10 Things to Consider for Interpreter Training in Africa

I wrote my doctoral dissertation about a North-South cooperation project in the field of interpreter training and the challenges that actors experienced, and I see the many difficulties actors still encounter in setting up interpreter training programmes in different universities in Africa. Therefore, I have distilled the results of my research into ten points of advice for anyone who wants to teach in/set up an interpreter training programme in Africa or anyone planning to collaborate with an African university.

It really all boils down to one key point: Rely on the right combination of local expertise and outside help!

1. Be inclusive

Before setting up a new programme or engaging in a new partnership, get the relevant stakeholders around the table and use their collective knowledge to chart the best way forward. This seems obvious but is often overlooked and therefore deserves a mention at the top of this list. Your relevant stakeholders are the parties who are likely to know something that you don’t, for example local interpreters, professional associations (AIIC, etc.), academics from other disciplines (translation, foreign languages, …), international organizations based in the region or other potential employer organizations.

It makes sense to include representatives of foreign interpreting schools, since they know how to insert interpreter training into a university environment. But this should not happen at the expense of local interpreters, who are in a much better position to understand what is required on their market.

2. Bend existing rules or write your own

Universities are highly bureaucratic, and sometimes in very unexpected ways. In some universities the names of course units on the curriculum have to be unique for Master’s programmes, so labels such as “Simultaneous interpreting I” and “Simultaneous interpreting II” or even “Intermediate simultaneous” and “Advanced simultaneous” are not allowed. Since students cannot learn simultaneous interpreting in a single course unit, curriculum building can be a surprisingly creative exercise and involve a good thesaurus. Another issue are oral exams: some departments have no rules and regulations in place for these, since they are not relevant in their discipline. Similarly, there might not be any provisions for an entrance exam and this is not something that jury members should find out about only on the day of said exam!

Another area of conflict is the recruitment of trainers. Rather than traditional academic criteria (a doctorate, published research, teaching experience), universities need to apply criteria that are relevant for interpreting (professional experience, active and passive languages) for recruitment. Working with professional interpreters also means that flexible and part-time arrangements might be necessary. These solutions are complicated to put in place in public universities in Africa but they are worth it!

The university environment was not designed for the sole purpose of providing an adequate context for interpreter training (we sometimes tend to forget that…). Therefore, the persons in charge of interpreting courses must learn to work within the system, bending existing rules and pushing for new ones. In most disciplines, academics “give lectures” to as many students as can possible fit in the auditorium (and sometimes more!). Students might not show up during the whole semester and simply take the written exam at the end, which they might even pass if they have done their reading. Interpreting is a very different animal: it involves practice, direct trainer-to-student interaction and also… booths?

3. Master the art of boothlegging

Interpreter training is obviously impossible without booths and simultaneous interpreting consoles… or is it? As interpreting students we “boothlegged” our own simultaneous interpreting installation. To practice simultaneous interpreting, all you actually need is a computer/tablet/smartphone, a pair of headphones with an integrated microphone, audio recordings and the free software “Audacity”. This simple setup allows students to listen to an original speech while simultaneously recording their interpretation over the original (that’s where Audacity comes in).

I am not saying that universities should not try to invest in good interpreting equipment. But much more important than physical infrastructure is having the right human resources. Simultaneous interpreting can be done without any kind of equipment (chuchotage/whispered interpretation). But it cannot be done without skills!

4. Choose the right languages

Students in Geneva, Prague, Accra and Nairobi might be trained in the same skill, but they are likely to have very different language combinations that will lead them to work on very different markets. The training programme in Geneva is geared heavily towards the UN and EU institutional market, as well as the private market in Switzerland, while interpreters trained in Prague are prepared almost exclusively to work for the European institutions. Of course, language combinations also need to be covered by trainers, otherwise a degree will end up not having much credibility.

Not all language combinations are relevant for conference interpreting. Swahili/English, for instance, is much more likely to be required in a court or community interpreting setting in Kenya than at an international conference. This is even more the case for local languages: Africa needs community and court interpreters for Dholuo, Twi and Sesotho.Remember that conference interpreting is not the only skill worth teaching, nor is it necessarily the most relevant!

5. Identify your market

While students might choose to read Philosophy and History for their general intellectual edification, they generally choose interpreting because they want to learn a profession and later practice it. This point should be fairly uncontroversial but unfortunately it is not. Amongst academics, the idea that universities should cater to a (real or hypothetical) job market hits a sore spot and, while I fully agree that Higher Education should do much more than that, this argument is of limited relevance to interpreter training. Our course are professional training courses. They should prepare students to work on a specific market. This is particularly true in contexts where students are paying for their education from their own pockets and make considerable personal and professional sacrifices to attend classes, often while already in full employment.

