Dickey holds some of the documents he helped to translate.
to justice, Stephen Dickey translates war
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.
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.
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.
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
of the most striking things is, you have Serbs, Croats and
Bosnians working at the tribunal and they all get along."
U.Va. assistant professor of Slavic languages and literatures
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
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
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.
who were neighbors for decades all of a sudden are at each others'
throats,² Dickey said. "They're killing each other in cold
blood. It makes you think about what being human is."
former Yugoslavia, outlined in black, includes the states
of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mongenegro,
Serbia and Macedonia.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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?
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.
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.
for dictionaries, there were no good mid-sized sources in Serbo-Croat.
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.
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.
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.
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
allowed him to make friends with people of various nationalities
working together for a common goal in The Hague.
reinforced his feeling that language has power. And that accuracy
in translation matters.
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."