The gift of gab!

Best interpreters will not only translate text of the speech but also convey mood and intonation

Khalid Saleem January 21, 2019
The writer is a former ambassador of Pakistan and ex-assistant secretary general of OIC

Not surprisingly, this blessed planet of ours continues to be in a state of sixes and sevens. As one looks at images of the devastated landscape of the once hustling, bustling lands that are flashed across the TV screens, the one thought that comes readily to mind is that the UN has not exactly covered itself with glory, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding.

To be fair though, the UN — with all its faults — is not entirely devoid of good points. To take just one aspect, those of us who have had the privilege of sitting through one of those tense confrontations that erupt every now and then in the UN’s ancillary bodies, cannot but have come away with anything but praise for the dedicated band of interpreters that service the world body.

The best of these interpreters will not only translate the text of the speech but also faithfully convey the mood and intonation of the delegate taking the floor. This ensures that the atmospherics are not lost in translation.

The year was 1977 and the occasion the annual session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, in Geneva. The US delegate had managed to ruffle the feathers of the Soviet Union’s representative by playing up the sensitive issue of the detention of some dissidents in the USSR.

The Soviet Union’s representative happened to be one of the last of the great breed of diplomats of the era, Valerian Zorin. Mr Zorin took the floor and carried all before him.

He spoke in Russian, of course, but the interpreter matched his oratory — not just the language but also the flair. One was left with the eerie feeling that one had listened to his intervention in original.

Such is the power of a good interpreter, and the UN could boast of quite a few! Call it what you will, it is the urge to talk — or the absence thereof — that sets various world communities apart.

A former Japanese ambassador to Pakistan disclosed once that two or more Japanese could spend hours together without uttering a word, unless there was something worthwhile to talk about. Idle gossip, it would appear, is not the forte of the Japanese. This said, it is also a fact that some of Japan’s neighbouring nations have no such qualms about small talk.

So, one can hardly pin it down on regional or climatic cultural trait. In the good old days, to take another instance, the English race had a wellearned reputation for aloofness. So much so that it was reputed that two Englishmen (or women) would not exchange a word unless and until they had first been properly introduced.

In other words, presence of a third party was a prerequisite to getting a conversation going. Not any third party, mind you, but one well-acquainted with both the parties of the first order.

Across the channel, though, there were no such inhibitions! Talk of BREXIT! A cursory glance at the idiosyncrasies peculiar to different nations may be in order at this stage. Some peoples are mild and soft-spoken; others are rough and gruff. Still others (the French, for one) convey as much through their hand gestures as their tongues.

Different peoples express the same things in entirely different fashions. Then, there are those — particularly in the Far East for instance — who would go to ridiculous lengths to avoid having to saying ‘no’; even when they mean it.

Reminds one of what a senior minister of Indonesia once remarked off the record, when reminded that his countrymen were just too polite to say ‘no’. He explained, “My advice to you would be to take great care. We have 17 different ways of saying ‘yes’; nine of them mean ‘no’!” The aforementioned all goes to underline the truism that international communication is not as simple as a layman would be led to believe.

The mere services of an interpreter, however efficient, still may not suffice. Several diverse variables enter the fray, thus complicating issues even before one is in a position to arrive at a definitive opinion. Gives one food for thought that; does it not?

Published in The Express Tribune, January 21st, 2019.

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