Archive for the Posts from Mesocosm Category

Spare a Thought for the Interpreter

Posted in NGO-Speak, Posts from Mesocosm on January 11, 2010 by theajnabee

Any journalist, businessman, NGO worker or academic working in a country where they don’t speak the local language will know that a good interpreter is worth their weight in gold.

As crucial as these individuals are to the functioning of any international mission, summit or news bureau, their contribution generally goes unnoticed. As this editorial from The Guardian puts it:

They are in almost every shot yet they pass unnoticed, discreet facilitators at the elbow of power, perpetual outsiders. They are on the soundtrack of the post-communiqué press conference, and the monotone accompaniment of the dreary images of international gatherings, voices threading mechanically through anger and joy alike. But these latter are lesser mortals than the hand-picked interpreters at the ear of every head of delegation making the round of economic, political and military summits, three of them to every world leader, rotating through long meetings, tense bilaterals and tedious dinners. They are charged with conveying not a mere translation but an understanding of the nuance of every exchange.

In a rare incidence of an interpreter actually making it into the by-lines, the man giving the simultaneous interpretation for Colonel Gaddafis rambling speech at the UN Summit in New York last month collapsed 75 minutes into the podium-hogging monologue, screaming ‘I can’t take it any more!’ Link here. Apparently the interpreter lost the strength to continue around the point at which Gaddafi embarked on his explanation of how the Israel-Palestine conflict could be solved by a single state called ‘Isratine’.

And this leads into my other point: interpreters must also subjected on occasion to a level crushing tedium that I suspect it would be difficult for ‘internationals’ like me to fully appreciate. ‘It’s the stupidest job in the world’ one ex-interpreter told me. For him, the daily ennui of translating the same banal, rambling and sometimes completely moronic interview questions became too much for him to bear, and he moved on to other things. It must be truly galling to hold two higher degrees, speak two South Asian languages and four dialects fluently and to spend most of the time using these to ask questions such as ‘where can you buy toilet paper round here?’

Being an interpreter, whether at international summits or out in ‘the field’ is a pretty thankless job at the best of times. Perhaps it’s time that the UN or news bureaus came up with an international ‘Interpreters’ Day’ on which these men and women can come out from the shadows and be publicly thanked for their contribution. But in the meantime I urge all those who use their services – no matter how bad your day is going, whether you are sitting up a mountain being lashed with rain or stuck in an interminable meeting in stuffy office – to spare a thought for your interpreter!

This post previously appeared on


Can We Talk Later? I’m ‘in the field?’

Posted in NGO-Speak, Posts from Mesocosm with tags on January 11, 2010 by theajnabee

Since coming to Nepal, I’ve realised that Nepali is not the only language that I will need to learn in order to live and work here. I also have to familiarise myself with the language of acronyms and buzz-words spoken in INGOs, multilateral agencies and diplomatic missions. After a few weeks of getting my BOGs’s and my TOR’s mixed up I feel like I’m now getting the hang of the lingo.

When I first started to use accronyms, NGO-speak and political jargon in my initial weeks here I felt a warm, fuzzy glow of professionalism and legitimacy. A protective coating of words, almost. For example, when I spoke to my family in London on the phone after being out of touch for a while I told them (on reflection, rather smugly) that I had been ‘in the field’, which would implicitly excuse my silence. The truth, that I had been in the Tarai, where there are plenty of call shops and even internet cafes, and that my only contact with a ‘field’ of any description was when our jeep broke down by the side of one, did not sound quite so glamorous – or indeed, as forgivable. And when I did speak to my family, I did not neglect to bombard them with words like ‘interlocutor’ and ‘implement’ (why do we love this verb so much?). My gran was initially confused, but ulimately was just relieved to hear that I was happy and well in my new home- and that I sounded like I’d actually got a real job.

But now the thrill of this new language is starting to wear off and I start to question what I actually mean when I speak it.

I was particularly struck by something that David Reiffer wrote in his critique of humanitarianism, A Bed for the Night, about this phrase ‘in the field’, in the same vane as the questions that have been arrising in my own mind over the past week on the issue of language.

‘What we have been pleased to call ‘the field’ – that strangely distancing, Boy-Scoutish term much beloved of journalists and aid workers, for what in reality are other people’s countries, tragedies, destinies’

This goes a long way to explaining why, when my mother (a manager at a British housing and homelessness NGO) does not refer to her trips to projects in such unexotic locations as Croydon and Hastings as ‘going to the field’. The ‘them and us’ separation can never be so clean when you work in your native country. And raises some deeper questions about how ‘internationals’ use language to describe their work both to their own community and to outsiders while working in the developing world.

Anyhow, I must be off now. I’m going to implement a kitchen in our Base Area this week and need look for utensils in the bazaar.

This post previously appeared Mesocosm