. 

Florian: Over the past few weeks it has been highlighted by the terrible situation of Afghanistan. What is the current situation, as far as you are aware, of interpreters in Afghanistan and their evacuation? What are the most important things that are happening on the ground?

Rebecca: As we know the evacuation ended a few days ago. Overall many countries managed to evacuate a lot of Afghan nationals, maybe more than we anticipated, especially given how the exit and the evacuation were being planned and strategized. There were a number of Linguists who did get out. The actual tally number of which country got how many out is not something that we focus on, and quite honestly, those numbers are often not accurate. There is everything from the special immigrant visa, which is the US approach. Some say that 50% of those who got out were SIV applicants, but then there are other numbers that are 7%, so there is a lot of confusion. The most important thing is that there is a continued attempt to get people out who did not get out. 

Florian: You mentioned there is not a clear definition of which country got who out in terms of just the people working with the country. I would say that the predominant country would have been the US. Is that the correct assumption? Who else would be there, Australia, the UK?

Rebecca: A lot of linguists work for many different countries and different employers. It could be a country. It could be a contractor. It could be a humanitarian organization. In fact, there is one linguist who Maya is communicating with right now who has 11 different employers. It is very extensive and it is hard to go through and understand for each one how to apply for a Visa, what materials you need and how you prove it. The person you have worked for might not be with that organization or that country or that government anymore. It is a very complicated process for many linguists, making it quite difficult for them. It is certainly true that the US would be very high on the list of the amount of people they employed but I think there are many more.

Esther: From your side, exactly who is working with these interpreters? Do the armed forces assist other professions?

Rebecca: In terms of getting them out, there are lots and lots of different groups and yes, I do think that it is a number of organizations that include veterans and other folks in the military. Whatever country it is, there are people who work for NATO who are trying to help. There are humanitarians, there is a whole other segment of people working to get journalists out who may have also been translators or interpreters, so it is a mesh of organizations. Surprisingly there are a lot of organizations online between different groups to try to help each person. In terms of Red T, there is a lot of advocacy to direct countries, to ministers, to the UN, so our role is around advocacy and policy. What we are trying to do is Open Letters and help make it clear and keep the issue on the table so that people understand that there are still an enormous amount of people who need help.

Esther: When you are thinking about the day-to-day of an interpreter on the ground in Afghanistan or elsewhere what kind of professions are they working with on their day-to-day?

Rebecca: They work with humanitarian organizations. They work with journalists. They work with armed forces. In many cases, they are playing the role of an interpreter or a linguist. You also have a role in terms of interpreting culture and trying to help in that regard. There are also diplomats, business people, foreign corporations. Basically, everyone who was involved, who was not Dari or Pashto speaking, was needing a linguist, so it is very wide and a linguist may work for a number of different employers either at the same time or at different times.

Esther: What are the day-to-day actions of an interpreter? Where do they go? Who do they see? How does their day look? 

Rebecca: Maya likes to say that there is no day in the life of an interpreter, especially in a high-risk area or in a conflict zone. It depends a lot on what the context is and what is happening that day. The interpreter must always be very aware. They spend time trying to deal with the cultural issue of that day. Of course, each linguist is always trying to keep up their skills as well. There is jargon that changes depending on where you are in the country. They are often themselves trying to work through those issues around language. If you were to talk to an interpreter you would be shocked at how many different roles they play within one day. 

Florian: One of the key advocacy focuses is the lack of official status for interpreters, unlike journalists. What does Red T do to change that? What will be the mechanisms to change that?

Rebecca: There is a lack of protection for linguists compared to journalists. The main focus of Red T is to advocate at the UN on the behalf of the world language community. Red T organizes events at the UN headquarters in New York with various missions to talk about protecting linguists. They familiarize the member states with the problems that civilian linguists face, that they are at risk of many different problems, and we talk about the root causes. We explore potential protection mechanisms and look for collective action, so that is our main focus. In addition, beyond the UN, we work with members of parliament within different countries to help change policy. We also work and do speaking arrangements and try to make people in various governmental and intergovernmental bodies understand the issue around linguists. We also issued a conflict zone field guide to help learn how to be a linguist as well as to help the employer learn how to work with civilian linguists. Those are a number of the areas that we focus on.

