How To Speak Effectively Through Interpretation

Interpretation students (University of Bath, United Kingdom)

NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts on “the how” of public diplomacy.   This post is about simultaneous interpretation in a formal setting.  Many people working in the field – in combat or development environments – rely on interpreters (sometimes called “terps,” and usually indigenous personnel, although some are not) as well.  You can find advice for operating with interpreters in those environments, which I found both interesting and useful, here.  Those participating in religious missions have posted similar advice. I’ve read all of this and think it’s worth adapting to the formal setting as well.

If you work at the international or multilateral level in business, diplomacy or academia, at some point you are going to have to speak through interpretation. You will never speak every language and not everyone will speak yours.  Most multilateral organizations provide interpretation for their formal meetings: NATO, the OECD and the European Union provide interpretation into French and English, the United Nations into English, French, Arabic, Russian and Mandarin.  Other regional organizations, such as the OAS, the AU, and the OSCE, with their exotic political permutations, provide equally interesting language interpretation.

I love interpreters and found the NATO interpreters among the most interesting, intelligent, personable and witty professionals I met while working in Brussels.  Speaking through these skilled professionals to foreign, skeptical, and occasionally hostile audiences made every difference in being understood.  So getting to know the interpretation staff taught me a few things I would never have otherwise known about this highly selective, brilliantly trained, and absurdly underappreciated art in diplomatic tradecraft. (If that’s not clear enough a dedication, I’ll state it here: this post is for my friends on the NATO interpretation staff and the many interpretation students I worked with while in Brussels!)

First, a few things to clarify. Interpreters work with the spoken word. They are distinguished from translators who work with texts. You will only speak to a translator at a cocktail party. (At NATO, and I presume at the European Union, translators and interpreters worked in the same section.)  Nobody “translates” spoken language, it is “interpreted”.  (I also knew writers and public diplomacy officers at NATO who worked in several languages but were not interpreters or translators, and for them I had an especially unique respect.)

There are, generally, two forms of interpretation. Most commonly seen by the public is consecutive interpretation – that’s the man or woman hovering around the President and Prime Minister, interpreting large blocks of spoken word uttered one at time in sequence between the two principals.  More commonly heard by the public is simultaneous interpretation – what they’re more likely to hear on television or the radio during the live broadcast of a foreign speech, for example.

Simultaneous interpretation is what makes large international and multilateral meetings among people speaking different languages possible. Interpreters, most often listening in on microphones, interpret the words spoken by individuals, as they are speaking, into another language, which the others in the audience listen to on headsets. It is something to watch and even more amazing to listen to if you happen to speak two of the languages being interpreted.

But this is an art.  The interpreters are highly trained and are constantly improving. And they confront in us – the often oblivious speaker – a daunting array of linguistic challenges: a machine-gun or molasses speaking pace, incomprehensible accents and regional dialects, down-home idioms and mixed metaphors. And so on.

I was surprised and thrilled to learn from the NATO interpreters that they did not consider themselves passive observers of events but more like aides to a process (they wouldn’t go so far to say active participants of course).  So to borrow a phrase, I am writing this to help you help them help you.  Here’s what I learned mostly from them but also from extensive practice speaking through interpretation in about a half-dozen languages (including relay interpretation):

Rule #1: Talk to Your Interpreter. Professional interpreters are usually native bilingual, highly trained, with years of experience interpreting on a wide array of subjects.  In many cases, interpreters are also subject-matter experts.  At NATO, the translation and interpretation section had compiled a dictionary-sized French-English lexicon dedicated to NATO-related procedure, jargon and acronyms, which most of my colleagues had committed to memory.  Now imagine that kind of expertise applied to the war crimes tribunals, ASEAN, the World Trade Organization, the IAEA, the OSCE, or the subject matter granddaddy of them all, the United Nations.  Meeting interpreters is kind of like encountering two brains.

