Translation of my interview to the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper, the original can be found here: https://www.nzz.ch/international/wartranslated-dmitri-der-dolmetscher-des-krieges-in-der-ukraine-ld.1721726
Author: Jonas Roth: https://twitter.com/jonasmroth
The interpreter of the war: Dmitri translates videos from Ukraine for hours a day. For what reason?
Day after day, new images from the war flicker across the screens. The bombed battlefields of Bakhmut, the desolate conditions in Russian barracks, everyday life in muddy trenches – the events of the conflict can be followed almost in real-time and unfiltered on Twitter, Telegram, and Tiktok. But if you don’t understand Russian or Ukrainian, you’ll quickly get lost in the flood of images.
Dmitri speaks Russian and understands Ukrainian. The 32-year-old marketing expert from Estonia has made it his mission to share his language skills with the public. Every day he spends hours subtitling videos in English or translating the Telegram entries of Russian military bloggers or Ukrainian soldiers. He also translates intercepted telephone conversations between Russian soldiers and their relatives, which the Ukrainian military intelligence service publishes, into English. He publishes his translations on his Twitter profile and website.
Dmitri, who only wants to appear by his first name, obviously serves a high demand. His project called “Wartranslated” is a success. 275,000 people now follow him on Twitter, including military experts, politicians, and academics. His posts regularly reach more than a million viewers. Many media, including the BBC, the Guardian, and the NZZ, also rely on his work and include his videos in articles.
“It’s crazy,” he says in an interview. “Before all this started, I was just a normal guy. I still am. But it’s nice that so many people appreciate my work.”
In the beginning, there was the swearing captain
Dmitri is originally from the Estonian capital of Tallinn, where he grew up and went to school as a member of the country’s Russian-speaking minority. Even as a child he was interested in military affairs and conflicts, he says. He has since left his homeland – “it’s too cold there” – and now lives in the United Kingdom. He studied in Aberdeen and now lives in London, where he works four days a week in marketing for a video game company. After twelve years on the island, the British accent can no longer be ignored.
Nevertheless, the Russian mother tongue suddenly assumes a central role in his life again. A year ago, there was nothing to suggest that he would one day spend most of his free time translating. “It all happened by accident,” he says. When the war began on February 24, Dmitri followed the events on Twitter, where countless videos were circulating from the first hours of the Russian invasion. “I saw that some users were asking in the comments: ‘What is being said here?’ So I kept leaving short translations under the films.”
On the third day of the war, a kind of breakthrough followed for him. He posted a translation below a video of a Georgian captain cursing the crew of a Russian ship over the radio. “Then I went shopping. When I looked at my phone in line at the checkout, I already had several thousand likes and 400 new followers”. Journalists also asked if they could use his work.
50 tweets a day
The success spurred him on. He invested more and more time in his translations. He also trawled the Telegram network, popular in Russia and Ukraine, for interesting content in order to publish it in translated form. Every day he invests hours in the search for new material.
In doing so, he always asks himself what added value he can offer his predominantly pro-Ukrainian audience, says Dmitri. “People want to know what’s happening at the front, they want access to information they can’t get themselves – and they want to see how badly the Russians are doing.” He is aware that he is not neutral, he says. The selection of content alone represents certain partisanship. “But first and foremost I want to be a source. I provide information. Everyone should decide for themselves what to do with it.”
His output is sometimes enormous. According to his own statements, he posted 1,500 tweets in September alone – 50 a day. “In November I was so tired that I didn’t want to translate anything for weeks,” he says. The constant confrontation with scenes full of death and violence does not bother him.
In the meantime, a team of six volunteers has formed around the war interpreter, who are helping him, for example, to translate the daily podcast by former Ukrainian presidential adviser Olexiy Arestowych. Dmitri himself does not earn any money with his work either, he makes his content available free of charge. The few donations he receives would not be enough to live on. It’s not about money anyway, it’s about helping people.
By that, he means not only his followers, whom he serves with translations but also the soldiers of the Ukrainian armed forces. He even collects money to support them. His enormous reach in social networks helps him in this. Within a few days, almost 50,000 euros were recently raised, which he now wants to use to buy vehicles, radios and drones for soldiers at the front. He intends to conduct further fundraising campaigns soon.
“I just know what’s right”
However, the fact that Dmitri supports Ukraine so actively is not a matter of course, as he himself admits: “It could have been different.” Some of his Russian-speaking acquaintances in Estonia support the war. His mother is Russian, his father is Ukrainian; they got to know each other in Soviet times. As a child, he traveled to both countries several times with his parents. When asked about his family, he evades. There are conflicts, he doesn’t want to say more about them.
He has also asked himself why he himself is so pro-Ukrainian, he says*. “I think it comes from my inner beliefs about what democracy is, what makes a good country and good people. I just know what’s right.”
Dmitri does not expect the war to end any time soon. Nevertheless, he wants to continue his work. “I can’t just stop. I also have a certain obligation to my followers,” he says. He doesn’t want to talk about a burden, because he still enjoys this task, which he came to so unexpectedly. “I don’t know what else I would do with my free time.” The war has long since become a part of his life.