Negotiating the role of interpreters in the multilateral system

By Max Crisp
Conference Interpreter

From time to time, we all have to negotiate problems in areas where we are not experts. Acquiring a car, a house or an insurance policy are some good examples. Conference interpreters, however, actively participate in negotiations outside of our area of expertise on a daily basis. Very often we won’t even know what the negotiation is until the evening before a morning session or at lunchtime for the afternoon.

Interpreters stand on the shoulders of giants too. Well over 3,000 years ago, we helped negotiate the Treaty of Kadesh. A replica of this bilingual agreement between the Egyptians and Hittites now hangs in the UN’s headquarters. Since then, interpreters helped broker the Peace of Westphalia, several treaties of Paris, the Congress of Vienna, the Concert of Europe, and the Treaty of Versailles. Although each of these landmark negotiations shaped the international system as we know it, the treaties themselves have since been superseded.

The Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty, also known as the Eternal Treaty.

Modern multilingualism 

Since 1945, the system has been underpinned by the UN Charter, with its six authentic language versions. Yet some time passed before conference interpretation was provided in all six languages. Now that it is, the playing field is more level. High-ranking officials can deliver statements that resonate back in capital and third secretaries can deliver statements carefully crafted back in capital.

It’s a political hot potato of course, as not every country has its language(s) represented, nor does each language represent one country. There is, for example, an over-representation of modern European languages in decolonised areas of Africa, Asia-Pacific and the Americas. And as the UN has aged, so the language regime has become fossilised, barely subject to rumour let alone negotiation. This and the many other underlying issues only serve to heighten geopolitical tensions.

Furthermore, after 70 years of institutional stability, it has become indisputable that hard times have befallen the UN, particularly from the budgetary standpoint. Indeed, the Human Rights Council was recently brought to a standstill by staff striking over pay-cuts. This is concerning for interpreters especially given the central role they play in keeping alive the dialogue of nations.

Will interpreters outlive the UN?

The emergence of an international system has greatly raised the profile of interpreters as negotiators and mediators. No longer are we ‘slung into the pit’ for our costly slips of the tongue. Indeed at times we are broadcast live to the world, so it’s only natural that we strive to achieve peak performance, to ensure our composure and to curate a mental encyclopaedia of international affairs. This means also watching our diets, resting sufficiently, exercising as necessary. And yet, even then, the risk of burnout never goes away.

This risk is compounded by the bulk of the profession being freelancers, whose working conditions are governed not by staff rules but by a collective bargaining agreement. As we work for a range employers, such agreements standardise rest provisions, session length and frequency, team strength, travel, etc. There are legal and financial elements too, such as scope (e.g., the inclusion of UN programmes and funds), privileges and immunities and pay.

With global challenges proliferating, it’s clear that the UN can no longer guarantee these conditions, and it is unhurriedly attempting to whittle them away. On the one hand, there is the inevitable logistical inefficiency: the sheer number of countries, the breadth of topics, cancelled and postponed meetings, languages being added or dropped last minute, and sessions running over time. But on the other, there is an unavoidable financial deficiency: the sovereign-debt crisis, overriding domestic priorities, and the mantra of ‘do more with less’.

Security Council meeting
Interpreters at work during a Security Council meeting on the situation in Haiti (Credit: UN Photo).

Profession and/or system in crisis?

The impact on interpreters is already being felt. Whilst the loss of international contracts could be seen as a symptom of a healthy profession, hitherto weekly contracts are now carved up into single servings to evade pro-rata rest provisions. It’s mentally exhausting to interpret dozens of pages of written speeches twice a day, yet interpreters are now staring down the barrel of doing it ten times a week.

Although geopolitical tensions are rising around us, no one is yet talking seriously of replacing the UN. But given the longevity of our profession, interpreters will forever have reason to ponder whether to attach greater importance to our labour or to the international system in its contemporary form. It’s normal for there to be diverging opinions on issues such as scope and pay, but there shouldn’t be any disagreement when it comes to the health of key actors in the international system.

Since forming a professional association some 65 years ago, conference interpreters have never struggled to agree on the common defence of certain universal values. We have also long-nurtured an understanding with the constellation of nation states, and to this day we honour it by granting the UN and related organisations a discount in return for an exhilarating career in diplomacy. If there were ever a readiness to walk away, it would jeopardise not only an enduring profession but also a historic relationship.

Max Crisp is an alumni of the Graduate Institute’s International Negotiation and Policy-Making Executive Education course. This article also appears on linkedin.

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