6. Learn each other’s language

Academics are strange. When they say “read a paper” they really mean “give a presentation”. They like to complain about “peer reviews” and those with a PhD might insist to be called “Doctor” although they are not physicians. Interpreters, on the other hand, value eloquence but will forgive lack of it in a “C language”, the only “peer review” that counts for them is who sponsored you to become a member of AIIC. Oh, and they like to refer to people as if they were furniture: “Oh you mean Fernando, but isn’t he a Spanish booth?”

Both groups need to become reasonably fluent in the “language” of the respective other. Interpreters must learn what is expected in academia, what constraints this environment places on them, and what opportunities it offers. Academics have to understand what makes interpreting different from other discilines, what matters to professional interpreters, and what awaits their students once they graduate. Interpreters might not see the point in asking students to write a Master’s thesis, while academics might think that practice does not make prefect. Compromise and mutual respect are essential for good collaboration between academics and interpreters, and even more so in the case of North-South cooperation.

7. Use practice to become a professional

A master’s course is usually a rather dry and theoretical affair and this is therefore of particular importance: Interpreter training has to comprise a large practical component! You simply cannot become a good interpreter just by reading books! However, when I say “practice” I don’t just mean any kind of practice. A lot of thinking needs to go into curriculum design and recruitment of trainers. Ideally, all the languages in students’ combinations should be covered by trainers, so that each student can receive relevant feedback on their performance and progress accordingly. There are quite a number of things to take into account when selecting training materials, structuring classes and giving feedback. There are a number of manuals that can help trainers achieve this, the University of Geneva also offers an online training course for interpreter trainers. (URL).

8. Use theory to become an expert

While academics often need to be convinced of the value of practical course content, interpreters tend to see theory as superfluous in interpreter training. I partially agree with this claim: Not all theory is relevant. However, some of it is. A common misconception is that interpreters need to know a lot about linguistics. However, theories about skill acquisition and a general understanding of the different subskills involved in interpreting are much more relevant both for interpreter trainers and students. There is no perfect ratio of practical vs. theoretical content in an interpreter training programme. Based on my experiences as a trainer and researcher I think that 80% practice and 20% theory makes sense, provided practice grounded in a theoretical understanding of learning and skill acquisition.

9. Select your students with care

Yes, “Interpreters are made not born”. Nevertheless, it is wrong to assume that anyone can be transformed into an interpreter over the course of 12 to 24 months. Talent might play a certain role but, more importantly, students simply do not have enough time to learn their language and learn how to interpret all in the same degree. Therefore, students need to come in with a solid level of mastery of all their working languages and a good amount of world knowledge. For African students the A language is also generally not their “mother tongue”, so they might struggle with different aspects of language than students in Europe. During aptitude tests it is therefore important to include local interpreters who share the students’ language background.

Strict aptitude tests also mean that student intakes are small, i. e. that interpreter training courses will not be cash cows for universities, hence my next point.

10. Don’t be in it for the money

Yes, don’t —and this goes for institutions as well as interpreters. Public universities everywhere in the world and even more so in Africa struggle to make ends meet. As state funding declines, tuition fees increase and students are increasingly a source of revenue for universities. Good interpreter training is only possible when the number of students is low and the number of trainers high.

At the University of Geneva there are over 30 professional interpreters working as part-time trainers for about 12-18 students. This number is beyond what most universities in Africa will be able to afford but the good news is that the number of trainers required depends on the number of languages that are on offer. Experience shows that it is entirely possible to run a solid programme with a pool of 3-5 trainers.

This is also where North-South cooperation can provide real added value: an individual student with a language not covered by local trainers can for example benefit from online-tutoring; or trainers from another university can provide temporary pedagogical support at key stages of learning (introduction to note-taking, module on simultaneous with text, etc.).

Can interpreters be impartial in a war?

Interpreters mediate between speakers of different languages in a variety of settings. Consequently, different professions have emerged within the field, namely conference interpreting, court interpreting and community interpreting. Each with their respective professional codes of ethics. A principle that can be found in almost all of these codes is neutrality or impartiality. An interesting variation on the theme is “multipartiality”, a term I found in the code of ethics for community interpreters in Switzerland. While each of these three terms has a slightly different meaningmultipartiality” for instance, implies that the interpreter is simultaneously on everyone’s side, rather than on no one’s side (impartiality)that distinction is not important for the purpose of this article. Consequently, I shall opt for “impartiality” as my generic term and use this to refer to a positioning of the interpreter in a somewhat imaginary No Man’s Land situated between the different parties to the interpreter-mediated interaction or “trialog”.

If we want to understand the possibility and nature of interpreter impartiality in different settings, we need to take a closer look at the relationship between the two parties and the way in which information flows between them. If we look at a communicative event as a transaction between two parties, then information is the currency they use. As in any context “Follow the money!” is sound advice to understand what is really going on.

