When Translating Turns Deadly

Maya Hess (Ph.D. ’14, Criminal Justice), a forensic linguist, has provided language and expert witness services in some of the most prominent terrorism cases in recent years, including trials related to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and United States v. Osama bin Laden. In addition to her criminal justice studies, she holds a Graduate Certificate in Terrorism Studies from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an M.A. in Journalism from New York University.
Seven years ago, Hess founded Red T, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of translators and interpreters in conflict zones and other dangerous settings. Led by volunteers, Red T advocates on behalf of linguists, raises awareness of their plight, and promotes their safety — at a time when they seem to face more risks than ever.
Hess is this year’s recipient of the Graduate of the Decade (GOLD) Award. She recently spoke to the GC about how her background led her to a career in advocacy, the vulnerability of translators, and why Red T is her “dissertation in action.”
GC: Why did you decide to start Red T?

Hess: In 2005, in the course of my work as a forensic linguist, I sat in a U.S. federal court and listened with disbelief as a guilty verdict was pronounced against an Arabic translator/interpreter (T/I) for aiding and abetting terrorist activity. The government and the jury had construed translating/interpreting at attorney-inmate conversations as material support to terrorism. In response, I decided to write my dissertation, which is a critical ethnography, about this trial.
While doing the literature review, I learned of other unjust T/I-related prosecutions and the threats faced by linguists in conflict zones. Confronted with the reality that the simple practice of our profession makes thousands of us vulnerable to the loss of life, limb, and liberty, I was determined to do my part. So, at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Criminology, I focus-grouped the idea of an advocacy organization for T/Is in high-risk settings, finalized the trademarking process, and in 2010 founded the nonprofit Red T.
GC: What are some of Red T’s primary initiatives?

Hess: To achieve Red T’s vision of “a world in which translators and interpreters can work free from fear of persecution, prosecution, imprisonment, abduction, torture, and assassination,” we engage in global awareness-raising and educate the public about the role and importance of linguists, especially in the terrorism arena and war zones. For instance, we spearhead an Open Letter Project on behalf of linguists at risk through which, on a macro level, we urge governments to implement policies beneficial to T/Is; on a micro level, we may lobby for the release of a wrongfully incarcerated interpreter.
In our latest initiative, we are seeking protected-person status for civilian translators and interpreters in conflict situations. Together with the five major international language associations, we are calling on the United Nations to issue a resolution along the lines of those adopted for journalists. As it stands now, linguists are not specifically protected by international legislation, and obtaining such a resolution would constitute an important first step. Our UN petition is posted on change.org.
GC: Do you think that the dangers to interpreters and translators have increased in recent years? Which countries or regions pose the most risks?

Hess: It is difficult to assess to what extent translators and interpreters are currently more endangered than in the past, since there is not much research on the topic. We do know that the professions have not always been held in high esteem (a drawing exists of an interpreter in ancient China being tortured for “willful mistranslation”) and it does appear that post-9/11, linguists have been increasingly targeted across the globe by state and non-state actors alike. For instance, literary translators are persecuted for content, fixers working for journalists are arrested and tossed in prison, and conflict zone interpreters are kidnapped, tortured, and murdered for assisting foreign troops. In terms of degree of risk, Iraq and Afghanistan definitely top the list because thousands of local civilians were hired as interpreters by the respective coalition forces.
GC: Of all of the high-profile cases that you’ve worked on, which has been the most meaningful to you, and why?

Hess: That’s a tough call, but I’d have to say United States v. Omar Ahmad Ali Abdel Rahman, et al., the seditious conspiracy trial of the blind sheikh and various co-defendants who were accused of waging urban warfare against the United States. This case was my first terrorism trial and a dramatic learning experience. It featured a fascinating cast of characters — from colorful lawyers (among them the late William Kunstler) to a motley crew of defendants to a shady confidential informant — and discovery that included fire-and-brimstone sermons as well as wiretapped conversations on any subject imaginable. But most importantly, I became lifelong friends with many of the brilliant, accomplished Arabic translators who were part of my team.
Are you continuing to work as a translator and linguist, in addition to your work for Red T?

Hess: I no longer translate or interpret due to my Red T workload. However, whenever asked, I provide letters of support and expert opinions in court cases involving T/Is.
How did your studies help prepare you for the work you do now?‚Äč

Hess: Overall, my CUNY graduate education — an education I consider a privilege and a gift — gave me the tools to embark on my humanitarian work by sharpening my critical-thinking skills, teaching me how to frame an argument, and forcing me to address my fear of public speaking. Put differently, Red T is a dissertation in action.

Submitted on: DEC 12, 2017

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