"The interpreter has the role of building a bridge between two societies, the 'host society' and the world of the ICRC expatriate"

Sarah Hermann, interpreter based in Afghanistan.


Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to join the ICRC?

I joined the ICRC as an interpreter one year ago. Before that, I was studying Pashto at Inalco, a French university specializing in Oriental languages. I was then also working as a volunteer for several organizations helping asylum-seekers in France. The ICRC came to my university to run a workshop with us, and that got me really interested in joining their recruitment process. It seemed a perfect opportunity for me to spend time in Afghanistan while doing humanitarian work in the field. 


What do you like most about the ICRC?

The organization’s neutrality: this means that you work with different parties to the conflict, but never take sides in it. So in the frame of our work my colleagues and I have the opportunity to speak with all parties to the conflict; the Afghan government, the Taliban and other non-state armed groups. I don’t think you could do that with many other organizations!


What is a typical working day like for you?

I am now in Kandahar, generally working at the office, where I share space with one other interpreter. Most of my other colleagues are Afghan, so I get to speak Pashto all the time. My job has three main aspects:

Answering the phone in the office: Each day, I collect information from the conflict parties on specific humanitarian problems and negotiate ways of resolving them – for instance, to ensure that our drivers can cross checkpoints with human remains from the battlefield and return them to their families.

Interpreting at meetings with the authorities: For instance, I spent two days translating during meetings between representatives of the Taliban and the ICRC Afghanistan delegation. We travelled to an area under Taliban control and spent several days with them. Again, that’s something that would hardly be possible with other organizations.

Visiting detainees: We do this in order to ensure that they have decent conditions of detention and that their basic needs as human beings are met. During our visits, we also offer our services to any detainees who have lost contact with their loved ones, and help them to get in touch again.


Can you tell us more about how a prison visit works?

Several steps are involved. First comes the preparation stage, in which we plan the visit and work out what kinds of question to ask the prison authorities and the detainees. This is done together with the delegate leading the visit, who is trained in international humanitarian law. 

Once inside the prison, we talk to the detainees confidentially and in private, either individually or in small groups. The role of the interpreter here is to translate the discussion between the delegate and the detainees. There can be very emotional moments, and our psychological impact on the detainees is sometimes crucial, as we may be the only contact they have with the outside world.

 After talking with the detainees and visiting the premises, we meet with the prison authorities to share our observations and make any recommendations on how the conditions could be improved. We make sure to take into account any limitations that the authorities may be facing; for example, we cannot ask them to provide heating if they have no electricity, but we can request that they give the inmates more blankets. In other words, we adapt our recommendations to the context.


What do you like most about being an interpreter?


"What I like most about working as an interpreter is that I get to speak with many different people from a range of social backgrounds. No two days are the same, and I always have to adapt how I communicate with people in order to be sure of getting the message across and also of respecting their culture."


I often say that translation is not just about translating words but also about the context. The interpreter has the role of building a bridge between two societies, the “host society” and the world of the ICRC expatriate. The way the interpreter sits and his or her tone and body language are crucial in instilling trust and easing communication, which can influence the course and outcome of the discussion.


What particular challenges do you face?

Afghanistan has been at war for the past 40 years, and the ICRC is a rather large organization. So, before carrying out a field trip, there is a lot of preparatory work to be done. This is good, as we have first to think before acting; but it can also be quite frustrating, as we need to wait to be really certain security-wise and to analyse whether our actions will be seen as neutral and impartial.

Also, to work for the ICRC, you must like living in a community and in an inter-generational environment. You should also be prepared to live in different conditions. Here in Afghanistan, for example, the Wi-Fi sometimes stops working or the electricity cuts out when it rains. If you want to work for a humanitarian organization, being flexible is a definite must, especially in a conflict context.


After your first year with the ICRC, what would you highlight about your experience, for others interested in pursuing the same career?

Working as an interpreter at the ICRC you will be in the field 24/7, which gives you a real opportunity to live in the country whose language you have studied and to experience their culture. I would also highlight that the ICRC offers a rather attractive salary, as well as holidays and financial help to travel home.

The last aspect to note is that we still have some free time. I am currently pursuing my master’s degree in Pashto, combining research with my work in the field. This is the best thing that could happen to me right now!

Are you interested in having a career like Sarah’s? Explore our open interpreter positions today!