Translation and interpretation

Over the last century various ethnic groups have become more aware of their identity and rights.   In some countries ethnic minority groups have demanded the right to education, media and other    services in their own languages, at times leading to armed conflict with the majority groups in their countries. In the last few decades contact between nations has increased, as more and more countries take an active – and interactive – role in international affairs. Both of these processes have led to an awareness of linguistic rights as human rights. At the same time as English has gained currency as an international language and as the most commonly used diplomatic language, international organisations are recognising the various languages of member states  as  official or  working languages  for  their proceedings,  both oral and written. In diplomacy, now more than ever before, interpreters and translators are of vital importance. 
The 1996 Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights is one of the results of increased awareness of linguistic rights. 
Professor Dietrich Kappeler, former director of the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, describes the history of language use in diplomacy:
Documents exchanged between countries in the past were written in the single vehicular language then in use in Europe: Latin. In the 18th century French had become the generally accepted diplomatic language, so much so that even diplomatic notes addressed to the British Foreign Office by the Legation of the USA were written in that language. The 20th century saw a gradual emergence of English as a second and later even dominant diplomatic language. At the same time, a growing number of countries insisted on the use of their own language in diplomatic correspondence and joint diplomatic documents. As a result the United Nations admitted to five languages at its inception (Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish), to which Arabic has later been added by informal agreement. In the European Union, all twelve languages of the members are currently in use and their number is bound to grow as new members will be admitted. Translation and interpretation have therefore become a major element in present-day diplomatic life. (“Texts in Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)
Dr Stanko Nick, Croatian Ambassador to Hungary, makes the point that although it has frequently been argued that one language or another is more suitable for diplomacy as it is clearer, more flexible, more expressive, or more eloquent, the “mere fact that historically such a role has been taken in turns by so many languages (Acadian, literary Chinese, Greek “koin`e”, mediaeval Greek, Latin, Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Dutch, German, French, and English) proves that linguistic or semantic reasons are not decisive. On the contrary, it can be said that the dominant role of one language or another in diplomacy has resulted from the political, strategic, economic, cultural or other domination of one power or another in international relations.” (“Use of Language in Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)


Roger Chriss, a professional translator, describes the role of the translator:

Translators are language professionals. They are applied linguists, competent writers,    diplomats, and educated amateurs. Like linguists, translators have to be capable of    discerning subtleties and nuances in their languages, researching terminology and    colloquialisms, and handling new developments in their languages. Like writers, translators    have to be accustomed to working long hours alone on a subject which interests few people    and with a language that few people around them know. Like diplomats, translators have to    be sensitive to the cultural and social differences which exist in their languages and be    capable of addressing these issues when translating. And like educated amateurs,    translators have to know the basics and some of the details about the subjects they deal with.  (“Translation as a Profession,” on Roger Chriss’s website The Language Realm – a Website
about Translation and Language

In diplomacy one of the main drawbacks of the growing need for translation is cost. Nick points out that although most organisations and conferences try to limit the number of languages used by selecting several official or working languages, the cost of interpretation and translation is astronomical. “Several years ago it was calculated that the translation of one single page to all official languages of the UN amounted to the value necessary to cover the cost of living for one person in India for a whole year! When one takes into account the number of international organisations, and the thousands of pages translated almost daily it is easy to subscribe to the proposal of introducing Esperanto as the language for international communication.” (“Use of Language in Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Another drawback to the use of translation in multilateral diplomacy is the complexity of the task of producing equivalent documents in different languages. Kappeler writes:

Versions in working languages are based on the records of simultaneous interpretation. Versions in other languages have to be prepared separately. All have to go before the drafting committee which therefore needs at least one member for each language. Preferably however members of a drafting committee should master two or more of the languages used so as to ensure proper concordance of texts. The drafts submitted to the committee are prepared by the secretariat of the negotiating body, which must check recordings of simultaneous interpretation and produce versions in languages which were not used as working languages. The complexity of the task of a drafting committee explains why, in some cases, it will re-convene after the treaty has already been authenticated, with the express competence of making linguistic adjustments between the various versions. (“Texts in Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)


