Maya Hess, forensic linguist and founder of Red T, grew up in the town of Wald (tr. “forest”), to the southeast of Zurich in Switzerland. Surrounded by forests, rolling hills, and a large, socially conscious family, Maya had a plan. She would be a journalist and document events for the rest of us.
But life has a way of changing our plans.
A different path
After moving to the United States in her twenties, Maya found that her English was not yet up to the task. She spent a few years as a German<>English translator and court interpreter, and pursued a master’s degree in journalism at New York University. It was during that time that she published her first articles.
It was also then that she was appointed by the court to interpret in the trial of a Swiss au pair accused of arson and murder (dubbed the “Swiss Nanny Trial”). Shortly after, she was assigned to her first terrorism trial. That case involved an alleged conspiracy to commit urban terrorism through attacks on New York City landmarks and to assassinate former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The reward for a job well done is, of course, to receive more of the same. As a result, Maya was appointed to another terrorism case and yet another, and ended up with an unplanned specialty. “It was very intense work,” she said, “and I saw the dark underbelly of law and politics up close.”
She went on to get a second master’s and a PhD, both in Criminal Justice. When I asked what a forensic linguist does, she explained, “Broadly, forensic linguistics is where language and law converge. More specifically, forensic linguists look for the smoking gun(s) and exonerating evidence in textual, audio and video legal discovery—whether that involves, for instance, assigning voice authorship in wiretaps, performing chronological and topical analyses of attorney-inmate conversations, or taking the stand to give linguistic expert witness testimony.”
A toll and an idea
Are there any cases that haunt her? Several, it seems, including the nanny trial. She will never forget the anguish of the murdered baby’s parents or the heartlessness of the au pair’s family who, upon her return home, chose to pick her up at the airport in a fire truck. “Working on the Nazi gold affair and with Holocaust survivors also left an indelible imprint, and some terrorism cases yielded frightening moments that made me feel pretty vulnerable,” she added.
Then, after many years in the terrorism arena, in 2008, Maya turned her focus to something new. She has spoken before of the catalyst that propelled her to establish Red T: the guilty verdict handed down against an Arabic translator/interpreter which, in essence, criminalized the profession. (The defendant lost his appeal and served about 17.5 months of a 20-month sentence, well below the 20 years sought by the government.)
Thousands of interpreters and translators work or have worked in conflict zones. Often, they risk their own lives and those of their families; sometimes they lose them. Many seek asylum in the countries they have served, and many get lost in the red tape or are outright refused.
So, the girl who would be a journalist and fell into linguistics along the way began using criminal justice and anthropology conferences to focus-group an idea. After analyzing her findings, she began the trademark process in the U.S. and Europe, and started the non-profit application for what would become Red T.
The logo, with its dynamic red against a white background, is reminiscent of her native Swiss flag.
“Why the name Red T?” I asked her.
“I needed something short and concise,” she explained, “and the T with the clearance between the vertical and horizontal beam stands for and comprises both Translator and Interpreter.”
Raising awareness of Red T and its work also raised Maya’s own public profile. She appeared in a Swiss television documentary titled Jedes Wort eine Zeitbombe (tr. “Every word a time bomb”). The piece looks at the overall impact of 9/11 on society in general and on Maya’s life in particular, and how that led to the creation of Red T.
The mission of Red T, according to their website, is “to protect translators and interpreters in high-risk settings.” A small group of dedicated volunteers serves as the core, assisted intermittently by interns who work on specific projects. They also have the help of students who, through a collaboration between Red T and Columbia University, scour the internet for incidents of translator or interpreter persecution.
The weight of the work
The website explains the work they do, and there are numerous interviews with Maya online that delve further into the work of Red T than this one. It is vital work. But it is also heavy work.
Sometimes, when she’s inspired, she writes poetry. I asked for permission to print one related to Red T:
avenging perceived treason
at the periphery of Kabul
Language and understanding buried in the grave of ancient power struggles
watched over by rubble
tenderly embraced by dust
Bloody shawls turning golden
in the morning sun
© Maya Hess
Maya grew up watching her father help numerous people and non-profits over his lifetime. It was simply what one did. A brother established a humanitarian foundation connecting “men and material.” A sister provides behind-the-scenes support through funds and her expertise in graphic design.
Maya’s daughter, in turn, grew up surrounded by boxes stacked to the ceiling, full of discovery from terrorism trials. Most days, her mother started working at 4 a.m., especially during a trial phase. And translators and expert witnesses spent so much time in her home that they became family.
How did she feel about her mother’s work, I asked. Maya passed my question along to her daughter and reported back. “She said that this was our life and it was completely normal for her. She did mention that I was always working, but that she appreciated the stability of my always being there (although mostly, she only saw my back!).” Proud of Red T, Maya’s daughter now just wishes her mom would take a step back sometimes and spend a bit more time being grandma to the next generation.
Life, as mentioned, often changes our plans. And while, in Maya’s words, “growing up in a country that has four national languages and is so small that when you cross the street you may be in a different linguistic area, you are somewhat primed to language and multilingualism from an early age,” she had no plan to work in languages.
She didn’t expect to work on terrorism cases, much less devote years of her life to fighting for vulnerable translators and interpreters. She was going to be a journalist, not a linguist.
Instead, through a series of choices in the face of circumstance, through an advocacy she could never have foreseen, she is both.
-Carol Shaw, Editor
The Interpreters Division of the American Translators Association (ATA) is delighted to welcome Dr. Maya Hess as the Distinguished Speaker for its 63rd conference, held October 12-15 in Los Angeles, CA.
Additional interviews focused on the work of Red T can be found at:
Picture and image of Red T logo kindly provided by Maya Hess.
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