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A Fixer Is More Than An Interpreter

« …We are at risk. Linguists working for the military are kidnapped, tortured and beheaded as traitors; prison camp translators are prosecuted as spies; court interpreters receive death threats; fixers are persecuted for doing their job; and literary translators are incarcerated for content.»
Petition «Urge the UN to protect translators and interpreters worldwide» https://www.change. org/p/urge-the-un-to-protect-translators-and-interpreters-worldwide
The Fixer-interpreter is a notion we started using in our professional speech over four years ago.
Then, in early March, 2014, Donetsk saw well-known newspapers, magazines, television and radio channels in the person; reporters and cameramen, who urgently needed interpreters. To picture the work of fixers in Donetsk and Luhansk regions in 2014, when the wave of journalists was at its height, I talked to the interpreters who worked as fixers when the military action was growing rapidly. They are experts in interpreting, follow the rules of interpreter’s ethics, and know professional duties better than anybody else. They are Yevgen Lobanov, Serhiy Krasnoshchokov, Igor Protsenko and Maryna.

What should a fixer be prepared to in the armed conflict zone?

Yevhen Lobanov: Apart from a standard set of skills required for conventional field interpreting, a fixer should have a certain degree of stress tolerance. He or she should also be more focused on non-biased results, that is to try to exclude personal involvement. Tranquility, consistency and self-confidence are good qualities in conflict situations.

Maryna: A fixer should realise that this is not just interpreting. A reporter’s job is to ask «inconvenient» questions. It is you who will ask these «inconvenient» questions and receive the first reaction of the interviewed. The interpreter cannot always like the interviewed: it may be an old woman who longs for the Soviet past, a former communist party official who lost the sense of life in the 1990s and obtained it again in 2014, and two gun-men to protect him in addition, or a «revolutionary man» who looks like a criminal. The fixer needs to be prepared to resist aggression and provocations. They have to do their best for the reporter to have a story and for the whole team to stay alive. Thus, for instance, a television team includes 2-3 people, and you need to keep an eye on them at all times, which means while interpreting for the reporter you have to watch the cameraman and the sound engineer, because «civilians» do not always behave appropriately: being intoxicated they can start strangling a journalist or try to steal body armour and helmets (May, 2014, Kramatorsk).

Serhiy Krasnoshchokov: You should realise that the most important function of a fixer is to be an intermediary between reporters and the environment where they are aliens. Sure, we have to translate some documents, interpret interviews and meetings, but apart from that we should be able to find a person, study different events, provide a car with a driver, and spare parts for their equipment. You should be ready to go to any site and be a navigator. You have to work the same hours as they do, and it is not easy because journalists can work 24 hours a day at a crazy pace. Compared to other interpretation or translation jobs this one requires more effort, stamina, savvy, patience and concentration.

Igor Protsenko: An interpreter should first of all have a good command of languages and remember that any interpreting job has its own peculiarities, and working in a war you need to know war terminology. Working in a war, an interpreter has to understand that he/she is going to work at a site where they shoot. You should know that when the mortars start firing from the Russian side you need to fall on the ground and crawl. You should be prepared for the possibility that your car may be riddled with bullets, and you won’t have a vehicle in which to return to the base, so your driver should be experienced enough to take you back. You need to be able to concentrate and behave patiently with those who came to take your home away from you and disrupted the comfortable life you had. I will never forget working for the Spanish television channel TVE in Sloviansk. We were interviewing a bandit wearing the Russian army uniform who was telling us that he had come to liberate the population from Ukrainians and their violence. Asked if he was a citizen of Russia, he replied he was from Sloviansk (Ukraine) with an accent, with vowel reduction, typical of a speaker from central Russia. As a PhD in linguistics, I can easily distinguish between reduced and full vowels. A Russian speaking Ukrainian will never say: Knchna niet. Ya zh s Ukrainy, s Slavnska. However, the journalist must make a story, and the fixer has to hide their feelings and attitude.

«There is no ‘law’ as such to protect fixers. They can be hired locally (as you and I worked together) without any legal obligation of the newspaper. Or they may be hired longer term by a newspaper as ‘local staff’ in which case the paper does have moral obligations, as well as contractual obligations which are usually enshrined by an insurance clause. However, I don’t believe any international law exists as such.
Anthony Loyd, The Times journalist

How much is a fixer protected when journalists take a risk?

Yevhen Lobanov: It can be compared with a flight in a liner 10,000 meters above the hostilities when everything seems to be under control and all of a sudden something out of the way happens and this is the end. A fixer has no protection — he or she is not covered by Geneva conventions (more often than not the work is not official), he or she has no insurance and almost zero chance of being rescued. The only thing he or she can rely on is the help of media resources; as an example, the story about a fixer from Donetsk working with a large news corporation who was captured in the summer of 2014.

