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.
- During risky negotiations, highly complex meetings or when detailed and sensitive information is being passed around, it is recommended to resort to a professional and skilled interpreter who can convey the message with the needed level of accuracy and precision.
- If you find yourself under stress, your ability to express yourself in the local language might be hindered. Employ an interpreter to help you out under such circumstances.
- Interpreters can also be your local specialists in public relations. They can often suggest the best way to interact with persons from different cultural backgrounds and can notice nuances that you might have a tendency to overlook as a non-local.
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:
- Language proficiency: interpreters should be bilingual in both source and target languages. Make sure they undergo an oral test in order to assess their general command of both languages and their interpretation skills.
- Competency: candidates should be able to work accurately and quickly. Interpreters should be trained public speakers who are able to understand meaning and tackle sophisticated linguistic problems quickly. Translators, on the other hand, should be able to conduct thorough research and produce precise, ‘camera-ready’ documents within the confines of tight deadlines.
- Neutrality: you should attempt to find candidates who are both locally engaged and unbiased in their judgments. This might be quite challenging, considering that locals could have been victims of direct or indirect violence and abuse, so they are likely to have psychological scars and problems that could affect their neutrality.
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.