When one thinks of peace and relief mission negotiations in the context of the United Nations (UN), the high level international accords between the leaders of the various nations come readily to mind. These negotiations, as a rule, are highly visible and use professional negotiators and extensive support staff, including highly-trained professional interpreters. Often these negotiations take place far from the action, perhaps a luxury hotel in Geneva, or an Air Force base in the United States.
Field negotiations, however, between military members, aid organizations and civilians in the context of contemporary peace and relief missions (in dangerous, ever changing conditions), using locally-engaged language assistants constitutes an other level of negotiation. To the extent that without communication there can be no negotiation, communication is obviously integral to the success of the mission, particularly in the latter context.
In the first part of this paper, I will consider the importance of verbal, non-verbal and cultural communication in this milieu. In the second part of this paper I will consider how these layers of communication inform the selection of locally-engaged staff and pose challenges in the areas of confidentiality, bias and safety.
Communication consists of several layers, with verbal/written, non-verbal and cultural components. Culture includes the values, customs, and traditions which members of a group or an organization share. 2
A mission's operational security is affected by the use of the local language. Newly arrived members of the International Civilian Police (CIVPOL) in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996, for example, were taught a few phrases such as: "Don't shoot, I am unarmed." 3 Learning a few words of the local language demonstrates your interest in the country and its culture and is considered another demonstration of cultural sensitivity and good breeding. In Haiti, officers from the International Civilian Mission (MICIVIH) were instructed to use Creole, the language of the people because it:
"indicates our respect for a people and our
integration into the reality of a country.
Observers must avoid criticism of being the
agents of a foreign invention, of being
intrusive of not paying attention to the
reality of the country or of ignoring—even
despising—the culture of the country."4
MICIVIH, the human rights operation in Haiti, as a matter of principle, made every effort to use the local language as a co-working language of the mission. All peacekeeping missions should do the same if the local language is not one of the UN working languages. This is a particularly strong imperative for human rights operations.
The MICIVIH Manual goes on to explain why this is important: Neither instructions nor any manual can
require the use of a language. But it is
essential that everyone understands why
the Mission must operate (and must be
perceived as operating) in French and
Créole. It is essentially a question of
the credibility of the Mission with regard
to all sectors of the Haitian population,
and of our efficiency in observing,
investigating and analyzing the human
rights situation in this country. The more
members of the Mission master the language
and understand the customs and culture of
Haiti, the better will be the quality of
the work. It is also and above all a matter
of respect for a human right, which,
although not given priority in the mandate, must not be overlooked: the right of each person to express, communicate, blossom, develop, and be respected in one's own culture." 5
The choice of working languages of the peacekeeping mission in Onusal (El Salvador), for example were English and Spanish. Similarly, the Rwanda mission incorporated the choice of the use of English, French (the language of the elites) and Kinyarwanda (the language of the vast majority of people). In the case of Haiti, Haitian Creole is the language of the vast majority of the population, with the elites also using French.
Errors in translation of peacekeeping negotiations can have a dramatic and costly impact on international missions. In hostile situations, for example, people are closer to choosing to use their best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA). Most frequently the BATNA in a peacekeeping context is force and a negotiator must seek a way to prevent this. And often, peacekeeping partners who have only the most rudimentary understanding of the language of another country gain respect for taking the time to learn some of the basics.6
Peacekeepers should be prepared to employ interpreters when necessary. The provision of interpreters would be adviseable, for example when detailed, accurate and/or sensitive information is solicited from, or conveyed to, non-English- or French- speaking cultural communities or second language speakers. As stress increases, an individual's ability to express him\herself in a second language may decrease. Therefore, in especially sensitive circumstances, as when dealing with interracial or religious conflicts, it is prudent to employ an interpreter in order to minimize the potential for dangerous misunderstanding.7
An interpreter has to be able to translate in both directions, without the use of any dictionaries, on the spot. Translation involves transferring a written message from one language to another. In the context of peacekeeping, the text to be translated may be a treaty, a law, legal papers, or a press release; a user manual or engineering plans; a handwritten letter, a medical textbook, or a historical document, in short, anything that is written is a potential translation assignment.
