By María Manuela Fernández Sánchez
Few professions have such discriminatory stereotypes as
translators and interpreters. Very sadly, the Italian cliché traduttore,
traditore is still thought to be true by many people. Nevertheless,
both translators and interpreters have also contributed to the
persistence of these stereotypes. To make matters worse, the concept of
the unfaithful interpreters has been fuelled by sensationalist media as
well as by military and political leaders. The following example is from
The New York Times:
“Would you mind speaking without an interpreter?” Vladimir V. Putin
asked, and his visitor, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s new foreign
minister, responded that he could not imagine doing business any other
way. The two then chatted in Russian, as if their meeting this month
were a homecoming for a local boy who made good (13 June, 2009, “Mideast
in Flux. An Israeli Cozies Up To Moscow”, by Clifford Levy).
With regard to local interpreters who work in zones of conflict,
positive reports of good work and lasting friendship are counterbalanced
by more negative reports that accuse interpreters of being “lazy,
inept, or unpunctual” (Freeman 2012). Unsung heroes and unsung villains
in equal proportion, according to Colin Freeman, foreign correspondent
of The Telegraph. They are the indispensable guides of camera crews, war
reporters, and photojournalists. However, local interpreters and fixers
are not the only ones accused of unprofessional behaviour. Also harshly
criticized are messengers, special agents, mediators and subalterns in
general. Because they find themselves in a vulnerable situation between
opposing parties, they often feel trapped by their precarious and
asymmetrical status and difficult working conditions.
In some cases, the reasons for such criticism are less transparent
and the result is more dramatic. On 12 April, 2004, the photographer and
journalist Gervasio Sánchez wrote an article titled ¿Un traductor
traidor? [A translator traitor?] in the Spanish newspaper El País. In it
he stated that most people harbored serious doubts that the
interpreter, Al Mayali, had murdered seven Spanish special agents
(“Muchos dudan de la culpabilidad del intérprete Al Mayali en el
asesinato de siete espías españoles.”).
Gervasio Sánchez is a photojournalist with over thirty years of
experience. He has covered countless international conflicts and has
received many prestigious international awards, which have highlighted
his commitment to both journalism and photography, as well as to the
victims of the wars that he has covered. As part of his work, he has
taken many iconic images of the siege in Sarajevo and the devastating
effects of land mines in civilians. He is one of those photographers who
spend weeks, months, and even years in a country to tell the stories of
people’s lives in the midst of war. His idea of an extended family
includes people whom he had the opportunity to meet as a war reporter.
In fact, he often returns to the places where he has worked and visits
old friends in order to see what life is like years after the conflict,
and to discover how people are coping with the aftermath of war.
The backdrop of Gervasio Sánchez’s article is post-Saddam Iraq. The
article was written in Bagdad, a city where he had worked for many
years. Flayed Al Mayali was his interpreter at the time and still is
each time he returns to Iraq. In the article, Sánchez describes his
astonishment at the unexpected news of Al Mayali’s arrest as an
accessory in an attack on the Spanish military. This astonishment was
also shared by the rest of the Spanish colony in Iraq. On both a
professional and personal level, Al Mayali was highly valued. Before
beginning to work as a close assistant of Major Alberto Martínez, the
head of the Spanish Intelligence Services (CNI) in Iraq, Al Mayali
taught Spanish at the University of Bagdad. The attack that killed seven
Spanish special agents, including Major Alberto Martínez, occurred on
29 November 2003 during an ambush.
Flayed Al Mayali was arrested on 22 March 2004 and questioned in
relation to his possible participation in the attack. He was
interrogated for five days and finally declared an accesory to the
crime. He was subsequently taken to the Coalition Holding Facility, a
detention center in Bagdad, and was handed over to the US military
authorities. Al Mayali was then imprisoned in Abu Ghraib. After eleven
months of confinement in the Abu Ghraib prison and Camp Bucca, he was
released without charges in February 2005 by a commission composed of
American and Iraqi military authorities and lawyers.
