Languages at War
In late May 2021, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with the University of Reading’s Professor Hilary Footitt to discuss her work on the Languages at war: policies and practices of language contacts in conflict project. This project was funded by the AHRC. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Kate McNeil: Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research background, and how you came to work on the Languages at War project?
Professor Hilary Footitt: I am a linguist historian, and I am interested in the knowledge we gain from meeting people from different countries who speak different languages. Prior to my work on the Languages at War project, I had written a monograph called Living with the Liberators, which focused on the way the militaries from the United States, Britain and Canada got on, or did not get on, with the French during the liberation of Europe in 1944-45. This project on language at war followed naturally on from my work on liberation.
What was the focus of that work?
I had discovered that there was an assumption when we engage in war or conflict, that we fight wars with allies and against enemies who will obligingly speak our own language. I was interested in more deeply exploring the role of language in conflict, and collaborated with the Imperial War Museum in London, the Ministry of Defense, and a colleague at the University of Southampton to do so. We chose two very different case studies – the liberation of Europe after the Second World War by the allied forces, and the multilateral peacemaking and peacekeeping forces which intervened in the conflict in Bosnia Herzegovina in 1995-2000.
We wanted to see languages as mainstream, not something that was on the side. When you look at British archives, there are very few references to interpreters and translators because historically these archives tell our national stories. The Imperial War Museum found our work interesting because we were able to look for the first time in a structured way at the stories of foreign languages that they had in their collections, and to find ways to catalog these items so that they are more accessible in future. Working with the Imperial War Museum was incredibly instructive, and as part of our work we also conducted around 60 interviews which have now been given to the museum as part of their archive.
What are some of the things you learnt from this work?
We looked at the role that languages play in intelligence gathering, which is not something that had been previously discussed. For example, we looked at Bletchley Park. There are huge amounts written on Bletchley Park as a source of information and analysis, but nothing had been written about the vast translation exercises that went on there – translating decoded messages from German to English.
We also learned a lot about the role of languages in relationships between the military and civilians, which has become more important in national and international military doctrine. Our research demonstrated that militaries had historically operated ad hoc policies with respect to languages. For example, in Bosnia Herzegovina, there were three people in the British Army who could speak languages similar to – not the local languages but rather related languages – to those needed to communicate there. So, the British forces arriving in Bosnia had to recruit whoever they could get to translate. This tended to be young people, who were not trained as interpreters, but were, for example, high school students who were being offered a lot of money to be put in this very dangerous situation.
Can you tell me more about what you learned about the role of local interpreters in these zones?
We were very interested in the responsibilities that militaries have to these local interpreters, and of course since we have drawn down from Afghanistan the politics of protection has become even more important. We also looked at the role of languages in post-conflict areas, in peacekeeping, and in refugee protection.
One of the things that we learned from this work was that the different militaries involved in using interpreters in Afghanistan had different levels of reliance on local interpreters and have had different relationships with these interpreters in the aftermath of the conflict. For example, the UK and US were able to rely on English-speaking translators who were young, well-educated and spoke English fluently after attending universities. Meanwhile, French forces very often dealt with interpreters who spoke English, with the military and the translators both operating in a third foreign language. That difference has shaped national understandings of duty of care towards those interpreters who now face enormous threats in Afghanistan. For asylum seekers who had worked for the French military, there have been suggestions that they will not be able to integrate into French life because they do not speak the language. Here in the UK, asylum speakers with past translation experience are usually not working in jobs which use their skills, knowledge, or experiences. We should be using their knowledge to improve our understanding.
Our work on this project allowed us to feed into discussions in the Ministry of Defense (MOD) about the role languages play in its work, and the duty of care that militaries have to the locals they employ. Our work fed into the first joint doctrine note from the Ministry of Defense on linguistic support to operations. More broadly, our work helped to put the issue of languages onto the agenda at the Ministry of Defense in new ways. Previously, languages were seen as a tool of diplomacy and making peace – translation and interpreting were seen as benign. Now, there is increasing recognition that the way in which we understand conflict or war is tied together with the language used.
We also were able to develop relationships with the International Professional Interpreters Association (AIIC). The association had traditionally considered the work of civilian locals acting as translators as falling outside their domain. Our work helped contributed to a shift in thinking there. The association is now trying to professionalize and defend all interpreters and translators. Other organizations working in this space are also trying to develop universal symbols and protected status for translators operating in conflict zones, with the goal of providing them with a similar status in conflict areas to those operating under the symbols of the red cross and red crescent. In their view, and in mine, translation and interpretation is a human right, because it is about freedom of speech.
That is fascinating! Has your work led you to engage with other civil society organizations and NGOs?
As part of a follow-up project funded by the AHRC, I also have more deeply explored the role of languages in international development work. A lot of development practitioners and INGOs talk about the role of listening to beneficiaries in their work, and we were interested in how these highly international organizations listen and understand the people they work with.
We worked with organizations including Oxfam GB, Christian Aid, Tearfund, and Save the Children UK as part of that project and worked through the organizations’ archives. It was fascinating to see how overtime these NGOs developed their understanding of place, foreignness, how to influence, and how to communicate. We also looked through the archives for the Office for Overseas Development, interviewed NGO workers in London, and conducted field interviews with practitioners in Malawi, Kyrgyzstan, and Peru. From this research, we produced a report called ‘Respecting communities in International Development: languages and cultural understanding’. In that report, we made several key recommendations to government about how they make calls for proposals, and how they offer translation. We also made recommendations to INGOs about how they could support local languages and better collaborate with translators and interpreters in the countries where they operate. One of our recommendations was about the role of ‘development speak’ in INGO operations, and whether this language was being understood in the same way by local partners, many of whom cannot afford translators. By conducting business in English, these NGOs are contributing to power asymmetries, both in their relationships with local partners and in their working relationships with non-anglophone employees, which is something that had not previously been discussed openly. We have been encouraging these discussions to take place and have been working with universities to embed the issue of languages in their teaching of development.
What has been the academic impact of your research?
This idea of the languages in conflict became interesting to several other researchers, and my co-investigator at Southampton and I became editors of a book series called Languages at War which has been published by Palgrave Macmillan. We have now published 18 books in that series, covering topics including the tribunal in The Hague and the role of languages in Israel and Palestine, and we have two more books upcoming on Africa and languages. The upcoming books will examine the influences of language on policies in Kenya, and how peace studies in Africa have been understood in cultural terms.
Our work helped promote the idea in academia and in the policymaking sphere that languages are a part of war and conflict, and that languages are important at all stages – including pre-deployment, intelligence gathering operations, working with civilians, peacekeeping, looking after refugees, and understanding and acting upon the duty of care we have to those we employ as translators.
What is your key message to policymakers working in this area?
I want policymakers to understand that foreignness is related to language, and most of the knowledge and understanding that comes from meeting others is dependent upon languages. Seeing the world through English is not the same as engaging with the world through another language. Those talking about ‘global Britain’ at the moment need to start with understanding the nature of encounter and knowledge transfer, and the role of languages within them.