In this paper, I will consider interpretation in more depth. A language assistant acts as a cultural intermediary between the counterparts speaking different languages. Where possible, an individual from the ethnic group or minority community concerned should be used to convey sensitive or involved messages or to help solve difficult communication problems. Interpretation is the process of translating every single phrase of the conversation and is generally performed in two modes: consecutive and simultaneous.
In consecutive interpretation, performed during formal negotiations, the interpreter usually sits with conference delegates while a speech is being made, listens to the speech, and takes notes. When the speaker pauses or finishes, the interpreter renders the speech in the first person in the target language. Speech and interpretation generally occur in segments no longer than 10-15 minutes and generally two or more interpreters share the duties.
During consecutive interpreting the speaker stops every 1-5 minutes (usually at the end of every "paragraph" or a complete thought) and the interpreter then steps in to render what was said into the target language. A key skill involved in consecutive interpreting is note taking, since few interpreters can memorize a full paragraph at a time without loss of detail. But interpreter's notes are very different from those of a stenographer, because writing down words in the source language makes interpreter's job harder when he or she has to translate the speech into the target language. Many professional interpreters develop their own "ideogramic" symbology, which allows them to take down not the words, but the thoughts of the speaker in language-independent form. Then the interpreter's output is more idiomatic and less source-language bound.
Peacekeeping negotiations in the field, often employ background interpreting or "chuchotage." Chuchotage is one-to-one direct translation where the interpreter "whispers" the translation for up to three persons who are to receive the interpretation. For best results, the principals should make statements in short paragraph-sized "blocks," speak at a normal speed and tone of voice, express their thoughts in clear, logical order and avoid acronyms, slang and jargon.
Strictly speaking, "simultaneous" is a misnomer: the interpreter can't start interpreting until s/he understands the general meaning of the sentence. Depending on how far in the sentence the subject and the verb are located, the interpreter into English may not be able to utter a single word until s/he hears the very end of the sentence in the source language. This should make it evident how hard the task of the interpreter really is: she or he needs to be translating the sentence into the target language while simultaneously listening to and comprehending the next sentence.
One of the key skills of the simultaneous interpreter is decisiveness: there is simply no time to weigh the merits of variant translations or to recall just the right idiom in the target language. Any delay and you may lose a few words (and possibly a thought) that the speaker uttered.
In spite of the vast differences in the skills of translators and interpreters, there is one thing that they must share, besides deep knowledge of both languages: they must understand the subject matter of the text or speech they are translating. Translation is not a matter of substituting words in one language for words in another. It is a matter of understanding the thought expressed in one language and then explaining it using the resources of another language.
In other words, what an interpreter does is change words into meaning, and then change meaning back into words of a different language. So interpreting is basically paraphrasing. And just like you can't explain a thought to someone if you didn't fully understand that thought, you can't translate or interpret something without mastering the subject matter being relayed. This is why making sure that the interpreter is knowledgeable in the subject matter of the meeting or the negotiation for which the person is interpreting is just as important as making sure that she or he is an experienced interpreter.
On the surface, the difference between interpreting and translation is only the difference in the medium: the interpreter translates orally, while a translator interprets written text. Although interpretation and translation have much in common, the practice of each profession differs in the same way that written language differs from spoken. Thus, both translation and interpretation involve careful analysis of meaning in context and attention to extra-linguistic aspects of communication.
The main qualifications of a good interpreter include knowledge of the general subject of the discussions that are to be interpreted. The interpreter should demonstrate general erudition and intimate familiarity with both cultures. An extensive vocabulary in both languages is required as well as the ability to express thoughts clearly and concisely in both languages.
A good translator would demonstrate excellent note-taking technique for consecutive interpreting.8 Interpreters must be good public speakers who are adept at grasping meaning and solving complex linguistic problems quickly, whereas translators must be able to conduct thorough and meticulous research and produce accurate, camera-ready documents while adhering to tight deadlines. Non-Verbal
The non-verbal communication is composed of at least two types, physical and symbolic. Peacekeeping operates differently from combat troops and this difference is communicated in several ways. Whereas normal tactical units camouflage their positions and operate on the basis of stealth, peacekeepers make themselves conspicuously visible by painting their vehicles and installations a dazzling white. Whereas combat troops try to maintain the security of communications, peacekeepers often use open lines to maintain transparency to all parties. Whereas belligerent fighting units are on one side of a political dispute, peacekeepers strive for impartiality. Whereas combat troops may fall down in a ditch by the side of the road when fired at or threatened, a UN patrol will not, primarily because
"the locals will think that the patrol Culture
is going into position to return fire."9
Many peacekeepers have discovered (sometimes through painful experience) the many-faceted differences between cultures. They have also realized the necessity of being familiar not only with the languages but with the customs and manners of their counterparts in other countries. When peacekeeping partners demonstrate their respect for their foreign counterparts and their knowledge of their hosts' military, business and social practices, their communication gains a distinct advantage.10
There are vast differences among the organizational cultures within the peacekeeping partnership, extending to many areas beyond basic language and communications. People involved in peacekeeping know the importance of understanding another country's business and social customs. They understand the social mores, business practices, negotiating styles, religious customs, language, dress codes and other essential elements of living and doing business in another country.
