Working in Wartime

It was Iryna Vizir’s 35th birthday when Russia invaded Ukraine. And it’s one birthday she’ll never forget. 

After weeks upon weeks of rumblings about the country’s aggressive intentions and denials by Russian leaders, the moment of the invasion itself was nevertheless a shock. One thing was certain: At that moment, life in Ukraine changed forever. 

“My cousin from Kharkiv called me at 5 a.m. and I thought, ‘Wow, why does she want to wish me a happy birthday so early?’” Vizir said. “But she cried, ‘Ira, they’ve started a war! I can hear the explosions! I’m going to take my kids and go to Dnipro. Or to your parents’ place near Poltava.’ I turned on the TV: They had also attacked numerous strategic objects in the whole country. The war had started.”

The international crisis has reframed life and work for everyone in the country or involved in the crisis, and that includes language-industry workers. Interpreters are key to the war effort in handling government and press communications, as well as translating intercepted Russian military chatter. And other language workers — like Vizir, who works for the language company InText — are doing their best to do their jobs under unimaginable circumstances.

“We’ve been trying to work as usual as it was just impossible to imagine that everything could simply stop, and all the huge amount of work our team is doing could be destroyed,” Vizir said. “We feel highly responsible, first and foremost, for our colleagues and freelance suppliers, and their families.” 

Tetyana Struk, owner of Ukrainian LSP Linguistic Centre, demonstrates a similar commitment to business as usual — or at least, to the greatest extent possible. Thanks to an earlier business decision that shifted some resources toward a Poland-based division, that’s more possible than one might think. 

“It wasn’t really premeditated as much as a coincidence,” she said. “In retrospect it feels like a really smart decision now. All our localization processes never stopped no matter what was going on here in Ukraine.” 

“Of course, a lot of our linguists in Ukraine are affected, but it could all be managed from Poland,” Struk added. “It gave me a chance to concentrate on helping with the refugee crisis here on the ground. From the second day we accepted a lot of refugees here in the house.” 

According to Vizir, the goal is to keep the situation as normal as possible for clients, freelancers, and employee families while maintaining a high quality standard. That’s no easy task when reports of civilian deaths are now a matter of daily life. 

“Our team is coping with this situation like real heroes,” Vizir said. “To continue running a business is also a powerful tool now: It helps us support and contribute to maintaining the economic stability in Ukraine. It will also help us to recover our country after the war.”

InText has taken several steps to make the situation more bearable for all involved, according to Vizir. The company formed an assistance fund for employees, their family members, and other citizens of Ukraine, including the residents of the city of Dnipro. It is making advanced payments to employees, freelancers, and the state budget. And it’s lending efforts toward humanitarian aid. 

“InTexts supplies food and necessary items to the railway station to support the refugees evacuating from the hotspots of Ukraine,” Vizir said. “We also help some evacuated families to find shelter and support in our city. This goes without saying.”

Fortunately, Ukrainian forces have so far maintained control of Dnipro. Vizir said the portion of employees that remain in the city have maintained a work environment similar to pre-war routines. The only difference: the implementation of safety measures and an occasional interruption by air-raid alarms.

“The others have relocated to western Ukraine or abroad to continue working and living in a safer environment,” Vizir said. “Our hearts are breaking in a wish to help each other in this war, and we are helping in every way we can. Many of us are volunteering in translation and humanitarian initiatives.”

Air raid alarms are a part of life for Struk, too. It’s a reminder of the danger that could strike at any moment, although Struk said that their experience has been more bearable than other areas of Ukraine. 

“As the air raid alarm sounds, we seek refuge into our basement which by now is well equipped,” she said. “It’s a feeling of utter helplessness. I can’t even imagine what people in Mariupol or Kharkiv must go through. We had some people from that last city stay with us for a couple of days, and they were traumatized.”

That’s to say nothing of the toll on workers’ personal lives. Vizir, for instance, said goodbye to her husband, a reserve officer who received his call-up notice as soon as Ukraine declared military law. He joined the Armed Forces the next day. 

“I didn’t want him to go, but we both knew it was the right decision now,” she said. “We told our 6-year-old daughter that daddy had become a soldier and went on a business trip. And she accepted it easily, as she hadn’t seen the war’s reality and didn’t know all the terrible consequences.”

Struk experienced a similar separation with her husband when he left to defend the country. 

“My husband was not even supposed to be called to war,” she said. “He is 53. He volunteered because of his military experience in the past. For him, it probably was not only about protecting Ukraine but also about protecting his two sons. Hopefully, by him going first, there will not be a need for them to go.”

The ever-changing situation is a difficult one to navigate for any Ukrainian, one that demands difficult decisions. It’s a crisis in constant evolution as Kharkiv, Kyiv, Mariupol, and many other Ukrainian cities endure destruction and bombing. While Dnipro is safe for the time being, Vizir decided to leave the country to ensure the safety of her daughter. It was a long, dangerous trip, and though she’s away, her thoughts are rarely removed from Ukraine. 

“My company and I stand with all the people of Ukraine in claiming that the Russian leadership has treacherously unleashed and is waging a war against peaceful Ukraine,” she said. “We did not expect such a tragic scenario, but we are coping with the hardships.”

Interpreters, too, have faced difficult circumstances while performing their essential duties. Dr. Kateryna Rietz-Rakul, a Ukrainian-German interpreter, went viral on social media after breaking into tears while translating a press conference by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. For many both inside and outside the language industry, the vulnerable moment was a reminder of the often-difficult circumstances interpreters endure to do their jobs, one reinforced when a second interpreter openly wept during a Zelensky speech to the European Parliament just days later.

“Of course I know how to distance myself,” Rietz-Rakul told MultiLingual. “But sometimes you just can’t because it’s too much.” 

“I just thought, ‘Well, I lost it, and they’ll say it was nice working with you, but obviously you’re not fit for the job,’” she added. “So I sat there, and the woman responsible for the broadcast ran to me. She hugged me, and she said, ‘I’m so sorry, and I feel with you. You are doing a great job. It’s OK, we all know how you feel.’” 

Given the difficult work those directly impacted by the conflict face, what can others do to help? Vizir recommends donating money to humanitarian organizations and fundraisers like helpukrainewin.org, supporting Ukrainian LSPs and freelancers, and spreading truthful reporting to fight propaganda and misinformation.  

“And you can pray as well,” she added. “I believe every religion is against war.”

At the very least, Vizir said that the invasion and its accompanying fear puts the value of life into perspective. And she looks forward to the day when she can return to work in a country that knows peace once again. 

“I would like to thank the world for supporting us. And I want to thank everyone in the localization industry for your help,” she said. ”I’d also like to tell all my fellow Ukrainians who are reading this: Stay safe! Glory to Ukraine!”  

Cameron Rasmusson is editor in chief of MultiLingual magazine.