F. Addressing the language barrier

1. Learning the local language

The ability to use the local language of the country or area you are deployed to can have a great impact on the operational outcomes of your mission. Of course you are not expected to write a novel in a new language, but learning some basics and useful phrases before deployment (when/if time allows) will not hurt. On the contrary, it will be seen as an expression of cultural sensitivity and will reflect your interest in that culture and your respect for its people.

2. Working with an interpreter

No matter how advanced you judge yourself to be in the local language, employing an interpreter can prove indispensable in certain situations.

Finding the right interpreter

When interviewing translators and interpreters, you should try to keep the selection standards as high as possible. Remember that the quality of interpretation can have a big effect on your mission’s image, expertise, efficiency as well as security.

Before the selection process, make sure you look out for the following general prerequisites and criteria:

Forms of interpretation

There is more to interpretation than simply translating words. It is a matter of understanding the thoughts expressed in the source language and then paraphrasing them in a way that preserves the initial message using words from the target language.

Interpretation can be performed in the following modes:

Consecutive interpretation: this is usually performed during formal negotiations. The interpreter listens to the speech being made, takes notes, and then reads out the main message to you after the person is done with a segment of the speech. Usually, the speaker stops every 1-5 minutes (at the end of a paragraph or a thought) to allow the interpreter to render what was said into the target language.

Simultaneous interpretation: this is more challenging than consecutive interpretation. In simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter has to convey the message at the end of every sentence (or at least as soon as he understands the message of the speaker) while actively listening to and comprehending the next sentence.

Whispered interpretation: here the interpreter whispers their translation to a person or small group.

Where possible, prepare meetings with your interpreter and discuss the purpose and expected outcome of the meeting. Gather information on the stakeholder or partner you are going to meet.

Make sure you are using terminology that can be easily understood and translated by your interpreter. If you have to use specialised terminology, check with your interpreter how they will explain this in the local language, especially if there is no direct translation for certain expressions or words.

Protecting your interpreter

You should remember at all times that interpreters often place their safety and security at stake simply by choosing to work for foreign missions and operations.

Their notes might contain sensitive information that the authorities could be interested in. Hence, they run the risk of being debriefed, questioned or even arrested with the purpose of revealing confidential information.

It is therefore vital to watch out for the safety of your interpreter and remember that in most cases, locally- engaged language assistants do not get a chance to leave the field when you do and could suffer the consequences of being employed by foreign crisis management missions long after the mission has ended.

If possible, use international interpreters for meetings which might compromise the national interpreter’s security. Do not, under any circumstances, allow national stakeholders to take photographs of your local staff or interpreter, especially if the meeting is about conflict-related issues.