The Spanish government did not inform the public or even acknowledge
his arrestor detention. During his months in prison, Flayed Al Mayali
was abandoned by the same government that he had served so faithfully
for four years. Although Gervasio Sánchez repeatedly denounced to
authorities that Al Mayali had been unjustly arrested and imprisoned
without any proof and requested an investigation that would clear his
name, the Spanish Secret Service silenced all news related to the
In an interview with Gervasio Sánchez on 29 November 2013 for the Spanish newspaper El Heraldo de Aragón (link to article), Flayed Al Mayali remembers the tragic events which took place ten years ago. He explains his deep sorrow when he learned of the killing of his close friend and employer, Major Alberto Martínez. He also recalls the beatings, insults, and threats received during his interrogation by Spanish military personnel as well as the total neglect and feeling of abandonment that he experienced in the American prisons.
Interestingly, he mentions the circumstances of his proximity and
familiarity with Spanish special agents as one of the reasons for being
singled out as scapegoat. In his opinion, since they did not have the
means to investigate the ambush, it was easier to accuse the person who
was closest to the victims, and that happened to be him (“Yo creo que
como eran incapaces de investigar el tema bien, la víctima más cerca de
ellos fue yo (sic)”).
The case of Al Mayali came up recently in a conversation that I had
with Gervasio Sánchez on 21 June 2015 (The context of the conversation
was the summer course “What matters is dignity” given by the journalist
on 20 and 21 June 2015 in Laredo (Santander, Spain). I am very grateful
to him for having taken the time to answer my many questions), when I
asked him to tell me about his experience with local interpreters. I was
curious about the interpreter profile that he required, given that the
nature of his work demands an immersion in the local culture. He told me
that he preferred to hire a local interpreter who was able to interpret
into Spanish rather than English since that way communication was more
fluid. He also said that, ideally, the interpreter should be a versatile
person, able to drive and with a network of local contacts. As part of
his war coverage, one of his priorities was always to obtain personal
stories from the people living in the zones of conflict. He thus asked
the interpreter to give him a faithful and complete rendition of what
the person was saying, and if necessary, he would even give the
interpreter specific instructions about the kind of work that he
The rest of our conversation dealt with photography and interpreters.
Photography is an act of selection (Fink 2014: 115). Why are there so
few photographs of local interpreters? Is their presence not a reminder
of the linguistic and communicative involvement present in the coverage
of wars and in the resolution of conflicts? Is the presence of local
interpreters linked to the failed linguistic policies of governments as
well as those of military and international organisms?
Gervasio Sánchez has occassionally taken photographs of some of the
local interpreters that have worked for him, but they are mostly private
photographs, in other words, photographs taken for affective reasons.
In fact, in a post published by Sánchez nine years after the detention
of Al Mayali El honor perdido de Flayeh al Mayali (The lost honor of
Flayeh Al Mayali link to article),
the photojournalist also included various photographs of Al Mayali. Two
of them possibly show Al Mayali working with military authorities,
whereas the other two depict the interpreter respectively with his
family and with a group of students in Bagdad.
In fact, there is nothing surprising in having a close relationship
with someone who is your partner in very dangerous situations.
Friendship and a sense of hospitality often come later if the
collaboration persists in time. Other journalists such as John McCarthy
(2012), author of the book You can’t Hide the Sun. A Journey through
Israel and Palestine, describes the important job performed by Suha
Arraf, her interpreter in Arabic and Hebrew. He also includes a personal
photograph of her in which she resembles a tourist engaged in
sightseeing. The caption reads: “Suha Arraf, my friend and guide, in
In conclusion, every image is a construction in which absence is as
meaningful as presence. We also know that the value of images is defined
by their use, whether private or public. If, as translation
historians, we find it interesting to study interpreters as photographic
subjects in zones of conflict, this is because such photographs provide
us with a window through which we can view interpreters in their
physical characteristics and in their professional roles. Such
photographs also provide us with a unique opportunity to understand the
complexity of the often covert wars and conflicts in which they
participate as linguistic mediators and in which their proximity cannot
be taken for granted.
Fink, Larry. 2014. On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture.
Freeman, Colin. 2012. “Fixers-the unsung heroes (and villains) of foreign reporting”, The Telegraph, 28 November.
McCarthy, John. 2012. You can’t hide the sun. A journey through Israel and Palestine. London: Random House.