Rule #2: TALK TO YOUR INTERPRETER.  Actually, I can’t emphasize this enough.  Those are sound-proof, not bullet-proof, cabins they’re in, and interpreters are not furniture.  They are fonts of knowledge and the critical fulcrum on which pivots your ability to communicate successfully with a foreign and possibly unfriendly audience.  You can and should talk to them in advance. My experience has been that they are usually delighted to meet speakers.  Tell them what you are talking about, how long you plan to speak, and whether you plan to take questions and answers. The more information you can provide them, the better. Ask them what they need to interpret you.  Ask them about the language they are interpreting, if there are any linguistic quirks that they think you should know.  For example, German famously places verbs last in sentences, which usually delays interpretation to and from English.  Georgian, I learned, has an ancient and complex grammatical construction that usually requires “packing” into English and “unpacking” English into Georgian – demanding feats of mental gymnastics from the interpreters.  No wonder there are always two of them on hand!

Rule #3: It’s preferable to speak normally and well-prepared but NOT from a text.  This was a surprise to me.  But when we speak extemporaneously we are repetitive and iterative, using the same phrases and vocabulary again and again.  Interpreters pick up on these patterns very quickly and it helps them anticipate the speaker’s intent.  A text, by contrast, is comparatively rigid and linear in thought, construction and vocabulary and is much more difficult to interpret from speech alone (see Rule #4 below).  As for “normal speech,” I was always told I spoke too fast, and I suppose I still do.  At the same time I was told NOT to speak too slowly, either, because it’s often hard to follow a person’s train of thought when they don’t speak at a normal pace (there’s a spooky element to this art that makes really good interpreters seem almost like mind-readers).

Rule #4: If you have to use a text or PowerPoint presentation, provide it to your interpreter in advance.  This relates to Rule #3.  If you are required to use a text or (God protect us) PowerPoint – especially if you have a hard time speaking publicly or need to be precise in your language – provide all of it to the interpreters and if possible walk them through the text and the presentation and indicate where you might deviate and what you might digress about.

Rule #5: No sports metaphors.  The rest of the world does not play baseball and football, and metaphors like “switch-hitting,” “the whole nine yards,” “batting cleanup,” “fourth and goal” and the rest will likely go uninterpreted or worse, precisely and literally translated into absolute jibberish.  Don’t worry, Americans are not the only ones guilty of this: the British are so notorious for flinging around incomprehensible cricket terms, I’ve been told, that entire classes at interpretation and translation schools are available for students to learn them.

Rule #6:  Avoid colorful metaphors and idiomatic expressions to speak as clearly and literally as possible.  Interpreters are exceptional professionals who are constantly trolling their languages for exotic idioms, but there will always be a few that catch them by surprise – which means you may not be able to transmit a point across the language frontier.  I happily and deliberately stumped an entire group of interpreter applicants at NATO sitting for a board exam with the phrase “political pinball.”  A famous, if apocryphal, story has Billy Joel concluding one of his first concerts in the former Soviet Union just after the collapse of Communism by exhorting the crowd, “Don’t take shit from anyone!” This was interpreted to the perplexed audience as “If someone offers you excrement, refuse!”

Rule #7: Avoid acronyms and jargon.  Depending on your audience and the situation, try to purge your language of acronyms and jargon.  Not everyone will know what you’re talking about when you say SACEUR and SECDEF flew MILAIR to KAIA, rode MRAPs to ISAFHQ where they met COMISAF, UNAMA reps and NGOs.  If you have to use this kind of shorthand – in some circumstances you simply can’t avoid it – brief the interpreters in advance.  I usually try to apply the Associated Press rule: it your acronyms are not commonly understood (e.g., UN, NATO), spell them out on first reference (World Trade Organization, United States Trade Representative), label them (WTO, USTR), and then use the acronym after that.  Be very much aware of jargon that may be common to you but not understood by the general public, or may be translated unclearly to your audience.  All the more reason to talk to your interpreter in advance (see Rule #1 and Rule #2).

Rule #8:  At the end, thank your interpreters on the hot mike for everyone to hear in both languages. They know more than you do.  In fact, if they’re not completely exhausted, chat them up afterwards and ask them for tips on how you can improve for the next time.

During the session, you can speak to your interpreter over the mike, for example by asking them to clarify a statement or asking for the previous speaker to repeat what they said.  (Don’t ask for an “explanation” or linguistic disquisition!)  Help your interpreter out by being aware of both what is said and what is not said and by keeping an eye on the glass – interpreters will cue you if the microphone is not hot by knocking on the window, for example.