Based on my experience as an interpreter, interpreter trainer and (very occasional) user of interpreting services, I would argue that there are three types of transaction: extraction of information, dissemination of information and exchange of information. Each of these presents different challenges and opportunities as far as interpreter impartiality is concerned. Such a typology depending on information flow has, as far as I know, never been presented in the interpreting literature.

Scenario 1: Extraction of information

In this scenario, there is often no mutual agreement to enter into communication. Rather, one party tries to extract information from the other party. The purposes of information extraction can range from noble (a doctor attempting to better understand the patient’s symptoms, a social scientist trying to find out more about the situation of child nutrition in a remote Andean village, a social worker interviewing parents about their child’s special needs, etc.), to controversial (an asylum officer trying to obtain detailed information about the applicant’s past in order to assess the credibility of their story, a police officer interrogating a suspect, etc.), to outright ugly (a member of an armed group interrogating a prisoner of war under torture, a CIA agent using “enhanced interrogation techniques” to extract intelligence, etc.). All of these scenarios have involved interpreters, yes, even the one involving torture:

“Afghan officials are seeking the arrest of an Afghan-American interpreter on charges of murder and torture. The interpreter was reportedly identified in a video showing Mohammad’s abuse.” (Source: Democracy Now!, 22 May 2013)


Although both speakers might take turns in this scenario, sometimes even using similar amounts of speaking time, the information flow is largely unidirectional: A aims to obtain information from B. To achieve this aim, A might ask direct or indirect questions, or use more subtle approaches, such as providing some information of their own in order to encourage B to share their knowledge. Granted, B might sometimes be able to use the information they are holding as leverage (think for instance of a small-time crook who negotiates a mitigation of their sentence in exchange for important information about a larger network of organized crime) but this rarely gives them full control over the interaction.

Scenario 2: Dissemination of information

While this scenario might seem like “inverted extraction of information”, I would argue that what matters is who is in control. In the extraction scenario above, the party extracting the information is generally in control of the communication situation: they select the other party, they define where and when the interaction takes place, and they are the ones paying the interpreter.

In the dissemination scenario, control resides with the holder of the information. Once again, possible scenarios range from the benign (a community health centre organizing an information session for young mothers, a teacher informing parents about their child’s progress in school, an induction seminar for new members of staff), to the ambiguous (an advertising agency presenting the merits of their client’s latest products, a political party on the campaign trail), to the outright detrimental (a cult leader convincing teenagers to cut all contact with their families, a political representative convincing his constituents to take up arms against a minority group).


As in the extraction of information scenario presented above, speakers might take turns, although A will try to provide information to B and use B’s statements mainly to check whether information has been received and understood. As such, information flow remains unidirectional, A is the holder of knowledge that B is supposed to have acquired at the end of the encounter.

Scenario 3: Exchange of information

In this scenario we genuinely have two parties to the interaction. Their intention and willingness to communicate is mutual, and while the amount and quality of information each party is holding might vary, both are actively contributing to the conversation. What distinguishes this scenario from the two scenarios above is that both parties have the power to influence the course of the conversation and change the topic, be it by presenting information in a certain way or asking questions. Both parties are there to learn from and about each other. This type of scenario is quite common in conference interpreting settings (health experts from different countries coming together to discuss a global progress report) or business interpreting settings (a delegation from China comes to visit a car manufacturing plant in Germany). A variation of this scenario are “negotiation settings”, where the clear objective of the two parties is to resolve a dispute and/or reach an agreement about the best way forward. Such negotiations can of course be tense, despite a shared willingness of actors to engage in communication. However, both parties generally have an interest in the interpreter’s impartiality or might sometimes even use two interpreters (each side employing their own, as is often the case in bilateral meetings between heads of government for instance).


In this scenario, information genuinely flows both ways. Ideally, speakers take turns and use similar amounts of speaking time. However, even in cases where A is more knowledgeable about a topic, B will remain actively involved in the conversation, for example by asking questions, making suggestions and comments, thereby pushing A to clarify their explanations or change their point of view.

Implications for interpreter impartiality

When a communication scenario is inherently asymmetrical, for example aiming towards extraction or dissemination of information, impartiality is difficult for the interpreter to maintain. Indeed, there is sometimes no imaginary neutral territory between the parties that the interpreter can occupy, no shared space or contact zone that is created by the parties’ mutual agreement to enter into communication. In extraction and dissemination scenarios, the Gricean maxims of communication are often not respected. Instead, one party aims to influence the other party, and often to convince them to do something they would not otherwise have done (reveal strategically important information or quite simply change the way they manage their children’s nutrition). In these scenarios, the ethical space the interpreter needs to consider is not limited to her own code of ethics but to the nature of the communicative event and the ethical implications of the change that the party in control of the situation is trying to create.

