The Power of Language – the Language of Power: Leveraging Core Humanitarian Principles To Improve Multilingual Communication in the Field

by Barbara Moser-Mercer

Most native speakers of English assume that English transcends culture and is capable of expressing concepts in a culturally neutral and objective way. Conflict, conflict resolution and peacebuilding, however, are characterized by imbalances and shifts in power relations often expressed in emotionally charged language that reflects the trauma experienced by the parties in conflict. When disaster strikes local populations do not, and cannot, automatically shift to English simply because it is the language of aid and humanitarian assistance. As humanitarian action has become intimately associated with Northern and Western values, and as humanitarian actors are increasingly seen by those they set out to help as being disconnected from the reality on the ground, the almost universal use of English as the language of humanitarian action undermines the goals and objectives it is designed to promote and serve. Especially in areas where the humanitarian enterprise has come to encompass activities such as peacebuilding and transitional justice, rather than restrict itself to the more traditional agenda of providing immediate humanitarian relief in the wake of natural or man-made disasters, the emphasis on English as often the sole language of communication is increasingly seen as an expression of superiority and a lack of willingness to engage with local capacity. A new form of imbalance in power relations then ensues, this time between aid agencies and the local population: This jeopardizes the core humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality and blithely ignores the principle of respect for local language and customs.

Consecutive training notes by a trainee in Khartoum. Photo Credit: Barbara Moser-Mercer, 2012
Consecutive training notes by a trainee in Khartoum. Photo Credit: Barbara Moser-Mercer, 2012

Study after study recognizes the need for humanitarian action to engage with locals in order to build the trust that is essential for long-term solutions. As the humanitarian enterprise becomes more and more institutionalized, with targets to meet, internal procedures to respect, and at times political agendas to pursue, its ability to engage on the ground beyond providing immediate, front-line relief is jeopardized. The prevailing English-only approach reinforces the image of humanitarian actors being subservient to their organization’s mission and short-term goals, rather than in understanding the complexities of the local context and leveraging local resources to develop culturally-embedded and consequently more lasting solutions.

Neutrality and impartiality do not in and of themselves prohibit engagement with the local population; instead, understanding the language(s) and culture(s) of the conflicting parties or the population struck by natural disaster is an essential vector in upholding the core humanitarian principles, as they allow humanitarian actors to obtain an in-depth understanding of the field context and to leverage local resources to manage emergencies. While humanitarian organizations are beginning to recognize the importance of engaging local capacity, complex emergencies have them revert to standard operating procedure: communicating only amongst themselves and in English. And yet, good crisis response is highly context-specific and civilians in conflict and post-conflict contexts see good relationships with local communities, in-depth understanding of the local context and of the local population, an ability to act rapidly with clear impartiality, and efficient use of resources as key attributes of successful peacekeeping.

A number of aid agencies are making a concerted effort to source locally, involve the local population in meaningful and productive ways, and commit to acquiring a rudimentary knowledge of the local language(s) and culture(s). For many, however, this remains a part of their official mission and mandate that is often neglected as building local trust and learning about language and culture requires time and thus eats into increasingly lean budgets. Language training and training of translators and interpreters hardly ever feature as line items in the budgets of international aid organizations and thus do not specifically contribute to reaching the targets the organizations must meet to ensure future funding.

Field training in Eastern Sudan. Photo Credit: Leila Kherbiche, 2012.
Field training in Eastern Sudan. Photo Credit: Leila Kherbiche, 2012.

On the ground – and thus removed from headquarters – aid workers must make do with what they have: usually a very small number of locals who speak some English in addition to their native tongue(s) and who are willing and ready to be engaged as “interpreters,” often also in an effort to better their own situation. They are members of their own local community, or internally displaced persons (IDP) community, and as such are integrated in the social fabric and culture that they are asked to “interpret” for those representing the international aid organizations. While this may initially present no problem other than the search for suitable equivalent expressions in English of concepts that are closely embedded in the local culture, such lay interpreters soon encounter conflictual situations with regard to their role as intermediaries. Expressing local realities and personal histories in a neutral and non-judgmental way in a language few master at a level where nuances can be expressed, and ultimately understood by those relying on interpretation, exposes these interpreters to pressures from both sides – their local community as well as the international community.

There are high expectations regarding the quality of interpretation as users believe that anyone who has a rudimentary knowledge of another language can interpret. What is critical, however, is that engaging these interpreters is often based on the assumption that interpreters work for one side, the hand that pays. Interpreters then unwittingly become allies in the search for information and are engaged in decision-making, which in turn breeds mistrust in the community from which they come. They are no longer considered neutral conveyers of necessary information that will allow the international aid community to function more effectively on the ground, but are seen as siding with the foreigner. Struggling to carve out a role that neither alienates the foreign aid workers nor their own community, these untrained interpreters soon realize they are paying a high price for their skills: Failing to meet the expectations of the international community will deprive them of the opportunity to better their lives and the lives of the members of their community, but losing the trust of their own community will deprive them of their moorings and expose them to acts of reprisal. During interpretation, glaring mistakes, substantial omissions, additions, and shifts in meaning will occur and while they are often considered a consequence of inadequate knowledge of English, they can also represent strategies interpreters have to adopt to cope with a complex scenario, where no distinction is made between the role of a language and cultural adviser and that of a true interpreter.

Available humanitarian destinations at Nairobi's Wilson airport. Photo credit: Barbara Moser-Mercer, 2012.
Available humanitarian destinations at Nairobi’s Wilson airport. Photo credit: Barbara Moser-Mercer, 2012.

For the humanitarian enterprise to implement more serious engagement with the local communities it serves, as has been identified in the Cluster approach that characterizes the reform of humanitarian action during the last decade, thus requires investment not only in providing the traditional essentials of food, water, and sanitation, but in building confidence and trust with the local communities. This presupposes a long-term commitment to the humanitarian action/capacity-building/ development cycle, a critical assessment of power relations that are sustained through language at every level of the humanitarian enterprise and ultimately in development, and to the training of interpreters whose role as neutral and impartial conduits between the local communities and cultures and the international aid community is well understood and respected by all. This will enhance humanitarian effectiveness on the ground as locals are truly perceived as valuable and respected partners, and allow interpreters to provide their service respecting core humanitarian principles without fear of reprisal from their own communities. Rather than being forced to exit to ensure their own survival once the conflict is resolved, their communication skills will be instrumental in successfully navigating the post-conflict and development phase and in preventing a return to conflict.

This commentary was contributed by Barbara Moser-Mercer with input from Carmen Delgado Luchner and Leila Kherbiche, doctoral students at the Interpreting Department of the Faculty of Translation and Interpretation. It reflects on InZone’s experience in field and virtual training of humanitarian interpreters during 2011 and 2012 within the context of recommendations for humanitarian action in the field.

Barbara Moser-Mercer is professor of conference interpreting at the Faculty for Translation and Interpretation at the University of Geneva, a professional conference interpreter and Director of InZone, the Center for Interpreting in Conflict Zones (, which she founded in 2010. Her research focuses on the cognitive neuroscience dimensions of simultaneous interpreting in relation to skill acquisition and the development of expertise. She now leverages that background to train humanitarian interpreters in the field, thereby implementing InZone’s mission together with Leila Kherbiche, professional conference interpreter, former ICRC field interpreter and delegate, and now doctoral student at FTI; and Carmen Delgado Luchner, professional conference interpreter and now doctoral student at FTI whose research focuses on the development of interpreter training programs in Africa.

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