Maryna: Journalists are always at risk in a zone of armed conflict. If a reporter works for a large newspaper or channel they at least have insurance, and their family will get compensation of some hundreds or thousands of euros or dollars if something happens to them. While fixers do not have such an insurance, all they have is daily payment. All I can recommend to fixers is to have an body armour and a helmet to be at least protected from shrapnel.

Serhiy Krasnoshchokov: Journalists who have worked in armed conflicts take care of the personnel’s safety, some media organisations provide fixers with insurance. However, the fixer needs to take care that reporters, especially freelancers who are hunting for bright and impressive shots, keep to the special rules and restrictions prescribed for foreigners and the media. They should keep an eye on the reporters to prevent them wandering into a banned area, using audio — and video recording devices where they are prohibited, stepping over a road border where it could be mined, touching the residuals of ammunition, fragments and heaps. You should also be prepared for abrupt changes in a situation and military action and react reasonably and carefully, according to the state of affairs.

Igor Protsenko: Journalists and interpreters risk everything, they risk their lives, and they have to realise what they are involved in. Here each person makes a choice, and my advice is: make this choice yourself.

What was the hardest experience?

Yevhen Lobanov: I found it most difficult to work in places with a substantial number of people, rallies or meetings for example. Very often an interpreter is mistaken for a client and becomes a target for negative attitudes. Sometimes I had to explain that it’s the client who says the words, but not the interpreter. It is hard to stay away from personal involvement and cling to an impersonal translation of information when it comes to interpreting utter nonsense. It once happened that a doubtful client asked Russian-speaking colleagues about the accuracy of interpreting and to check the fixer’s work, begging pardon then for their mistrust.

Maryna: The most difficult task was to distract my mind from certain things, especially when working in a field where the remnants of 300 people were scattered (the Boeing catastrophe, July, 2014), or interpreting in a morgue where soldiers’ bodies are brought, and watching a forensic doctor who suspects that the reporters have brought some grenades (Dnipro, March, 2014).
News photographers and radio reporters were the hardest to work with, they need to be at the forefront all the time. Though the rates they pay are always lower than those that television people offer. They are adrenaline addicts, they try to get wherever possible, so the fixer needs to have a cool mind to filter unreal wishes, dangerous to life. There is another type of reporter, the «glamorous idiots», who are the most dangerous kind because they occasionally get to the zone of the article, they don’t know anything and can’t act adequately. In these circumstances the fixer has to make efforts to stay alive and take the team away from danger.

Serhiy Krasnoshchokov: For me, the most difficult thing was the eternal wait for the OSCE representatives to appear. The film crew were waiting for them for 6-8 hours per stay on the site where they were to show up. You should take into account such circumstances and dress appropriately, and have sufficient water in reserve. It was also hard to adapt to the schedule, when you have spare time for sleep only, and realise all the responsibility you bear and the high expectations of the client, more than you could imagine setting up this job.

Igor Protsenko: The most difficult part of this job was the fear that those who carry guns uncontrollably can start shooting for fun and with no reason. For instance, on one occasion «saviours» came in the coach station and shouted, «Face down on the floor!» They made everyone lie on the floor and were shooting above people’s heads while laughing evilly. Then they just got into their cars and drove away. Nobody can guarantee they won’t shoot you.
It was hard to work with everyone and be everywhere. During a war, even if it is a low-grade war, it is always hard and scary. While interpreting you can have an automatic gun pointed at your head and hear the sound of bullets above your head, a sound I will never forget, and you can be thrown into a basement, which all happened in Kramatorsk. They say time heals but it is hard to have your soul cured if you live in exile, in a place which is far from being like Paris but is so far away that the minimum time it takes you to get to Ukraine is 32 hours.

“The perfect fixer does not exist — no person could contain such contradictory skills… They must have high level of translation skill, they should also be connected to a great variety of people — both politicians and high rank officials, and gangsters and insurgent commanders. The greatest skills of a fixer are powers of persuasion, charm,
guile, initiative, adaptability and patience to remove the stress involved in getting to where the journalist needs to be and allows the journalist the space to think about the story. A good fixer also has good judgement of the risks involved in the story and a good journalist listens when the fixer thinks that the risks are too great. The greatest fixers love what they do and are obsessed with knowing what is really happening. They bring stories to the journalists and make the journalists better than he or she is on their own.
So the special feature of Ukraine fixers was their education and intellectual sophistication, the particular skill as translators and their commitment. They were doing the job from principal not for the money — at least back in the period when I was there. The fixers were all new to the job and learning it as they went. In Iraq there are fixers with 20 years experience, same in Afghanistan.
In Ukraine, I had one of the best teams I ever worked with in Yevgeny and our driver Artur. Yevgeny was really committed, really intelligent and really brave. He was also very even handed to both sides of the argument — which is important. Artur was also a clever guy, a lawyer, and a second good brain in a journalist team is rare.”
Tom Coghlan, The Times journalist in 2014.

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