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Stephen Dickey
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Stephen Dickey holds some of the documents he helped to translate.

Witness to justice, Stephen Dickey translates war

By Charlotte Crystal

Liberty or life in prison? Stephen Dickey's translations for the International Criminal Tribunal for Crimes Committed on the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia could lead to one fate or the other.

An assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures at U.Va., Dickey spent a year in Holland at The Hague, helping the international tribunal bring accused war criminals to justice.

He usually translated five pages a day -- from Serbo-Croat, German or Russian into English -- and worked with a variety of written materials, including eyewitness statements, correspondence to the court, and court verdicts from war crime trials in occupied Germany after World War II. Dickey worried about every word.

"You have to be careful because somebody's guilt or innocence rides on these things, and we're not talking about shoplifting," Dickey said. "These people are accused of some pretty horrendous things."


"One of the most striking things is, you have Serbs, Croats and Bosnians working at the tribunal and they all get along."

Stephen Dickey
U.Va. assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures

Ethnic groups in the Balkans are known to hold grudges that go back hundreds of years, but the most recent horrors began in 1991 after the death of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito. Tito somehow managed to keep the hodgepodge of ethnic groups working more or less together in a maverick communist country that the Soviets left alone for the better part of 50 years. Once Tito was gone, however, and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the weak glue that held Yugoslavia together dissolved.

War erupted in the spring of 1991, when Slovenia broke away. That autumn, Croatia wanted out. The following year, Bosnia caught fire. Current peacemaking efforts in the region are still on shaky ground.

Accused war criminals who have come before the international tribunal have been arrested in connection with incidents that go back to 1991, the beginning of the civil war. A working definition of war crimes: the gratuitous torture or killing of civilians or mistreatment of prisoners of war.

"People who were neighbors for decades all of a sudden are at each others' throats, Dickey said. "They're killing each other in cold blood. It makes you think about what being human is."

The former Yugoslavia, outlined in black, includes the states of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mongenegro, Serbia and Macedonia.

As a student of German, Dickey had previously grappled with the question of what happened in Germany during World War II and why. So he was no stranger to thinking about religious, cultural and political conflicts that seem to defy common sense.

"You learn that there are reasons things happen and it's not because Serbs are animals," Dickey said. "You begin to understand why people took particular actions. People are complex. It makes you realize how complex a scene civil war is."

The translators have to acquire a certain numbness to the evidence in order to do their jobs, Dickey said. Even so, some examples of brutality are emotionally overwhelming.

"Given the kinds of crimes committed, reasonable people could consider the death penalty," Dickey said. "What is important is not the sentence meted out [life in prison is the highest penalty possible in the war crimes court], but the fact that all of this is recorded and will be there for future generations to see. It's important to establish these facts legally for the sake of history."

While the effort is unlikely to eliminate all arguments in the future, it will lend a factual basis to discussions -- just as the Nuremberg trials documented German war crimes in the face of German denial.

How could he face his job, day after day?

Some days were better than others. And not every day was filled with eyewitness testimony to massacres.

"A large percentage of time, I was translating very boring stuff," Dickey said.

Describing weaponry accurately, for example, was a challenge, especially when the various arsenals included a range of pieces, from modern French and Russian weapons to German World War II artillery. The translators depended on a multitude of sources, including a Serbo-Croat military encyclopedia, Jane's defense publications, and a booklet published by the U.S. Department of Defense.

As for dictionaries, there were no good mid-sized sources in Serbo-Croat.

"It was a typically Balkan thing," Dickey said, with a laugh. "There was a very good dictionary in Serbo-Croatian, but it only made it to L or P. Then you had to go to another dictionary, which wasn't as good, but which went all the way to Z."

Many words in common usage had no standardized definitions. Some of the definitions were politically motivated.

"What a Godsend a Webster's dictionary is!" said Dickey.

While there are relatively few differences among the Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian languages, still there are some that can trip up translators. Terms expressing family relationships differ according to the religion of the speaker, Christian or Muslim. Because the Turks occupied Bosnia and Serbia for 400 years -- but not Croatia -- there are many more Turkish terms in Bosnian and Serbian than in Croatian.

By the time Dickey arrived at The Hague, at least, the tribunal had hit on a solution to the problem of naming the language, which Serbs now call Serbian, Croats call Croatian and Bosnians call Bosnian. Officially, it is Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian or B/C/S.

The experience changed Dickey in a number of ways, he said. It increased his knowledge of the former Yugoslavia and the civil war that still smolders there. It strengthened his ability to understand everyday Serbo-Croat (he sticks with the old terminology), not to mention a specialized vocabulary involving military topics. It gave him insights into Serbo-Croatian nicknames and Bosnian jokes.

It allowed him to make friends with people of various nationalities working together for a common goal in The Hague.

It reinforced his feeling that language has power. And that accuracy in translation matters.

Above all, in the midst of his grim task, he found peace: "One of the most striking things is, you have Serbs, Croats and Bosnians working at the tribunal and they all get along."


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