Vicky Cremona and Helena Mallia, professional conference interpreters, explain the difference    between the work of a translator and that of an interpreter:

Translators work alone, facing a white sheet of paper and a text. They recreate the text by    becoming its second author, understanding and recreating the author’s writing skills… The    interpreter’s work is not a solitary one. The interpreter works directly with an orator, who    possibly elaborates his text as the topic unfolds, expressing his thoughts directly without    any time for re-elaboration or rewording. The interpreter also works directly with a public, the    floor, who is listening simultaneously to him and to the orator. (“Interpretation and    Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Types of Interpretation

There are two main types of interpretation: consecutive and simultaneous.

In consecutive interpretation, the interpreter listens to the speaker and takes notes, and when the speaker chooses (at intervals of anything from a few minutes to half an hour), renders the speech into the target language.

In simultaneous translation, the interpreter sits in a booth and listens to the speaker through headphones, then instantly renders the speech into the target language, a few seconds to a minute behind the speaker. Although quality and accuracy are not as high as in consecutive interpretation, speed and intensity are higher.

Cremona and Mallia describe some of the techniques they use as conference interpreters, which center on identifying key words for the conference topic before the conference and listening carefully for those words during the speeches:

Interpreters are chameleons, they have to lend themselves to the topic under discussion, and blend themselves with the general decor…Certain interpreters choose to specialise in particular areas, in order to be able to handle the language peculiarities of a particular field. 

…an interpreter must seek other sources of information beforehand. It is important for an interpreter working in the diplomatic field to follow closely world political, social and cultural events. Sources for these may include local and foreign newspapers, journals dealing with current affairs, news broadcasts, as well as a very good knowledge of history and geography.

Interpreting for diplomatic conferences takes some particular skills, according to Cremona and Mallia:

In diplomatic conferences, confidence in the interpreters is essential. The underlying tensions which may arise between delegates or country representatives can worsen if the interpreters are not trusted. In fact, in certain cases of great tension, delegates prefer to speak in or translate into a language they do not really master rather than passing through an interpreter. This is why it is important to ensure that the interpreters chosen are of the calibre and have experience in dealing with situations where tact and savior-faire are an asset. (“Interpretation and Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)

Interpretation — and translation — pose some difficulties in diplomacy, for example, cost, lack of accuracy, and the difficulty of translating exactly the same concepts to a different language. However, so far, interpretation is the best option we have. Stanko Nick examines the various ways diplomats speaking different languages can communicate with each other, and the drawbacks of each method:

One solution, obviously, is that one of the interlocutors speaks the language of the other. Problems may arise: the knowledge of the language may not be adequate, one side is making a concession and the other has an immediate and significant advantage, there are possible political implications, it may be difficult to apply in multilateral diplomacy, etc. A second possibility is that both sides use a third, neutral, language. A potential problem may be that neither side possesses full linguistic knowledge and control, leading to possible bad misunderstandings. Nevertheless, this method is frequently applied in international practice because of its political advantages. A third formula, using interpreters, is also very widely used, particularly in multilateral diplomacy or for negotiations at a very high political level – not only for reasons of equity, but because politicians and statesmen often do not speak foreign languages. This method also has disadvantages: it is time consuming, costly, and sometimes inadequate or straightforwardly incorrect (even if the translator has a good knowledge of both languages, he/she may not be familiar with the particular subject which can be extremely specific – from the protection of the ozone layer to the homologisation of sports records; it was not without reason that the slogan traduttore-traditore, translator = traitor, could be found in mediaeval Italy). Finally, there is the possibility of using one international synthetic, artificial language, such as Esperanto; this solution would have many advantages, but unfortunately is not likely to be implemented soon, mostly because of the opposition of factors that dominate in the international political – and therefore also cultural and linguistic – scene. (“Use of Language in Diplomacy,” Language and Diplomacy, Malta: DiploProjects, 2001)


