Peace starts with language and mutual understanding.
The role of the diplomatic interpreter brings to mind the dragomans of yore active in the Mediterranean basin at the ports of the Levant and at the Sublime Porte. No meeting between two governments or private chat between presidents or prime ministers ever takes place without the presence of an interpreter. Heads of state and government and their ministers require diplomatic interpreters because languages play a crucial role in diplomatic relations.
Without our services, such a meeting or private chat would not exactly make history. The essence of our work, just as that of a translator, is to find an exact equivalent in the language of the listener. But interpretation is not just translation.
Interpretation: breathing life into diplomatic relations
Beyond just finding the right word, an interpreter is as much an actor as a lover of the dictionary. The interpreter must reproduce the phrasing, the intonation, and in short, convey the speaker’s intention. The interpreter’s tone will be neutral, serious, sombre, moving, happy, convincing, feisty or even explosive —essential information allowing the interpreter to remain faithful to the original intention— while breathing life and substance into political and diplomatic relations.
We belong to a special tribe that lives by the motto of French statesman Talleyrand: “Between being taken for a gossip-monger or being taken for a fool, I made up my mind a long time ago.” Yes, indeed, we prefer to be taken for fools rather than gossip-mongers. Excellence in our profession requires not just the faithful rendering of the original thought —which we call interpretation— but the utmost respect for discretion, a value which is not exactly prized in society today.
During my 20 years working in the field of Franco-Israeli diplomatic relations, my role has consisted of whispering Hebrew into a French ear and French into an Israeli ear. I try to attenuate what might come across as harsh and cutting tones of Hebrew for my French listener, while making intelligible the sometimes elaborate, convoluted French way of speaking for the Israeli. Above all, I want each to express their ideas fully and freely, without the danger of losing any shade of meaning, which is likely the case when speaking a foreign language.
Diplomatic interpreters: part of history in the making
A number of personalities stand out in the history of diplomatic interpretation.
One such individual who is no longer with us interpreted for several French presidents during diplomatic talks with Germany. He used to say, “I am a non-entity” and “a good interpreter is a necessary evil.”
It is paradoxical, but the interpreter has no active presence, no mood swings, and no point of view. At a pinch, he or she can whisper, “I believe that the speaker meant to say…..” into the ear of the listener when finding that language is introducing a bias into the conversation.
You will never read our memoirs, since we are bound by a rule of absolute professional secrecy. It is a constraint, for sure, but it is also what makes diplomatic interpretation so great, and sometimes lets us be a part of history in the making.