Interpreting in diplomatic settings

Interpreting in diplomatic settings involves not only language but a broad range of elements and factors that make communication possible. Diplomatic settings include national institutions – as ministries, Presidential Offices, Houses of Parliament- and international institutions – as the United Nations and its family of agencies, the European Union, WTO, NATO- and a number of international or inter-regional military organizations.

This study stems from personal experience in the diplomatic settings mentioned above working as an English/ Spanish/Italian free-lance interpreter.

It is often said that interpreters working in these settings participate in the making of history. This privilege is not, however, void of hardships. On the contrary, dealing with protocol and various ranges of etiquette puts on a heavier burden on the shoulders of a practitioner who, more often than not, has not received a specific training in that special field in terms of lexicon, texts and contexts. As in most interpretation settings, job-specific training and professionalization remain a sore spot. Interpretation schools across the world today tend to differentiate their offer between liaison interpreting and conference interpreting. To work in diplomatic settings an interpreter should have a solid backbone made up by both. In such settings interpretation modes are both consecutive and simultaneous techniques, although chuchotage, i.e. whispered interpretation, remains the most widely adopted one.

Interpreters and translators in this area need to have a wide-ranging knowledge, be familiar with, and updated in international affairs in political, social and economic spheres. Keeping abreast of international developments and being conversant with the issues at stake and world current events is essential for interpreters and translators working in any language mediation setting.

Extensive knowledge of the two or more working languages, ability to express thoughts clearly, and above all great familiarity with the different cultures is a must for the entire community of interpreters.

In diplomatic settings, however, good voice projection and modulation are assets which seem to acquire even more weight (R. Voyat 1999,2001,2002) not only because quite often microphones are not used, but especially because whispered interpretation is most frequently required.

Being the diplomatic milieu a very closed one, especially due to confidentiality reasons, not much information is accessible beforehand. Interpreters hired will need a “clearance”, when there is no in-house staff available to interpret. Nevertheless, not all diplomatic missions, embassies or consulates have their own interpreting staff. Diplomatic interpreting – and, of course, translating- has its rules and principles.

Although these practitioners work for the powerful people of the world, the power relation changes: these language and culture mediators become power brokers themselves. Hence the footing on the conversational floor seems to be enhanced if the spotlight is on the interpreter.

To be a true vehicle of multilingual communication, interpreters must carry out several complex tasks at the same time. They have to listen to the speaker and observe the non-verbal signs of his message, as well as the reactions s/he may trigger among and between the recipients of that message; analyze the explicit and implicit message comprehensively; interpret the message by reproducing it in another language, taking due account of the formal and substantive characteristics of a different culture. Most of these tasks rely on establishing a constant., although discreet, eye-contact with the interlocutors and the audience, if any, in order to be the true effective link in communication.

In diplomatic settings, the typical triad of communication/interpretation becomes apparent. The interpreter is actually the critical link of communication that occurs through the speech acts, crossing cultural barriers and overcoming other lexical hurdles.

Interpreters are required to be neutral, unbiased and, even, invisible. With regard to the latter, Translation Studies have produced many pages on the metaphorical invisibility of translators (Venuti:1995); yet, what is required of interpreters is almost a physical invisibility, especially in most diplomatic settings.

Dress codes and etiquette, demeanor, the correct forms of address with dignitaries, and general good social practices, are subjects interpreting schools seldom include in their educational offer. The same holds true for tact and savoir-faire, together with the principles of being discreet and not censoring. Today, however, partly due to the conspicuous migration flows crossing continents, courses in cross-cultural communication are offered by many educational institutions and, consequently, these issues are often included in the syllabi of interpreter training courses. Furthermore, ethics has become a crucial topic in the professionalization of interpreters, together with the issue of non advocating in the language mediation act.

Although translation and interpretation may appear to differ only slightly and share everything but the medium that conveys the message into the other language, these two professions differ as much as written language differs from spoken language. There is much more to interpreting a passage or a sentence than to translating a text. Lack of contextualization may make work harder and much more risky for interpreters. Yet, no hesitation is admitted. When speeches are delivered off-the-cuff the impact on the interpreter differs from when they have been prepared and are being read. The pace at which a speaker reads is much faster also because s/he does not have to pause and think about what s/he is going to say. The sentence structure of a speech that is written is also more formal. Decisiveness and experience will help practitioners cope with such time constraints involved in different kinds of delivery. Translators, instead, who do find themselves delving into multidisciplinary technicalities, or solemn and formal registers in written speech texts, seem to benefit from a slightly broader margin.

