The Trespassers

The Trespassers (2011, RT 1:45:00), 1-channel video with 4-channel sound and annotated archive (approximately 20,000 pages)

The Trespassers is a 105-minute video based on declassified documents about language, translation, interrogation, abuse and complicity in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. Onscreen, a magnifying glass reads the English text of the official documents line by line, and on the soundtrack, Afghan and Iraqi translators simultaneously translate the text into Dari and Arabic. The translators have several different degrees of distance from the material: one is an Afghan only temporarily in the US, another a diasporic Afghan who formerly worked as a contract translator for the military, another an Iraqi who translated for Western journalists and was granted political asylum in the US after being kidnapped by insurgents, and so on. The translators were also given leeway to interpret redactions in the documents they translated as they chose, based on their own inferences of what might belong in the blank spaces.

The Trespassers began as an investigation into the use of diasporic translators – Afghan-Americans and Arab-Americans – by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, and evolved through a series of questions around the role of translation in the theater of war and particularly in the super-charged space of interrogation. Why was it so much more important to the US military to have diasporic translators, with their approved security clearances and uncertain fluency, in important interrogations, rather than using native translators with lower clearance and proven fluency? Why was the presence of the translator, the mediator who made most interrogations possible, so rarely recorded in interrogation transcripts? When the choices a translator makes have immediate weight and consequences, how does that inflect the act of translation? Can a translator be a witness, or will he always be a special class of native informant – negotiating between the trespassers and trespassed, and frequently finding himself called a traitor? Does the act of translation, like the presence of a recorder, necessarily preclude or occlude, transform or make impossible the act of witnessing?

The Trespassers installed at the Sharjah Biennial 10, 2011 (photo: Alfredo Rubio)
The Trespassers installed at the Sharjah Biennial 10, 2011 (photo: Alfredo Rubio); click image to view additional installation shots from Sharjah and the KMK in San Sebastian

The video is usually shown with an archive of annotated binders containing the documents used to make the video, as well as other documents that provide additional context. The video itself is deliberately difficult to absorb; the over-translation produces an effect somewhat like being in an interrogation room, where important information is being volleyed back and forth between multiple codes and languages and no single person – not even the translator – fully understands everything that is going on. So the archive, which is usually presented in a separate but connected room, allows viewers to find their own way through the same material, at their own pace, after first passing through the physical experience of the video. The annotations – handwritten sticky notes attached to documents – provide some signposts and cross-references, both to the video and to other documents in the archive. The archive also includes a READ ME binder, which contains an installation FAQ, an interview about the project, a full transcript of all the text seen onscreen in the film, and an index of the binders included in the version on view. The FAQ, interview and transcripts can be downloaded here.

The following video excerpt includes Section 1, “Speculations,” and portions of both Section 7, “The Translators,” and Section 8, “Complicity.” The translators for these sections include Mujib Mashal and Nour al-Khal.