The Politics of Language: The Best Interpreters Facilitate Diplomacy
Even the most multilingual heads of state and politicians utilize conference interpreters in important meetings and crucial events. They know when it comes to the fragile, silken threads that often bind international diplomacy on all fronts – political, professional and humanitarian – precise words are essential to fluid communication. This respect for language and its effect on relationships is even more critical in nations where more than one – or many – languages are spoken within the same borders.
In our current climate of political and even ethical polarization – in our own government as well as the realm of foreign affairs – accurate, precise, and nuanced language has never been more important. Thus, it’s worth taking time to ponder the importance of language of politics, and how it connects the people of a nation – and the world – to their personal, political experience. And in this regard, the role of the interpreters is paramount, as they often hold the outcome of negotiations in the words they choose and are bound by professional secrecy, confidentiality and code of ethics, as highlighted recently in one of the latest political and diplomatic scandals.
What is the “official” language of politics?
Is English the official language of politics? And, if so, what is the overall outcome of that? Comfortably sitting in the 21st century, it is easy to defend the need for an official international language, and why that language should be English. And while French used to be the language of diplomacy par excellence until recently, some argue that it will once again become the most commonly spoken language in the world, tripling to 750 million speakers by 2050, accounting for 8% of the world’s population compared to only 3% for English. This, however, is due to hundreds of years of British and French colonial rule over nations that deserved to be sovereign and the global political and economic continuing ramifications of that colonization.
As renowned social scientist Atle Hetland writes in The Nation, arguably all competent linguists “would also suggest that the accuracy, hence the scientific precision, would be higher if one used one’s mother tongue.” In other words, all languages matter.
While we can all agree that having some degree of language commonality makes sense in the general global arena, it’s also clear that eradicating the ability for global heads of state, or anyone involved in business or foreign affairs, to speak in their native language would be a grave mistake. It is essential that important political and global figures have the ability to express their thoughts and ideas as comfortably and fluidly as possible, and it is equally important that the target audience has the ability to receive the words accurately and comfortably in their own language. The potential for harmful lack of accuracy, and Hetland’s remarked “scientific precision,” (or any precision for that matter), poses too great a risk when we strip away the importance of one’s native tongue from the sensitive, delicate and powerful world of global politics.
Heads of state should become familiar with foreign languages
In this incredibly shrinking world of ours, it makes sense for heads of state in powerful countries to become familiar with other languages, if not passably proficient in at least one (perhaps Spanish or French for U.S. heads of state that share borders with Mexico and Canada). There are several reasons for this beyond the cultural nicety of showing you care. The more you learn to read, write and speak a foreign language, the more you learn about your own, understand its intricacies and potentially become a better writer, reader, and speaker in your own native tongue.
While a conference interpreter is prepared to do the lion’s share of the work, anyone familiar with foreign languages is better able to negotiate a multilingual situation, especially if technical glitches or unforeseen circumstances occur.
Does the adoption of “official” languages eradicate indigenous counterparts?
The very unfortunate reality is that along with the progress of globalization has come the diminishment and disappearance of indigenous and colloquial languages around the world. According to UNESCO, 230 world languages became extinct between the years 1950 and 2010, and as of 2018, one-third of the world’s languages have only 1,000 active speakers.
The obvious downfall for any society that doesn’t support the life of all its languages is that the voices of the minority, those most frequently subjugated, are erased from the social and political landscape. That is never good for humanity. And, of course, as language disappears, so does one’s culture and ability to express oneself at the most personal level. Linguists are painfully aware of this as we know countless, precious words that represent certain emotions, feelings and experiences exist in one language – but not another.
A simple example: in German the word heimat means home or homeland, and as such, it is an important word of diplomacy – but it also means something more profound than that. A German speaker using the word heimat is also referring to a sense of longing, belonging, and familiarity. This nuance is integral to the full, accurate expression of the sentence and a consecutive interpreter must find a way to harness that feeling and meaning in the target audience’s language. Extrapolate this idea into the international and political arenas, and you can easily see how important it is that we preserve every nuance possible that facilitates accurate, honest and genuine communication between world leaders – and that we support the use of ethical and professional, native-speaking interpreters to support that effort.
Are you interested in working with consecutive interpreters who are not only superbly qualified to attend political events – including G-8/G-20 summits, and presidential and ministerial meetings – but who also care very deeply that your message lands with expressive precision and accuracy? Contact us here at Chang-Castillo and Associates.