Linguist Challenge with Neutrality

Neutrality is vital concept for humanitarian, international and peacekeeping missions. Neutrality is also an integral part of the professional ethics of an interpreter/translator, a “linguist” in the parlance of US Defense Department’s Contract Linguist Program. For example, the first article of the Code of Ethics and Professional Practice of the American Translators Association states that it is the ethical and professional duty of its members “to convey meaning between people and cultures faithfully, accurately, and impartially.” The code goes on to declare, “Impartial translation and interpreting requires the translator or interpreter to adopt a mantle of neutrality.” Before exploring my personal view to neutrality, I owe the reader some basic facts and circumstances that have had significant influence on me.

I was born in Manastir, a city in southern Macedonia. Today, the city is positioned very close to the Greek border and not too far away from the Albanian border. One of the earliest memories imprinted in human mind is the native language. Albanian language is my first ‘operational software’. The fastest way to learn, understand and contemplate the world around me. It is that unique code of communication of an almost lost nation of the twentieth century. Another significant element of my development was the turmoil and social ferment in Balkans. Considering the well-known tragic circumstances, I consider myself extremely fortunate survivor. My admission as a refugee into the United States and the previously unimaginable opportunity of becoming an American citizen represent the peak of my exposure to different perspectives.

To sum up, my childhood, my native language, living through the social turmoil in the Balkans, naturalization as a U.S. citizen, and my gender are key touch points that define my path. This is the background of the perpetual quest for meanings behind the concept of neutrality. This blog entry is not an attempt to say everything about the multiple meanings that the word neutrality can embrace. This is just testimony of how historical circumstances shape perspectives. This is just an evidence of a good will to challenge the assumed meanings – a readiness to exchange and enrich our experiences. We need to reexamine words that we use on a daily basis, meanings that we take for granted and concepts that sometimes reach a mythical power.

Deconstructing the myth of neutrality is a challenge. I developed this hypothetical question: If we are not neutral, does it automatically imply that we are biased?

I have no doubt concerning the absolute imperative that impartialness has in our professional ethics as linguists. Neutrality or impartialness is primarily defined by the ability to maintain the “pure channel,” despite all possible interferences resulting from subjective judgement based the interpreter’s experiences. So the interpreter, as a human being, may not be neutral on a particular subject, yet must consciously block the emotional channels and be in pure fidelity to the message.

As one of many interpreters that work for the mission in Kosovo, I have come across many situations that have challenged my primary understanding of this word – neutrality. Be it as part of the KFOR’s positioning as a neutral mission or as an interpreter who should be faithful to the goals of each speaker, hence, in a very real sense is neutral.

The region of Balkans is often associated with ongoing troubles where the historical knots of the past and the present are continuously threatening the human lives and the future of the local cultures. Recently, these knots have affected wider society. The involvement of the international community in these quarrels facesstiff resistance from the phenomenon called the “presence of the past.” It can be compared to a “frozen” state of mind where meaning and purpose derive from the past. With this in mind, KFOR members should be equipped with all the meanings and symbols that carry importance in decoding the reality and eventually foreseeing their future actions.

What is our approach in understanding the circumstances in our theatre of operation? Is the rational, neutral objective sufficient to develop a complete idea? This may sound as a theoretical question, but actually, it is a practical one.

Interpreters have to constantly update themselves with the multiple meanings that a single word can have. And sometimes, the best way to define a concept is to see the antonym, or the opposite meaning of the word. I looked in the dictionary for the opposite meanings of the word “bias.” The first opposite meanings of “bias” were: fairness, justice, tolerance. Surprisingly, the word ‘neutral’ was not listed as an opposite word for “bias.” Then I looked for the word “neutral.” Not logical, but I found it interesting the fact that the opposite of “neutral” was listed to be “biased.” Is this a gap of the dictionary system or an indicator that not everything that is not neutral is biased?

This is not a game of word and meanings. This is a call for a fresh professional perspective and desire to infuse dedication in our daily service. Is it possible some interpretations may not be neutral but can lead us to solutions that are in service of all?

The KFOR and EULEX mission may be status-neutral, but they operate in a reality that is a product of many actions of the international community that are not neutral. The Balkans are full of reminders of how difficult it is to maintain the neutrality in moments that are considered to be turning points of the history of this region. Sometime even in the world history.

It is hard to claim that we know when and how to apply the concept of neutrality. This is closely related to one of our main human quests: the desire for truthful knowledge. On this subject, I’d like to share with you the story of the Commander of one KFOR contingent. After a TV interview in the town of Vitia, as an interpreter, although the interpreter is not supposed to “think,” I realized that the host of the show used the word “truth” frequently in a short period of time. And we all know what happens when the word is used too frequently. It loses its power and reduces its meaning. Suddenly, I heard the answer to this abuse of the word “truth.” I heard the Commander responding: “If we knew the truth, all of us would be out of business.”

These are the moments that interpreters love the most to pass through the “pure channel.” The dialogues that produce deep meaning and powerful messages. Let me conclude with this reminder that we are all in search for truth. In this universal mission, we are here in service to a peacekeeping mission and our neutrality should be an active service to a higher purpose.

The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.“- Dante Alighieri…….

About the author: Ganimete Myftiu is a CAT II Linguist stationed at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo.