When a Reporter Is Lost Without Translation

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Whenever I think about the various reporting trips that I have taken abroad, I am grateful to the sources who spoke with me — but I also feel powerfully indebted to the translators who served as crucial allies when I was far from home. In Albania, my translator, an older woman, nursed me through a bad flu I picked up in a refugee camp. I felt remarkably close, very quickly, to a translator I worked with in Afghanistan, a young woman longing for higher education, as we collaborated on a New York Times Magazine article about girls and school in Kabul. And since I left Poland in late March, I’ve remained in close touch with Oleksandra Lanko, a Ukrainian who worked as my translator for a recently published article I reported on surrogate mothers from Ukraine.

I knew in early March that I wanted to go to Poland to report that feature, which would ultimately follow the plight of several Ukrainian women who were working as surrogate mothers. I also knew I couldn’t book a flight until I found a translator. (Most reporters seem to prefer the word ‘translator” to the slightly fussier, if more accurate, term for the spoken word, “interpreter.”)

A colleague, Jeffrey Gettleman, generously came through with a suggestion: He knew of Oleksandra, a young English teacher who had just left Ukraine. As soon as Oleksandra and I spoke by phone, I knew we would hit it off. She was witty and her English was fluent, perfected, she told me, after watching hours and hours of “Friends.”

Clearly, something about the dynamic between reporter and translator fosters closeness. During interviews, the translator is standing in for the reporter, trying to channel not just the reporter’s words but approach — the pauses, emphases, and corny tension-breaking jokes, whatever emotion might be felt with a sensitive question.

Translators do their best to represent the journalists conducting the interviews, while also acting — intentionally or not — as connectors across cultural divides. In Poland, Oleksandra would be a stand-in for me — but she was also someone whom the Ukrainian women being interviewed could understand, not just at the level of language but as a human being who shared some of the same experiences.

Some of the women we interviewed had been moved to Poland, even as their families remained back in conflict zones. Oleksandra, I knew, was also living in Poland and was exhausted and strained by worry about her own parents, who were still in Kharkiv, a heavily shelled city in eastern Ukraine. Not quite 26, she bore the weight of a terrible choice: She wanted to encourage, even urge them to leave — but was afraid she’d never recover if they left at her insistence only to face attack while fleeing.

She was an essential conduit for the story I was reporting, but she also was a version of the story — to the extent that every war story is a story about agonizing choices. When the sound of an air-raid siren went off in the middle of an interview we were doing via Zoom with someone in Lviv, Oleksandra recoiled from the screen as if she’d taken a body blow, the eerie whine triggering memories all too fresh. We were collaborating — but she was living this war, while I was just reporting on it.

At times, when I look back on conversations with sources who speak a language that I do not, my mind plays tricks on me. I remember the communication as a free, unmediated exchange. The translator's absence from my recollection is a testament to his or her talent. As the intermediary between reporter and source, Oleksandra needed to be someone whom all parties trusted to represent them with care. I’ll never know if she missed stray words or subtle nuances, but her body language, facial expressions and tone of voice reinforced what I sensed: That Oleksandra was intent on reflecting faithfully what she heard from reporter and sources alike. “I felt responsible,” she told me recently.

I felt great responsibility for her, too — to take note when the interviews were starting to tax her or when she seemed in need of a break. But I also took her at her word when she said that it helped — during those painfully raw weeks after leaving Ukraine — to feel needed. On that front, I could assure her clearly, in plain English: She was.