Esther: Who becomes an interpreter in a war zone or a conflict zone, and why are people motivated to do this?

Rebecca: In a conflict zone, you have people who have many different reasons why they get involved, like journalists or writers and they have many different types of work they do. Usually, they are young men or women. Sometimes they are older, but they often have an advanced education. They may have a profession that has nothing to do with language, but they may not be able to practice that profession at the given time, given the issues around conflict. In some cases, it may be an opportunity to earn money, to support their families when other opportunities are not there. Many have had experiences living abroad because that has helped them learn whatever language they need to interpret into or from which in many cases would be English or French. They are often motivated by the idea of making a better place in their country. Working with a foreign entity makes them feel they can make a difference.

Florian: You say there is a very broad range of people, but who recruits them in the first place? I would think the role of military contractors would be a big one here. Are they one of the main recruiters of linguists in conflict zones? Is that a correct assumption? 

Rebecca: It depends on the country and there are many different countries that contract with linguists in many different war zones or conflict zones, and so you cannot generalize it too much. Certainly some countries contract with linguists directly, others use a third country, so they work through another mission, another country. Others definitely do use military contractors. It certainly could be the case that linguists who have worked through contractors may have more hurdles when they are applying for a visa. This can be partly because the actual person or the actual group that they were employed through within that contractor, might not be there anymore. They have to get HR letters. They have to get proof and they may have trouble getting that from the contractor, so that makes it a little bit more difficult. It seems that is a hurdle that they have needed to pass more than working directly with the country. 

Esther: Are there any other ongoing or emerging hotspots that you have identified at Red T? Any areas that are concerning outside of the Middle East at all?

Rebecca: Iraq is an ongoing spot that we certainly look at, and it has a lot of interpreters involved. There are issues in West Africa. You have Mali, you have the Sahel region, then there is definite evidence of issues around the protection of linguists in Ethiopia. We have also seen persecution in Belarus. It is something where there is conflict and where the interpreter or the linguist is playing a key role in communication, that is where it often arises. Also, it is not just in conflict zones. It could be in a situation of a prison or even a linguist who has provided language skills between an attorney and a person who is being prosecuted, so there are all high-risk areas. 

Florian: I understand that most interpreters would have worked for the armed forces in Afghanistan. How is that managed? Is the threat always very specific to the perceived partiality of the interpreter and how do they work around that? 

Rebecca: You hit upon something that is indeed an issue and is very complex. This is something where there is a trust issue on both sides and the translator or the interpreter sits in the middle of that and so there are situations where the role of the interpreter might be a dual role. It could be something where, for protection, they then have to carry a weapon, so there are a lot of very gray areas that make it difficult. The point being that their main role is to help communicate across the various parties, so they deserve protection. Certainly, we understand that a journalist also can have conflict and also have biases and yet we think that their role is to be protected and I think that that is something that needs to be clear about interpreters as well.

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Esther: For those who are interested in the language industry, do you have any information on how people can get involved to support Red T? Give us a rundown of some things that you are working on specifically right now that people could help to support.

Rebecca: We have a number of things that we are working on. I want to mention the Open Letter Project, which is one of our main projects. We created an international coalition, the historic first to do so, where we have major language associations, academia, humanitarian partners, who have come together and who support in letters to governments or to inter-governmental agencies to implement change. That is something that anyone who is involved in one of those associations or in academia could learn more about. That is something that we are quite involved in and have had some success in terms of our letters to leaders. 

In addition to that, it would help amplify our message, following Red T on social media. Informing Red T of any knowledge of incidents of persecution, so when you learn about someone who has been affected or are hurt in some way, because of their role as a linguist. Let us know because we track those and we certainly follow up on them. Especially in the non-English language press because we are a very small volunteer team and we do not see everything. We would absolutely welcome that kind of information coming in from anyone. Continuing to put out there that protecting linguists is critical. We also have a UN petition that is called End the Targeting of Translators and Interpreters. It has about 50,000 signatures on it and we would welcome more signatures to that petition.