The Languages of War
How groups like "Crisis Respond Translation" are helping Ukraine's refugees
Edited by David Swanson
Insofar as the war in Ukraine is a war about anything, it is a war about language—a war whose ludicrous justification by Vladimir Putin is in part based on the utterly false claim that the Russian language, and its speakers, have been systematically repressed, to the point of genocide, by a merciless, fascist Ukrainian regime. To that end, Putin’s army has shelled Russian-speaking residents of Russian-speaking cities, like Kharkiv and Mariupol, driving them underground, where they do things like sing “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen in Russian. The absurdity of this situation is part and parcel of the absurdity of the war, and its debasement of language: the purported “Nazi regime” is led by a diminutive Jew; the war cannot be called a war by Russians on pain of prison; simply to hang a sign with the words “no to war” on your balcony is to invite repression and arrest. War has a way of distorting reality, stretching the bounds of language, but when a totalitarian regime attempts to erase the reality it is actively and violently creating, language shatters, and is replaced by enforced silence.
Russia has long waged war against the Ukrainian language itself—banning its use in the 1900s to prevent the development of any nationalist movement, arresting and exiling its great national poet Taras Shevchenko; starving its speakers in the early 1930s, shooting hundreds of thousands more in the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938; renewed the repression of the Ukrainian language in the 1970s and ‘80s, deporting more Ukrainian poets to labor camps, including Mykola Rudenko and Vasyl Stus. The notion that the third of the Ukrainian population who claim Russian as their mother tongue—not to mention the millions more who speak it fluently as a second language and use it regularly in life and business—are on the verge of being annihilated by a President who is himself a native Russian speaker is not just prima facie absurd but a projection—a reflection of a history of annihilatory and suppressive Russian policy against the Ukrainian language, and a reflection of Putin’s plan to destroy the Ukrainian state completely.
Even now, as Ukrainians continue to battle for their cities in a second week of brutal shelling, over a million people have, under bombardment, become internal exiles or refugees. When fleeing across borders, language becomes even more parlous, and more central: suddenly each statement becomes subject to external interpretation and each necessity of life must be mediated through unknown speech, native Ukrainian or Russian meets Hungarian, Romanian, Moldovan, German, English, and people hunt for interpreters, for speakers of their tongues. One friend who has traveled from Berlin to deliver humanitarian aid at the Polish-Ukrainian border repeatedly details an abundance of material goods but an absence of language: with no one to translate, words become further borders.
One organization seeking to dismantle these borders is Respond Crisis Translation, which, since 2018, has sought to connect refugees, asylum seekers and detainees with interpreters in 108 languages.
Until last week, their Russian and Ukrainian language team consisted of twenty translators. Since the war began last week, five hundred volunteers, including me, have signed up for the chance to aid refugees’ petitions. On a recent training call, I was joined by a comparative literature graduate student and a business translator, seeking to turn the skills of interpreting formal documents to the public good, and acting out of a sense of tremendous urgency and helplessness. This week, I spoke to Ariel Koren, the organization’s founder, and Sam Breazale, the South-Carolina-born, Kyrgyzstan-based team leader for Respond’s Russian initiative. (Breazale teaches English at the University of Central Asia.) Below is a lightly edited and condensed interview transcript with Sam and Ariel.
How did you get involved with Respond?
Sam Breazale (SB): I originally became interested in translating for asylum seekers after reading Tell Me How It Ends, Valeria Luiselli’s memoir about working as a court interpreter for dozens of children who were at risk for deportation during the Obama administration. After volunteering with [refugee humanitarian and legal organization] Al Otro Lado, I began to work as an occasional volunteer translator for Respond until June of 2020, when I responded to an email call for people to join the Russian leadership team. Then I became the Russian outreach coordinator until May of 2021, and later became the team lead.
What was that like before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
SB: Until February 24, we had a core team of about 20 translators. Most of the requests since I became Russian team lead were from law firms representing LGBTQIA asylum seekers from Russian-speaking countries. I never felt overwhelmed by the demand; we sometimes had to work to find translators for languages like Georgian, or pairs like Russian to Spanish. In addition to asylum-related work, we have also partnered with independent media outlets like Zaborona in Ukraine and Kloop in Kyrgyzstan to translate their articles and investigations, like Kloop’s piece about femicide in Central Asia, titled “I would have killed her anyway,” translated by our volunteers Hallie Sala and Sameera Ibrahim.
What has it been like since the war started?
SB: We’ve now had more than 500 people apply to join our team as Russian and/or Ukrainian translators and interpreters in just the past few weeks. I have joined a few of our welcome meetings on Zoom and it has been powerful to connect with hundreds of fellow translators. We are all still in disbelief at the invasion, but it has been more cathartic than I can express to be able to hear other translators introduce themselves and describe how much they want to help in any way possible.
Our biggest focus at the onset of any global crisis is to ensure that people (and organizations) know that we are here to support them. One of our team members, Ada Wordsworth, is currently going to the Polish border to distribute informational cards for us and to help however she can. Over the next few weeks we expect to see a huge wave of requests.
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What purpose do translators and interpreters serve in wartime? Ariel, as the founder of Respond, how does it feel to play a role in history?
Ariel Koren (AK): It is impossible to respond systemically and ethically to wartime crises without centering language access and empowering translators to do their work. And yet, language is often rendered invisible in conversations about war, crisis, and border imperialism. There is a long history of the U.S. (and other governments) using language as a tool to systematize deportation and detention of asylum seekers fleeing violence and war. EG: U.S. diplomat Breckinridge Long implemented an infamous, nearly impossible 8-foot-long visa application form printed in tiny type and only made available in English.
The treatment of refugees in World War II is a shameful chapter in American history. How did those types of obstacles play out in the real time?
AK: Many were deported after failing to complete the form in English. This legacy continues today as we see our government justify countless detentions and deportations with the excuse of “language barriers”. Furthermore, the government would like for us to believe that the systemic translation shortage (especially for “rare”, Indigenous, and marginalized languages) is a talent issue. We know it is not a talent shortage, but rather an economic justice and funding issue. The failure of our government and the international humanitarian aid apparatus to systematically fund language access only worsens the language violence crisis that makes getting help impossible for folks fleeing war.
Language itself can be a border in times of crisis, and translation can be a form of freedom—in many different conflicts and contexts.
AK: As we mobilize to support folks fleeing from Ukraine, our teams continue to work around the clock responding to so many ongoing crises that don’t get the media attention they deserve. For example, our Haitian Kreyol team has provided over 1,905 hours of emergency legal interpretation to Haitian asylum seekers at the border and in detention since last September. The Afghan languages team is currently supporting 2,000 Afghan families by translating their humanitarian parole applications and interpreting legal clinics. As Haitian Kreyol team lead Laura Wagner points out, the Biden administration has deported over 20,000 people to Haiti, as well as expelling perhaps 8,000 more Haitians to Mexico in September 20201, where Haitian migrants suffer anti-Black discrimination and violence. Biden has deported more Haitians than the last three presidents combined.
SB: I know that what is happening in Ukraine, too, has left a lot of people feeling helpless. Doing this work—in community—is a way to turn that sense of helplessness into collective action.
You can donate to or volunteer for Respond here