Vol 32 (2012): Special Issue: Making Educational Oral Histories in the 21st Century

Opening the Black Box: Oral Histories of How Soldiers and Civilians Learned to Translate and Interpret During Peace Support Operations in Bosnia- Herzegovina

Catherine Baker
University of Southampton


This paper uses 51 oral history interviews with former military personnel, language trainers and locally-recruited interpreters to explore how soldiers and civilians were educated into becoming translators and interpreters who worked in support of the multi-national military force that first deployed into Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. The peace operations took various forms as the nature of the Bosnia-Herzegovina mission changed but had a constant need for language support, which it met by combining a small number of soldiers trained in the local language(s) and a much larger number of local people with formal or informal education in English. The paper shows how different groups of people on whom the need for translation and interpreting had an impact (military linguists; military non-linguists; professional translators and interpreters; local interpreters who began work without professional training in interpreting) formed norms about the role of translators/interpreters through their education. Though each milieu led to a different translating and/or interpreting subjectivity, all language intermediaries recognised their work as a contingent and difficult activity while non-linguists were less able to conceive of language learning and translation/interpreting as more than a “black box” activity of finding equivalence. Using these findings as an illustration, the paper argues for the greater use of oral history in researching adult education and training on the grounds that an interview-based biographical approach provides insights into the long-term impact of learning.