Diplomatic Mistranslation
Bernard Lewis mentions a late 16th century correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England. The sultan does not consider their relationship to be one of equals: “In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be: ‘…loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience…and to manifest loyalty and subservience’ to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm.” (What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 22.)
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik
Date entered: 9/15/2002 6:56:18 PM

The Translator’s Home Companion
The Translator’s Home Companion is intended to serve as a focal point of information about resources available on the Internet and elsewhere for translators, interpreters, and all those interested in the arts and crafts of foreign languages.
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik
Date entered: 4/8/2002 8:04:49 PM

The Language Realm (translation and language)
The Language Realm includes Roger Chriss’s series of articles about translation as a profession, a list of online resources for translation and more.
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik
Date entered: 4/8/2002 8:04:26 PM

Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights
Homepage of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, Barcelona, June 1996. Includes declaration, versions, signers, etc.
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik
Date entered: 4/8/2002 8:04:11 PM

A WIRED Special Report on the Future of Translation
A series of 7 articles in Wired magazine about machine translation.
Contribution by: Hannah slavik
Date entered: 4/9/2002 10:55:23 PM

SYSTRAN, founded in 1968, develops and markets the leading Machine Translation (MT) technology, and provides a full range of automatic translation software products and services to millions of users. SYSTRAN’s expertise comes with over 30 years of building translation software products for the US Department of Defense, as well as the Commission of European Communities and some of the largest commercial multinational corporations.
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik
Date entered: 4/9/2002 10:52:13 PM

Machine Translation: An Introductory Guide
Online version of D.J. Arnold, Lorna Balkan, Siety Meijer, R.Lee Humphreys and Louisa Sadler Machine Translation: an Introductory Guide , Blackwells-NCC, London, 1994. Very comprehensive information about all aspects of machine translation.
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik
Date entered: 5/2/2002 6:16:11 PM 

Translation, Theory and Technology
This site is maintained by the Translation Research Group of Brigham Young University’s Department of Linguistics. As the intentionally ambiguous name suggests, this website provides information about language theory and language technology, particularly relating to translation. Our efforts in translation technology emphasize tools for human translators. In addition to translator tools, we are interested in data exchange and content markup standards that allow various tools to interoperate, providing for the integration of tools from multiple vendors in the multilingual document production chain, and thus support for Globalization, Internationalization, and Localization (GIL). Includes research papers on translation theory and technology.
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik
Date entered: 5/2/2002 6:15:49 PM

On Multilingual Interpretation and Security Council Resolution 242
Security Council Resolution 242 is one of the most controversial issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This article by Shabtai Rosenne examines the issue of the interpretation of multilingual documents, focussing on article 242 and the surrounding controversy. “Curiously enough, there is remarkably little international jurisprudence on the interpretation of multi-lingual resolutions of international organs.”
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija
Date entered: 4/16/2002 8:58:37 PM

Statements clarifying the meaning of SC Resolution 242
“Even before the beginning of the Jarring Mission (the Special Representative as mentioned in the Resolution), the Arab States insisted that Security Council Resolution 242 called for a total withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied in the Six-Day War. Israel held that the withdrawal phrase in the Resolution was not meant to refer to a total withdrawal. Following are statements including the interpretations of various delegations to Resolution 242”
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija
Date entered: 4/16/2002 8:58:26 PM

UN Security Council Resolution 242 (1967)
English and French language versions of UN Security Council Resolution 242.
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik
Date entered: 4/16/2002 9:05:04 PM

Limits of Interpretation
Speaking about his experience as an interpreter for several American presidents, Edmund Glenn stressed the problem of intercultural communication: “Although one of the most skilled interpreters using English, French, Polish, and Russian, there was nothing he could do about these mismatched meanings short of going into a seminar about the subjective meaning of words, the relationship between language and thought, and the differences in the way that cultures lead people to order their reasoning processes. And, of course, that was not possible in such a situation.” ( Man and Mankind: Conflict and Communication Between Cultures. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981.)
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija
Date entered: 9/15/2002 6:54:34 PM

