The Role of Interpreting in Difficult International Negotiations

This month we are publishing Essays on Conference Interpreting by James Nolan. In this post the author explains the role of interpreting in difficult international negotiations.

Commonalities and Groups

Negotiating difficulty stems from adversarial positions between two countries or from distances between them in the global geopolitical arena that make it hard to bridge the communication gap.

Although bilateral treaties still serve their purpose, diplomatic relations are increasingly multilateral, channeled in multiple languages through contacts in diverse forums, encompassing far-reaching global issues and broad areas of common ground. In conferences dealing with many areas of knowledge, trade, science, industry or culture, diverse nations often adopt similar public positions and countries align themselves in categories according to geographical and economic realities, regional affinities or shared negotiating postures.

Countries may form coalitions based on similar interests, shared cultural and linguistic origins, similar circumstances, shared perspectives on common problems, or strategic alliances. Even on vital national security interests and problems as daunting as global climate change or pandemics, consensus positions are often possible and compromise solutions often temper sovereignty. The contents of public statements made in debate at global conferences cut across cultural, political, geographic and linguistic lines, and deliberations focused on existential threats, such as climate change, have revealed a vast area of common ground which, by its urgency, eclipses many individual differences in national negotiating postures, as failure to address such threats could imply futility for all other issues and efforts.

The interpreter’s role differs significantly when interpreting in a bilingual setting, be it in a bilateral encounter or legal dispute, or when interpreting into two target languages. In a one-on-one conversation the parties may be sharing the same stage but pursuing divergent aims that shape the public postures they adopt and their expectations of how interpreters should perform. The interpreter is occupationally vulnerable to counter-pressures from his two clients. No matter what he does, one party is apt to be displeased. Accordingly, in many bilateral encounters each party provides its own interpreter, placing each interpreter in a less ambivalent position and reducing role strain.

Identifying with the Principal

When making a speech or argument to an international audience, speakers customarily address the chairperson or presiding officer of the conference, invoking general principles that set the scene and strengthen the argument, and the speech generally embodies a point of view that is in some measure regional or global. For the interpreter, giving a convincing rendition of this type of speech means adopting an impartial attitude while also knowing how to identify with the principal sufficiently to make the interpretation performance effective in terms of advocacy.

James Nolan

j.nolan@aiic.net

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like English for Diplomatic Purposes edited by Patricia Friedrich. 

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