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Role of interpreters crucial to military mission success

Published: 04th March 2021 Last updated: 05th March 2021

Language issues affect cooperation between international military personnel as well as collaboration with the local population. Soldiers and interpreters who can deal with the challenges that the language barrier confronts them with, while being willing to work together constructively, play an important role in the success of missions. This is the conclusion of Andrea van Dijk after field research in Afghanistan in her thesis titled 'Talk Up Front, The Influence of Language Matters on International Military Missions with a special focus on the Cooperation between Soldiers and Interpreters', which she defends at Tilburg University on March 10.

This explorative study aims to enhance the understanding of the effects of the language barrier on international military cooperation.  Central research questions: How do language issues affect military operations, and how in particular do soldiers and interpreters cooperate in mission areas to overcome such issues?

The research  is based on, among others, 70 interviews with military personnel, national as well as local interpreters, and field work in Afghanistan.

Effective cooperation

Since modern military interventions typically encompass the deployment of servicemen among the population in conflict-harassed societies, effective cooperation between soldiers and interpreters is pivotal for the conduct of operations. Therefore, this research particularly focuses on this aspect of language matters in international military missions. Van Dijk shows that the language skills, cultural knowledge and personality of interpreters are crucial in their role as mediators between soldiers and local actors.

Individual traits

Talk Up Front concludes that despite their vital role and position, smooth cooperation between soldiers and interpreters is not a matter of course. Efficient cooperative relationships typically do not emerge as a consequence of the military organization’s standard procedures, but have shown to strongly depend on individual traits. Particularly those soldiers and interpreters who can bridge the language gap and establish a constructive cooperation are instrumental to achieve mission success.


Ultimately, the study recommends that it is time for military organizations to acknowledge the presented insights and start learning for future operations.

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