The progressive translator

The purpose of this blog is to provide a forum, a clearinghouse, where progressive translators and other interested persons may discuss issues of concern, including, but not limited to, political aspects of translation, translation theory, the policies and structure of the ATA, and activism at the local group level.


Ken Kronenberg is a German translator specializing in medicine, patents, and 19th- and 20th-century diaries and letters. The views and positions taken by guest bloggers are not necessarily those of Ken Kronenberg or the Progressive Translator.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Translating torture

  • As translators and interpreters, we go about our daily business little imagining – perhaps little able to imagine – that the skills we are so proud of are being used as an auxiliary in the perpetration of torture. Most of the following examples are from Aaron Ruby’s “Selected References for Resolution” (ATA member number required; bottom of page; emphasis his).
  • Mr Abd said he recalled having his hood removed and being told by the soldiers' Arabic translator to masturbate as he looked at Ms England. "She was laughing and she put her hands on her breasts," he told the newspaper. "Of course I couldn't do it, so they beat me in the stomach and I fell to the ground. The translator said, 'Do it, do it. It's better than being beaten.' I said 'How can I do it?' So I put my hand on my penis, just pretending." [1]
  • When asked if the witnesses identified the perpetrators as US military, mercenaries, Iraqis, private translators or others, Akeel sighed. "Honestly, the line was so blurred, and they were crossed all the time," he said. According to the testimony Akeel has collected, interrogators often donned US military uniforms, assailants entered cells naked or approached victims from behind, and at least one translator wielded an electrical stun device. [2]
  • According to detainee accounts from Abu Ghraib, a civilian interpreter working for the contractor company Titan raped a juvenile male detainee at Abu Ghraib in November 2003. These accounts were judged “credible” by, and contained in, the U.S. military’s own investigation into the abuses at Abu Ghraib, conducted by Major General Antonio Taguba and issued in April 2004. A detainee witness told General Taguba’s investigators that he heard and saw a male civilian interpreter rape a male juvenile detainee, and saw a female U.S. soldier taking pictures. The detainee witness identified the civilian as a man named Abu Hamid, of Egyptian ethnicity. Hamid’s identity as a Titan interpreter is corroborated by the military’s own criminal investigators as well as by a plaintiff in a U.S. civil suit against Titan. But, according to military records, U.S. criminal investigators “did not develop sufficient evidence to prove or disprove [the witness’] allegations.” (The documents also note that the delay in initiation of the investigation precluded gathering physical evidence.) [3]
  • Al-Jamadi was brought naked below the waist to the prison with a CIA interrogator and [a] translator. A green plastic bag covered his head, and plastic cuffs tightly bound his wrists. Guards dressed al-Jamadi in an orange jumpsuit, slapped on metal handcuffs and escorted him to the shower room, a common CIA interrogation spot. […] After we found out he [Al-Jamadi ] was dead, they were nervous,” Spc. Dennis E. Stevanus said of the CIA interrogator and translator. “They didn’t know what the hell to do.” [4]
  • In 2003, Khaled el-Masri, a Kuwait-born citizen with German nationality, was kidnapped by US agents in Republic of Macedonia. While on vacation in the republic, local police, apparently acting on a tip, took him off a bus, held him for three weeks, then took him to the Skopje airport where he was turned over to the CIA. El-Masri says he was injected with drugs, and after his flight, he woke up in an American-run prison in Afghanistan containing prisoners from Pakistan, Tanzania, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. El-Masri claimed he was held five months and interrogated by Americans through an interpreter. He wasn't tortured but he was beaten and kept in solitary confinement. Then, after his five months of questioning, he was simply released. "They told me that they had confused names and that they had cleared it up, but I can't imagine that," El-Masri told ABC News. "You can clear up switching names in a few minutes." [5]

We now know that translators have done these things. What are we going to do about it? What would it mean for translators not to condemn this use of translation in the strongest possible terms?

[1] Andrew Buncombe and Justin Huggler. “The Torture Victim. Iraqi Tells How He Was Stripped, Beaten and Sexually Abused by US Military.” May 6, 2004, the Independent.
[2] Lisa Ashkenaz Croke, Brian Dominick. “American Lawyer Finds New Evidence of Recent Torture in Iraq.” August 30, 2004, The NewStandard.
[3] Human Rights Watch. By the Numbers. Findings of the Detainee Abuse and Accountability Project. April 2006, Volume 18, No. 2(G).
[4] Seth Hettena. “Reports detail Abu Ghraib prison death; was it torture?” February 17, 2005, MSNBC.
[5] under entry "Extraordinary Rendition"


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I can only commend your initiative and committment to keep the highest standards of our profession. We should all discuss, think deeply about these issues, and act to preserve the integrity of our profession. I am shocked and ashamed that anyone passing as an interpreter could hold an electric prod or could participate in any kind od torture session. Laura

October 27, 2006 10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ken, Thank you for working to keep these issues in the limelight. Is there any way the blog could be publicized and made available on computer terminals at the ATA conference in New Orleans? Meg

October 27, 2006 11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ken, Thanks for setting up this forum, it's long overdue. Translators and interpreters in the US have a particular responsibility at this moment since the Congress has passed and Bush has now signed into law the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that legalizes torture and gives retroactive immunity to US government officials for violations of international human rights conventions the US has ratified. I hope the ATA is just the first of many professional associations and others to speak out--and refuse to cooperate--with such barbaric practices, wherever they are inflicted upon other human beings.

October 27, 2006 8:11 PM  
Blogger Ken Kronenberg said...

Excellent point. BTW, did everyone catch the remarks VP Cheney made about "dunking" while interviewed by a conservative ND radio show host. He now claims he wasn't talking about waterboarding. Be that as it may, it is clear that the administration will not repudiate such practices.

And it's obvious that translators will continue to do their reprehensible work in these settings.

I'd appreciate it if readers found examples of reports of continuing torture and posted them to the blog.

October 28, 2006 5:08 AM  

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