Thoroughness is a crucial concern for both translators and interpreters. It is never a matter of finding an equivalent, or substituting one word in one language for a word in another language — the interpreter must understand the thought expressed and what underlies the utterances. One cannot translate or interpret something without fully understanding what has been said and –upstream- without mastering the issues at stake.

Consequently, it is important for the institution hiring interpreters to make sure that there is time to brief these professionals on the subject matters.

It is important to note that diplomatic jargon IS a specialized discourse. The terminology used in such contexts ranges, in fact, from economic, financial, political, military, cultural to a host of highly technical fields. “The closer the text being processed is to a known text type the more fully it can be processed…” (Katan 1999:150)

Both interpreters and translators are under continuous scrutiny in diplomatic settings. “Notetakers” or other members of the delegation at meetings, round tables, bilateral talks and negotiation tables are always ready to provide another solution claiming it is more pertinent. Moreover, interpreters and translators may be easily transformed into scapegoats especially when there are misunderstandings or friction between parties –straightforwardly attributed to misinterpretation.

Stressor agents play, indeed, a major role in such settings. The mere fact that failures in communication must be avoided causes a rising tension and an adrenaline release when involved in interpreting. Time and experience, however, tend to ease this tension.

Yet, stressors include also interferences on the soundstage, such as the so-called “cocktail party effect”. This is a phenomenon that tells us how attention can affect the way perceptual stimuli are processed. During a conversation at a party, or in a noisy environment, when there are many other conversations occurring, we somehow manage to tune into the voice of the person that we are interpreting. All the other voices seem to be filtered out and largely ignored, thus enabling us to concentrate on one person’s voice.

Fatigue is still another stressor agent. Lengthy sessions may have a negative impact, as interpreters in such settings usually work alone –not in a team – or, in the best circumstances, with a colleague escorting the counterpart. Consequently, it may happen that a working day goes far beyond the regular working hours. Flexibility is, thus, required of interpreters because the working conditions may not always be respected.

The unsaid, understatements, unspoken assumptions or subtle emphases, innuendos and hedging increase stress on practitioners who will often resort to prediction and anticipation techniques (Chernov 2004:185). Understatements represent a typical characteristic of diplomatic professional jargon where “the real weight of words and terms […] is much stronger than those same words in normal everyday speech.” (Nick 2001:45). Interpreters must, therefore, pay close attention to the pragmatic strategies used, lending their ears also to the cultural aspects that might be involved in such acts, and be ready to convey the message across linguistic and cultural barriers.

Communication, in fact, does not consist only in conveying information: it means achieving mutual understanding. The bilingual and, thus, bicultural interpreter will help bridge the cultural gaps and adequately present cultural nuances.

Yet, there are languages spoken in more than one country, such as German, whose words may have different meanings depending on whether they are used in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. This is true especially for two of the most widely-spoken languages in the world, i.e. English and Spanish, where even different pronunciations are elements that interpreters must take notice of and be concentrated on how to bridge these lexical and, at times, conceptual gaps. (Katan 1999:81).

There is much more to diplomatic interpreting than just travelling with dignitaries and going to receptions. It is a job that rewards practitioners with a wealth of knowledge and invaluable opportunities, a varied and gratifying experience, giving a chance of somehow participating in the making of history, but demands, in turn, a great responsibility and involves a high degree of difficulty.

Many are the metaphors –old and new- used to describe translation, translators and interpreters: the bridge, the triad, the traitor/faithful, the juggler, and the tightrope walker, among the most popular ones. In spite of the creativity in resorting to metaphors to depict reality, these remain lexical items that take on a connotative meaning, evoking an image in the speakers’ minds. Today, these images and roles are generating curiosity and interest among script writers and film directors who are producing films and documentaries on interpreters, communication gaps and culture barriers, starring famous actors and actresses and, often, providing a quite faithful picture of reality.

Ils sont dans l’ombre des tout-puissants – les interprètes. Ils ont toujours existé ou au moins depuis que les différentes cultures se sont rencontrées. Au-delà de la discrétion professionnelle caractéristique des interprètes nous découvrons des personnages fascinants qui se dévouent pour leur métier avec passion.( Bernet and Beetz: 2005)

Now, practitioners look forward to results of research to improve the status of interpreters and translators in the multiplicity of settings in which they are called to perform. As in many other settings, interpreting in diplomatic milieus is, more often than not, a scarcely recognized skill. Yet there are exceptions, such as the consideration and appreciation expressed in every closing address made by NATO Secretary General, Manfred Woerner who, when thanking interpreters, truthfully defined interpretation “a gift, a skill, an art and a craft”.

(from a presentation delivered at the University of Graz (Austria) during the international conference on TRANSLATING AND INTERPETING AS A SOCIAL PRACTICE)