Translation – semantic and pragmatic meaning
“Translation can provide semantic meaning, but not pragmatic meaning. Pragmatic meaning, however, is exteremely important in diplomacy. Not being competent in the language of other nations, therefore, severely limits diplomats’ and national leaders’ ability to understand other nations and accurately predict the behavior of representatives of those nations.” (William Gudykunst, “A Special Case of Intergroup Communication, Communicating for Peace, Diplomacy and Negotiations,” in International and Intercultural Communication Annual, Vol. XIV, 1990, 29.)
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija
Date entered: 9/15/2002 6:55:36 PM

The Economist on Machine Translation
“With its proliferating number of tongues, the Internet is giving MT—the use of computers to translate languages—a much needed shot in the arm. Since its earliest days, machine translation—the use of computers to translate documents from one language to another automatically—has suffered from exaggerated claims and impossible expectations. One characteristic (but apocryphal) tale tells of an American military system designed to translate Russian into English, which is said to have rendered the famous Russian saying “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” into “The vodka is good but the meat is rotten.”
Contribution by: Jovan Kurbalija
Date entered: 9/11/2002 12:46:19 AM

Translation Confusion over Pope’s EU Remark
“Due to a mistake in the official translation, the Pontiff John Paul II’s farewell words to Poles were clearly interpreted by foreign journalists as a backing for EU membership of the country. In fact the Pope did not refer to ‘the European Union’ as a structure in which Poles should find their due place. When saying good bye to his compatriots Pope John Paul II said he hoped that the Polish nation “will find its due place in the structures of the European community and will not only not lose its own identity, but will enrich this continent and the whole world with this tradition.”

However, official translations given for accredited journalists quoted the pontiff as saying: “place in the structures of the European Union,” which was perceived as clear endorsement of the country’s bid for EU membership…” The mistake is related to a mistranslation of the Polish word wspolnota, which is usually translated as “community,” in English.
Contribution by: Alex Sceberras Trigona
Date entered: 9/11/2002 12:42:10 AM

Language revolution in Ottoman empire
Bernard Lewis (What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 40-45) discusses the impact of the study of foreign languages in the 19th century Ottoman empire. In the late 18th century, after suffering defeats at the hands of Christian armies, the Ottomans began to develop a new approach to dealing with the West: diplomacy. In 1793 the Ottomans established their first resident mission abroad, in London, soon followed by others; until this time they had relied on sending diplomatic envoys when necessary. At first the diplomats had to rely on translators to communicate with the Europeans, as until this time the study of European languages by Muslim Turks was rare (while the Europeans had for a long time studied oriental languages). The Ottomans quickly realized that in order to observe and learn the secrets of the military strength of the West, they needed to learn European languages. In the 1830s the Ottomans and other Middle Eastern governments attained a high level of skills in European languages and diplomacy. Student groups were sent abroad to study: a radical change as previously even travel to a non-Muslim country was discouraged, let alone learning from the infidels. For the first time young Muslims from the Middle East were directly exposed to Western ideas, for example, the ideas of the French revolution. “The impact of the language revolution was not limited to classrooms and chanceries. Translation made Western books accessible to Middle-Eastern readers; another device of modernization, the printing press, made them more readily available.”
Contribution by: Hannah Slavik
Date entered: 9/21/2002 6:13:46 PM

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Training and courses



Texts in diplomacy

Part of Language and Diplomacy (2001): Professor Dietrich Kappeler provides an overview of the various types of formal written documents used in diplomacy, pointing out where the practices surrounding these documents have changed in recent years. He also discusses mult... Read more...


Hypertext in diplomacy

Part of Language and Diplomacy (2001): The final paper in this volume, by Jovan Kurbalija, is based on the experience of ten years of research and development work in the field of information technology and diplomacy. Kurbalija explains the relevance and potential of h... Read more...


Interpretation and diplomacy

Part of Language and Diplomacy (2001): Conference interpreters Vicky Cremona and Helena Mallia outline the different types of conference interpretation, difficulties in interpretation, preparation and techniques, and team work. On the topic of diplomatic conferences th... Read more...