Humanitarian interpreting in action © Anyuli Gonzales

Interpreting unlocked
Lucía Ruiz Rosendo offers insights into the world of humanitarian interpreting
1 Jun 2024

Lucía Ruiz Rosendo’s main line of research is interpreting in conflict zones and the history of interpreting, with a particular focus on armed conflicts. She has recently co-edited Interpreting Conflict. A Comparative Framework (Palgrave 2021), Interpreter Training in Conflict and Post-conflict Situations (Routledge 2022) and Towards an Atlas of the History of Interpreting: Voices from around the World (John Benjamins, 2023). Her research has appeared in a range of volumes and journals in the fields of translation, peace and conflict studies and social military history. She is the coordinator of various courses for training interpreters in the field, such as the course run jointly between the FTI and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In 2019, she co-organized a joint course with UNOG to train interpreters who are deployed to field missions. Lucía is an Associate Professor at the University of Geneva’s Faculty of Translation and Interpreting (FTI), where she is the Director of the Interpreting Department. She is also a conference interpreter for the international organizations based in Switzerland and an active AIIC member. We spoke to Lucía about her research and experience in humanitarian interpreting.

What is the difference between a conference interpreter and a humanitarian interpreter?

Interpreting is defined as the practice of conveying the meaning of a speaker’s message orally in another language to listeners who would not otherwise understand it. Conference interpreting, specifically, is carried out at multilingual meetings between different actors and it usually takes place in a booth (simultaneous interpreting). The environment is usually safe, the interpreter’s tasks are clear and well delimited, the schedule is known in advance and it is more predictable than in the field.

In humanitarian settings, however, even though the interpreter’s role is also to be the linguistic bridge between parties, the tasks are not so well defined. It is often the case that the cultural component is much stronger, and the workplace can be dangerous. Furthermore, there are myriad challenges and implications of working with organizations, authorities and/or the various militaries or armed groups that are involved in a humanitarian crisis. The profile of interpreters in this context is very different to that of conference interpreters, the latter having received specific training in conference interpreting.

Humanitarian interpreters have seldom received this training in interpreting. They are usually people who end up interpreting, rather than qualified interpreters who happen to work in conflict settings. They are not hired because they have received interpreter training, but because they speak the relevant languages and belong to the relevant cultures. As a consequence, they hold substantive cultural knowledge, which is especially important for humanitarian organizations. As a matter of fact, they perform tasks that fall under cultural mediation, and the line that separates the role of interpreters and cultural mediators in humanitarian contexts is blurred.

The lack of training entails potential quality issues and has an impact on the interpreter’s status, the delimitation of tasks, and the setting of boundaries. The latter aspect is related to the fact that many humanitarian interpreters belong to the community in conflict. Additionally, some of the interpreters who work with refugees are refugees themselves. This has major ethical implications, principally in terms of impartiality, neutrality, and accuracy. These implications gain increased relevance if we consider how dangerous communication flaws can be in these sensitive settings. 

Another consequence of the lack of prior interpreter training is that humanitarian interpreters have not necessarily acquired the skills needed to interpret, and their role as interpreters is usually contingent on their role as legitimate peripheral participants in the humanitarian sphere. Instead of working as interpreters prior to their recruitment by the humanitarian organization, they became interpreters precisely because they had been recruited as such by the organization. They have first-hand experience, in that some of them have been interpreting for many years and have broad field experience; what they lack is the narrative underlying some interpreting practices, roles and strategies. This being said, humanitarian actors believe that interpreters have a big impact on the way they and their humanitarian organization are perceived, and are therefore an important source of legitimacy.

© Lucía Ruiz Rosendo

What kind of specific training is needed for humanitarian interpreters?

The overarching aim of any training for humanitarian interpreters should be to develop interpreters’ skills by confronting them with situations that they are likely to encounter in the field. More specifically, the objective should be to broaden their understanding of different communication scenarios and their implications for the interpreter; acquire strategies to deal with these scenarios; analyze situations from an ethical perspective; and develop coping strategies to be deployed before, during, and after the encounter/meeting. Given the specific nature of the humanitarian field, interpreters should also be taught about humanitarian principles and values. Therefore, interpreters should initially be taught by humanitarian actors to become aware of the structure, organization, challenges and needs of humanitarian missions. This training should cover how to plan a mission strategically; how to conduct context analyses and network assessments; and how to analyze the interests and motives of the different actors involved.

In the second stage, training should focus on interpreting skills: consecutive interpreting and note-taking; ethical implications; preparation and documentation; intercultural communication; and psychological and emotional implications. The ultimate goal is to make interpreters aware of their role within the team, to build trust with the humanitarian actors, and to make decisions under pressure when interpreting. Since experience is essential in this context, it is crucial that interpreters are confronted with realistic case scenarios and simulation exercises.

Working as a humanitarian interpreter might cause mental health issues such as psychological distress, post-traumatic reactions and negative emotions. How can humanitarian interpreters be better prepared to protect their mental health?

Crises and conflicts are inherently psychological: they have an impact on societies’ beliefs and reactions towards conflict-related scenarios and events. In fact, civilians who live in societies ravaged by conflict are subjected to severe negative experiences and are surrounded by negative messages which influence the way they appraise the conflict. This can give rise to intense emotions. Since many interpreters working for humanitarian organizations are civilians who are recruited locally, they have absorbed the narratives surrounding the conflict, which may have an impact on how they view it, comprehend the world, and react to different events. Even interpreters who have not been exposed to conflict events and narratives before being recruited to work in conflict-related scenarios are constantly exposed to complex and intense situations when they work in these unpredictable and sometimes unsafe settings. They face ethical dilemmas that constitute a source of stress, in that they are constantly managing the mismatch between their theoretical ethical obligations and the limited resources at their disposal to meet them. Other sources of stress are the frustration and inadequacy that they might feel when realizing that human needs outstrip available resources and the risks associated with their work. Moreover, interpreters are not mere observers: they become directly involved in the process of facilitating communication. When interpreting, they ‘own’ the interlocutors’ stories and societal beliefs, in the sense that they usually recount these using the first person.

The first thing to do to help interpreters cope with these intense emotions is for them to be aware that they exist and to be able to regularly appraise them. As such, it is important that interpreters do not forget why they are there: to give voice to vulnerable populations, to people who, without them, could not communicate with the humanitarian actors. It is also good to maintain a certain distance from the story and the person conveying it, which does not imply a lack of empathy. Sharing stories with members of the team, as well as employing coping strategies, is also a very healthy activity to overcome feelings of distress and trauma.

With advances in AI, some tend to believe that the interpreter’s job might change. Do you see machine interpretation replacing humanitarian interpreters?

We do not know what the future will bring. Overall, AI, as it stands today, cannot replace human interpreters. In encounters where there are political sensitivities, nuances and off-the-cuff interventions or negotiations, I do not think AI can take the place of interpreters. This is what happens in humanitarian settings and in off-the-cuff conversations between the beneficiaries and the humanitarian actors. I doubt AI will ever be able to read body language, cues, eye contact, cultural nuances and the unsaid. Furthermore, beneficiaries need human interpreters to convey their stories, human beings who can understand the cultural aspects and linguistic nuances, and who can convey not only words but also emotions. 

* Prisca Chaoui is the Editor-in-chief of UN Today.
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