Particularly for English speakers, it is easy to swim in a wide language sea at a suitable temperature. But there are still nearly 7,000 distinct spoken languages in the world.  Even possibly the most linguistically gifted man in the world speaks only 11 of them.  Others have claimed to know five times as many, but that’s still a fraction of the whole earth. If you want to speak to rest of the world, you’re going to have to lean on somebody.


Confining and Defining Terrorism in Syria

Syrian refugees in Turkey (

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently declared Syria a “terrorist state” while the country has hosted a crush of refugees fleeing regime persecution across the two countries’ shared 556-mile border.

Turkey is a powerful and influential country in a volatile region, and this sounds like tough rhetoric regarding an intransigent and repressive neighbor. For many observers, this was precisely the kind of language needed to pressure the regime of Bashar al-Assad to change course or relinquish control to the opposition and end the most violent uprising of the Arab Spring.

Indeed, there is a stream of thought that firmly believes that “terrorism is terrorism” whether committed by state or non-state actors. The notion of equivalence focuses on the victims — usually civilians — and the particular horror inflicted by armed violence.  The United States (and its allies) are regularly if frivilously accused of “terrorism” by those on the left. More sophisticated commentators, such as my fellow observer at Foreign Policy Remi Brulin, apply a post-modern argument to the application of “terrorism”. In essence, he argues that “terrorism” has been entirely stripped of any real or intrinsic meaning and therefore serves almost entirely as a political weapon: label your enemy as a “terrorist,” and you win.  (This is most easily seen by Assad’s regime, who regularly blames state massacres on “terrorists”.)

I am entirely unsympathetic to this argument because it does not reflect the real world, nor is this the world we want to live in. We want to live in a world where violence does not solve our political conflicts. Even when force is required or necessary, we want force to be controlled by the rule of law of states.  To throw up our hands under the belief that anyone or any thing can be a terrorist ignores reality, international law, and state law.

Terrorism, as defined by U.S. law, confines the crime to an individual committing acts of violence in order to change policy. It is important to note, of course, that terrorism is limited to the individual and its political component: terrorism is a political crime. But that is why terrorism is and should be seriously condemned. Particularly in a democracy, the means for political change are readily available to the individual. Violence for the purpose of political change is not acceptable.  (I admit I was annoyed that the “War on Terror” never was articulated in clear moral terms, as antithetical to democracy and the international state system.)

We may have an honest difference of opinion and ideals when it comes to the appropriate and legitimate use of force for political change at the state level.  But this is where I believe the equivalence of state and individual terrorism is both false and unhelpful.  Because both state and international law provide a cause of action for the inappropriate and illegitimate use of force.  War crimes, aggression, crimes against humanity, rape and genocide are each a cause of action in international law.  For the individual — mostly murder, assault, rape and other similar crimes — are all punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the criminal and military codes of states.  It is entirely appropriate to label these crimes as such when they arise: labeling a state a terrorist or an individual unaffiliated with a state a war criminal is not just confusing, it is simply bad law.

It is true that terrorism has not been specifically defined under international law (certain arguments notwithstanding) and that does have much to do with the political wranglings that Brulin discusses (the canard that one country’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter,” etc.). But this illuminates the fuzziness of Erdogan’s statement about Syria.  A “terrorist state,” under current law — state and international — is no terrorist at all. Erdogan’s characterization, while sharp, invokes no cause of action under international or Turkish law and demands nothing of Erdogan, his neighbors or his allies. It changes nothing.

This is important for reasons I have outlined before: international law is entirely dependent on the political will of the international community for enforcement actions.  Had Erdogan accused the Assad regime of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, he would have invoked the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.  This would have put the UN Security Council on the hook to enforce the ICC founding statute. Turkey’s political capital is substantial, but not substantial enough under these circumstances in effect to bring the UN to the brink of war in Syria. (And Assad is not so stupid as to attack outright Turkey, a NATO ally that can invoke the collective defensive provisions that would bring down the might of the Western democracies that deposed Muammar Gaddafi.)

