Helly, D. 2016. I say yes, you say no: Interpreting international cooperation. ECDPM Talking Points blog, 18 November 2016.
With this blog, I would like to remind readers of the importance of language and interpreting within international cooperation, and what it means for a European integrated external action agenda, in line with the recently published EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy.
In international cooperation, concepts like ‘partnership’ and ‘dialogue’ are overused. Yet, development practitioners rarely think about the importance of language and good intercultural communication to build relations and discuss profitably. Language issues and challenges are left to the technical experts to deal with: it’s up to linguists or interpreters to make sure that communication runs smoothly.
Automatic thinking often leads development workers to take for granted that the development and cooperation jargon they use is understood by everybody. This assumption is just misguided. Multilingualism should also be addressed. In that regard, communicating externally in various languages may help the success of EU external action.
— Damien Helly (@DamienHelly) October 4, 2016
Hence, interpreting and translating are key skills for international cooperation, though much undervalued ones. It is not because we use the same words or the same language that they mean the same to each of us. Both intercultural competence and linguistic skills are needed in international cooperation. Linguistic differences though require not only literal translation but also intercultural bridging and mediation to allow communication, bringing about the mutual creation of meaning that bridge cultural differences.
In that regard, the role of interpreters in Africa-Europe relations (and international cooperation at large) becomes absolutely fundamental. They are among the few ones who are able to create a “third culture” in which all parties involved meet and build joint endeavours, through and beyond language.
This also means that the intercultural competence of interpreters is a paramount factor when it comes to ensuring the quality of international cooperation. A good example of that necessity arises when a speaker decides to make an untranslatable joke in his/her own language at an official meeting. The risk of mismatch between different communication styles and communication contexts is common.
Such gaps and failures are quite common in the jargon-heavy development world full of partnerships, ownership, shared responsibilities and mutual commitments. Using the right words with interlocutors is thus also about using the right translation with the appropriate cultural sensitivity and self-awareness. Otherwise, the risk of losing trust and clarity between partners then becomes very high.
Having the best interpreters in the world is however not sufficient if the EU and its interlocutors do not operate on a level playing field and do not have equivalent translation capacities. When good interpreters are missing or unavailable (for instance in EU delegations or in some developing countries), interpretation has to be ensured on an ad hoc basis and, sometimes, even improvised.
In the case of power or capacity asymmetries, interpretation risks being dominated by those who have the most powerful linguistic and translation capacities, and by those who benefit from existing institutional arrangements and practice. At present, languages such as English or French tend to prevail over others, jeopardising the intercultural dimension of cooperation.
These dynamics are clear in certain policy circles, such as within the United Nations, where given languages keep on dominating over others, fueling linguistic asymmetries as a consequence. In terms of external communication, using only these dominating languages may not only cause further inequalities, but it can also result in missing out on or, worse, isolating key target audiences abroad.
African regional and continental organisations that engage in regional and international cooperation require professional interpreters who know Africa and the variety of African cultures. Some programmes such as the EU-funded Pan-African Programme of Masters Consortium in Interpretation and Translation (PAMCIT) have been specifically designed to address this growing need.
Besides constituting cultural richness, African multilingualism is also an economic and development opportunity, as it is a yet untapped linguistic market for the business of interpreting and translation.
When unsuccessful communication leads to a break in trust among partners, efforts to rebuild it solely on policy grounds have little chance to succeed. In those cases, what we say when talking about cooperation is either misunderstood or, worse, interpreted in the framework of power games in which deception and false commitments become the rule, leading to a lack of authenticity in the relationship.
Language interpretation, together with political efforts, can contribute to mutual comprehension. But, when done according to lower standards, it can fuel misunderstanding and tensions. On its own, interpretation does not have the power to mend broken relations. Acknowledging different interests and rebuilding partnerships on a common vision for the future is a bolder but necessary step.
Effective communication through interpreting and translation depends on the ability to work with experts from all backgrounds. Interpreters and translators are requested to understand thoroughly complex subjects, such as technological cooperation, trade, health or agriculture.
Hence, the quality of interpreting and translation depends on the ability of complex organisations such as the European Union to encourage and facilitate exchanges and cross-learning between thematic experts and interpreters. This is closely related to the need to take more steps towards ameliorating human resources and talent management in EU external action.
While the European Commission’s DG interpreters are at the service of all institutions, their image as team members within other DGs and institutions is not always a given. I would be curious to know whether the readers of this blog see interpreters in the booth as being part of the meeting or being outside of it.
Interpretation and linguistic skills will have to be at the heart of talent management and staff mobility schemes amongst EU institutions and member states if they wish to effectively implement the EU Global Strategy and the Sustainable Development Goals. This is also what we need to talk about when we talk about cooperation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
Photo courtesy of European Parliament via Flickr
Dear Damien, Thank you for this reminder that language is a lot about power, whether it comes to countries at the United Nations or to individuals. For individuals working in development cooperation, it is crucial to realise that we speak a language full of assumptions not shared by the people we try to help. Besides what happens in the interpreter's booth, it is up to us to beware of routines and to take the extra step of regularly talking to people outside of our "language zone." Quite a challenge. Martin