Solid, thorough preparation for dealing with an unfamiliar culture can often mean the difference between success and failure in peacekeeping missions. Cultural interpreters help peacekeepers become knowledgeable and well prepared to take part in the customs and activities of the country they are working in by improving experience and confidence in dealing with their counterparts and in respecting and observing their main customs and practices.
The essential elements of protocol and etiquette in other cultures may be absent in the anarchy of "hot war" negotiations. During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, both sides in the Bosnian conflict—Serbs and Muslims—committed atrocities, including rape. Rape was employed as a deliberate instrument of war, with a view to shatter families, demoralize the enemy and assault the enemy solidarities.11 Mark Wheeler, a modern Balkan affairs scholar observed that "The idea of nationality in Yugoslavia is based on descent, and the greatest debasement is to pollute a person's descent."12
Early peace negotiations are frequently not supported by local opinion and are therefore held secretly.
"Most Colombians think it is unacceptable to
negotiate with guerillas as they are known to be
supported through drug trafficking, extortion,
kidnapping and murder"13
During secretly held negotiations between the Colombian government and guerrilla leaders, a Colombian waiter explained that he had left Colombia because there were "too many guerillas ... guerillas everywhere." Despite the gaffe in protocol, the relations were aided by the shared joke.
- Verbal Skills
The importance of language is succinctly captured by the following example. A UN worker tried to offer a few words of comfort in Spanish to a grieving widow he was interviewing. Owing to his poor pronunciation, his actual message was
"don't feel bad [about your dead husband],
I have no penis."14
Communications in another country can be awkward or erroneous, adding to the success or failure of an important peacekeeping mission. UN interpreters provide a communications bridge between the warring parties that allow progress towards peace arrangements. Interpreters for UN Military Observers (UNMO) play a vital role in this process under dangerous, ever-changing conditions that require interpreting skills as well as personal qualities of courage and persuasion. They form a unique team with the unarmed military officers with whom they work.
Maintaining high standards in the identification and selection of translators and interpreters is they key to guaranteeing the professional expertise of the staff and their respect for professional ethics with a view to increasing the efficiency and security of the process.
The primary prerequisites for a successful locally engaged language assistant are language proficiency, competency, and unbiased attitude. Clearly, the candidate must be bilingual in source and target languages. An oral selection process is essential for proper assessment of the general knowledge and aptitude for interpretation of prospective candidates. Secondly, it is necessary that the candidate be competent in that they can work quickly and accurately. The third factor, finding locally engaged candidates who do not hold major biases that will affect the quality of interpretation is crucial, but may be the most difficult.
Many locally engaged staff are undergoing traumatic experiences, either directly or indirectly. Persecution, torture, violence, the terrors and hardships of flight and exile are fairly common and may leave psychological scars and problems in their wake, which may be reflected in family difficulties or in increased stress levels.15 It is vital that all agents of the peace and relief missions, including the locally engaged translators, appear to be unbiased. In one case, the UN narrowly averted using an interpreter on an important land claim negotiation where his family was one of the litigants.16
The interpreters who have worked for the United Nations Protection Forces I and II (UNPROFOR) in the former Yugoslavia from 1992 to the present,17 for example, are classified as "language assistants," and treated as local staff. This means that they are individual contractors, employed under Special Service Agreements. The language assistants are graded between GSL-2 and GSL-5 depending on their previous work experience.18 As locally-engaged staff, interpreters generally have some formal education but no formal training as interpreters or translators.