In short, this argument demonstrates the importance of a precise and legal definition of terrorism — and a precise and legal discussion of terrorism.  We could all agree and nod sagely and cynically with Remi Brulin and his postmodern compatriots that Erdogan called a spade a Kalashnikov, but it does absolutely nothing to change the situation for tens of thousands of refugees, the Free Syrian Army, or the millions of average Syrians caught between a brutal and repressive state and the opposition trying desperately to change the country.  Only the actions of states and individuals — by law, ideals or interest — will bring that about.


Justice or Politics?

Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, indicted Serbian war criminals, in the early 1990s. (Reuters)

The Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff has written extensively and profoundly on law, politics and policy during an extraordinary career that has taken him from Toronto and British Columbia to Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard to the leadership of Liberal Party. His corpus includes more than a dozen books and scores of articles.

He remains one of the most active and engaged North American public intellectuals of our time and possibly that most rare and courageous one who crosses over from thinking about politics to engaging in politics. Rarer still for a political man, he continues to think while he acts. Famously, he wrote about second thoughts supporting the Iraq War, a nuanced mea culpa exploring the nature of political judgment. And more recently, he reviewed All the Missing Souls by David Scheffer, a diplomatic memoir of sorts about the development of the war crimes tribunals during the 1990s.

I want to take measured exception to Ignatieff’s and Scheffer’s approach to the war crimes tribunals, which I see as representing the consensus view of international law as embodied by these international courts.  Scheffer, who served as special envoy for war crimes in the Clinton Administration, was pivotal in creating the tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the International Criminal Court to investigate and punish perpetrators of heinous war crimes. Ignatieff was an early advocate for intervention in both those countries to end those crimes. Both condemn opponents in the Clinton and Bush administrations who want to exempt Americans — politicians and service personnel both — from the jurisdiction of the international courts. In Ignatieff’s words, this is true American “exceptionalism” — Americans are exceptionally exempt from the oversight of international law and  can act unilaterally and with impunity anywhere and against anyone as a result.

This is a seriously problematic argument from two perspectives.  First, the International Criminal Court was created expressly with a quasi-federal purpose in mind: in the event that a state is too weak or politically unwilling to find or punish war criminals, the ICC had the mandate (if not the means) to carry out justice on behalf of the victims. The special tribunal for Rwanda was similarly created for this end.  An analogy is the U.S. civil rights statutes enacted during the Civil Rights era to bring down federal investigators on recalcitrant local jurisdictions in the case of gross abuses of human rights. But these would only be invoked in the event that the local authorities abdicated their responsibility. No serious observer has alleged that during the wars of the last decade that the American judicial system has shirked its duty policing American servicemembers, and our political system has demonstrated extraordinary resilience at the same time.

But the more important argument to be made about these courts is political.  As my friend Pierre Hazan argued in his book Justice in a Time of War, the war crimes tribunals were wielded by Western leaders as a hammer during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. That is, the courts were a political tool — a weapon just as useful if not as destructive as a cruise missile — applied to resolve a political problem: the war.

The essentially political nature of these courts becomes more salient the more we realize that political conflicts become bound up with them.  The desire to place American servicemen under the ICC’s jurisdiction surely is proof enough of that, particularly as a result of the visceral hatred of President Bush’s policies in Iraq.  But another, less polarizing example is the war in Liberia and the peaceful transition to democratic rule becoming contingent on the surrender of the former president Charles Taylor to the Special Court in The Hague, or the European Union’s insistence that Serbia capture and surrender indicted war criminals on their territory in exchange for a favorable position in accession negotiations.

Moreover, the entire concept of transitional justice — with deep respect to my friend Pierre and the work of thousands on this issue in very difficult places — is inherently political. This is the notion that a court — a judicial body — should help achieve peace and stability by administering justice. These are not bad things, surely, but we must admit they are political and social goals rather than strictly legal objectives.  Only in the international arena are we willing to to allow a judicial body to execute a transparently political function.