When you are conducting negotiations, an interpreter can be one of your key assets. The intelligence, personality, and street smarts of an interpreter can be crucial in helping you convey your point across linguistic and cultural barriers. The interpreter is your local specialist in public relations. An interpreter can give you suggestions on the best way to proceed with a person from a different cultural background, and may notice nuances that would otherwise be overlooked.19
During the discussions the bilingual, bicultural experts help navigate linguistic and cultural nuances. After all, interpreting is not a matter of substituting the words of one language with those of another - it is a skill of conveying messages, with their unspoken assumptions, presuppositions, and subtle emphasis.
Meetings are often of a highly complex nature, whether they deal with political, military or technical subjects, and things are often made worse by the faltering pronunciation or syntax of non-native speakers of English or French. Keeping abreast of political and military developments in both languages is essential.
When working with non-professional interpreters during such missions, there is a personal risk of reprisals and the added stress of working in danger zones. In addition, the risk of the following issues damaging your credibility is heightened: political abd ideological beliefs, religious convictions, motivation or involvement and confidentiality. In the field, for example, the translator's notes often contain sensitive information. In one case, a UN negotiator's journal containing the notes on several ongoing field negotiations between Bosnians and Serbs was confiscated at a checkpoint.
It is vital to remember the safety of your interpreter as, in most cases the locally-engaged language assistant doesn't leave the field when you do. In Bosnia, interpreters were subject to threats, intimidation, and reprisals against themselves or family members. Ambassador Holbrook said in 1996 about Bosnia that,
"You have to match your method to the moment
and your style to the substance and the
situation. And in this negotiation, dealing
with people who are liars and in some cases
killers, dealing with people who are desperate,
dealing with traditions, you have to get very
One key military negotiator in the former Yugoslavia, for example, was a psychopath who was known for putting his enemies through a sawmill. He was generally drunk, unwashed, foul-mouthed and enjoyed discussing the rape squads and ethnic cleansing techniques.20 Dealing with this negotiator was particularly demoralizing for UN workers who had frequently risked their own lives to arrange for the belligerents' safe passage through the battle lines.
After peacekeepers are gone, the authorities will likely debrief locally engaged staff. As a result, it is vital to ensure the locally-engaged staff's safety and to refrain from discussing confidential information within their range. At minimum, the interpreter should be guaranteed security while on duty.
Part III Application in the Canadian Context
The Canadian Forces have made gains in improving communication through development programs, awareness training, and skill-building training. For example, to mitigate the likelihood of miscommunication between Canadian Force recruiters and Aboriginal people, Canadian Forces members were made aware of the cultural significance of the use of silence and reticence, humor, consensus, deference to elders, and the importance of avoiding "hot" vocabulary and images.21
I recommend training for Canadian Force members in general and peacekeepers in particular on strategies and techniques to employ communication tools effectively (presentation support materials, telephone, voice mail, e-mail, and technical writing) with a view to improving the clarity and conciseness of the message.
Secondly, I recommend implementing communication standards in order to avoid offending any of the recipients through the proper use of terms, awareness of cultural differences and avoidance of "hot" vocabulary and images with a view to building better relationships and improving international communication.
The third recommendation would be to provide training programs, awareness training, and skill-building training to all staff with a view to improving communication, whether or not it is directly related to a staff member's current position (i.e., literacy training, Toastmasters, and language training including indigenous languages).
Peacekeepers would benefit from training in cultural awareness that offers exposure to a broad range of the customs and practices of other countries.22 In addition to training in the basics of other cultures-social customs, I recommend training in gift-giving practices, social and business dress, religious practices and holidays, dining and shopping, schooling and banking, and more subtle cultural differences, such as forms of discourse, basic values, ethical beliefs, and the "rites and rituals" of a country. This cultural information would provide peacekeepers with a sound, basic understanding of all of the nuances of dealing with their counterparts in other countries and respecting those customs and practices.
I recommend that mission staff encourage interpreters to read as much and as widely as possible in English or French and the host language. Newspaper and magazine articles about crimes, court cases, and the criminal justice system are recommended. It is wise to obtain periodicals directly from the mission countries rather than reading the ones published in Canada, since their style is heavily influenced by English or French. Foreign periodicals are generally available at international bookstores in major cities. It is also recommended that language assistants take every opportunity to speak their host language and English or French in a wide variety of settings.
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