To further this point: there is really no reason why Charles Taylor, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Leon Mugesera and the other cast of horribles could not be tried by modern courts in Western countries. This is perhaps the real scandal Ignatieff and Scheffer should be writing about.  But in many cases — Taylor and Karadzic come to mind — this would open up a series of unpleasant questions for the prosecution. Such as, if they were war criminals, why did the U.S. and Canadian governments have open political relations with them? Avoiding war crimes prosecutions at home becomes a political issue best resolved by “clean” international tribunals.

If we play through the implications of this question we recognize the uncomfortably political nature of the international courts. If we impose upon domestic courts the responsibility for prosecuting war crimes committed by foreign actors against populations abroad, we stretch our judicial systems into the exclusive domain of the executive and legislative. We already saw during the wars in the former Yugoslavia how awkward it was to negotiate the end of a war with a political leader under threat of international indictment.  More important is the recognition that extending domestic powers of indictment or investigation also requires policing powers, which abroad are exclusively military. That invokes executive powers, which are resolutely political for exceptionally good reasons.

An inverse approach to this problem involves the two men pictured at the top of this post. They were very recently arrested by Serbia and extradicted to The Hague and are now on trial for war crimes. Knowing their case as well as I do, I would like nothing better than to see them die in prison after conviction. If this is the preordained outcome — no one seriously doubts it, not even the Serb chauvinists who still support them — what real difference is there between that judicial outcome and the political equivalent of their death on the battlefield? After all, that’s effectively what Milosevic’s interminable trial achieved in The Hague.

It is important to remember we are not strictly limited to political or judicial means to achieve justice for these high crimes.  And it is important to know that justice means different things to different political cultures.  We forget that forgiveness, even amnesty, is important to justice.  (Hannah Arendt once wrote that forgiveness is a political act.) South Africa and Morocco have created truth and reconciliation commissions.  Or take the example of the Brasil: Nunca Mais, a South American samizdat commission that simply and suddenly exposed the former military regime’s human rights crimes.

I am not inclined to criticize Scheffer for his idealism and struggle against bureaucracy to create a rule of law to end war crimes. But I am suspicious of the peculiarly political aspect of these courts, and particularly of the unwillingness of international legal experts and scholars to admit and confront the paradox of their mission. Warfare is inherently political, so it will be difficult to separate the commission of crimes during war from their political context. In order for justice to be achieved in wartime, we have to be willing to admit that much.


War, Truth and Justice in the Balkans

As a law student studying in an appalling banlieue satellite campus of the University of Paris in 2000, I quite by accident stumbled across a book by Pierre Hazan on the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.  Published that year as La Justice Face à la Guerre, I instantly recognized it as the first significant history of the international court established to try war criminals from the conflict that tore apart the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

Since I was then studying international criminal law, I knew no such book existed in English. Filled with visions of glory — or at least knowing I had nothing to lose — I wrote Pierre in my middling French asking him if he would allow me to pitch a translation to American publishers.  To my astonishment and eternal gratitude he accepted.  During the next four years I worked feverishly on the translation, adding notations and photographs.  It was published in 2004 by Texas A&M University Press as Justice in a Time of War.  Pierre graciously and enterprisingly added an additional chapter about the trial of Slobodan Milosevic — his arrest and extradition to The Hague occurred after the French edition appeared — and eerily predicted Milosevic’s death in detention.  (For myself I saw Milosevic during his trial in The Hague while on a trip to The Netherlands in 2003, but witnessed nothing of his infamous histrionics.)

You can purchase Justice in a Time of War at (including Kindle format), where it remains a top seller on military justice and the former Yugoslavia.

Pierre is an accomplished war correspondent for Libèration in Paris and Le Temps in Geneva and has since expanded his reportage into scholarship on transitional justice and other issues at Harvard University, the U.S. Institute for Peace, and l’Institut d’etudes politique (Sciences Po) in Paris.  You can read more about him here.  He has since published additional works in French and in English, including his most recent, Judging War, Judging History.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has lasted longer than all of the wars in that benighted former federation combined. Fortunately the two worst war criminals are now in the dock — Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic — and with the last wanted suspects in custody the long mandate of the court will at last have an end date.  It also means that the independent nations of the Balkans will be able to reconcile and move towards prosperity and protection within the European Union and NATO.