Many will agree that teaching young girls about HIV/Aids aims to bring about a positive change, while convincing young men to kill their neighbors in protest against election results makes everyone worse off.

Extraction or dissemination of information are not inherently good or bad. But they make for communication settings with inherently unequal parties, which is important for the interpreter to keep in mind. The interpreter provides a service that helps A achieve their objective. Granted, B might be able to subvert the situation by refusing to supply/receive information or providing inaccurate or false information, but the bigger the power asymmetry between A and B, the smaller is B’s ability to interfere with A’s agenda. I would argue that, in this constellation, the interpreter is not impartial. Rather, in aligning her services with the objective of the communication scenario, she will quite naturally side with A, who is also generally the stakeholder employing her.

Information extraction and dissemination are also the scenarios that are most likely to “turn ugly”, with torture and indoctrination as extreme examples. In these cases interpreter impartiality is a moot point: Who would argue for impartial and accurate interpretation of statements extracted from a person being tortured?

We can, of course, take the easy way out and simply argue that the people translating during torture, enhanced interrogation or cultic indoctrination are not interpreters, or that codes of ethics only apply to trained professionals working in specific contexts. Nevertheless, professional interpreters have in the past expressed their solidarity and identification with colleagues (“colleagues”?) working for the military in active conflict zonesmaybe without fully understanding the limitations of interpreter impartiality in these complex, volatile and often dangerous environments. Furthermore, there are now numerous initiatives geared towards training and professionalization of interpreters working in conflict zones, as such, we cannot simply exclude these individuals from the scope of interpreting ethics.

Codes of ethics for conference interpreters tend to limit the question of impartiality to the attitude of the interpreter during the interpreted event. As such, these codes of ethics seem to presuppose a mutual willingness of parties to communicate, which is often not the case in other contexts. The relevance of these codes in situations where there is a strong power-asymmetry between parties or where interpreters are necessarily also stakeholders is therefore limited. Codes of ethics for community interpreters, on the other hand, have gone beyond the interpreting scenario to address the social responsibility of language intermediaries: part of the community interpreter’s mandate is to help migrants or minority speakers gain access to public services and institutions.

Indeed, sometimes, the decision to interpret in a certain context is already a decision to take sides in a broader ethical space.

Conceptualising interpreter impartiality in such contexts requires an engagement with broader ethical questions. That is something I did not find in the “Conflict Zones Field Guide for Civilian Translators/Interpreters and Users of Their Services” published by AIIC, FIT and Red-Tmaybe because of the authors’ proximity to conference interpreting. Impartiality is listed in the Field Guide as a principle and described as follows:

“Regardless of who engages you, serve all parties equally, without expressing your opinions or sympathies. You cannot be an advocate for any cause and must declare any conflict of interest.”

However, under the heading “Protection”, the same document informs interpreters that they “are not required to wear a uniform, unless [they] consent to do so“. Note that a uniform is not the same as unmarked protective gear, such as the bullet proof vests often worn by civilian journalists working in conflict zones.

I cannot help but wonder:

If wearing a US Army uniform in Afghanistan does not make you the advocate for a cause, then what does?

If the act of wearing a uniform cannot be interpreted by a civilian interlocutor as an act of taking sides and expressing an opinion, then what can?

Information, as interpreters are well positioned to know, flows not only through words. Our presence, our demeanor and our physical appearance also communicate a message. Let us not forget the fact that the military uniform is designed for the specific purpose of distinguishing military personnel from civilians and that, from the perspective of the law of war, there a reasons to doubt that a military uniform provides “protection” to an interpreter:

“The military uniform distinguishes the members of armed forces from the rest of the population. In international armed conflicts, members of the armed forces can lawfully take part in combat on the battlefield. Inversely, they can be lawfully attacked. The absence of a military uniform usually indicates that a person is a civilian, is therefore not allowed to perform military functions and must not be attacked.” (Source: Pfanner, 2004: 94

Furthermore, “civilian” interpreters working for the US military in Afghanistan for instance have gone far beyond wearing a uniform:

“Being a translator in a place like Kandahar conveys a distinct isolation; the high salary is coveted, but many feel that such work with the foreign soldiers is tainted. Working with the Special Forces is doubly so. Interpreters are not supposed to be armed, but the U.S. Special Forces have largely ignored those regulations.” (Source: Rolling Stone, 6 November 2013)

The quote above refers specifically to locally recruited interpreters, i. e. persons who are neither members of the armed forces nor US citizens but Afghans carrying weapons while also working as language intermediaries between the US Army and the local population. 

In sum, many difficult and painful ethical questions remain to be addressed with regards to civilian interpreters working in conflict zones. Despite their problematic status, we should of course not forget that some interpreters have been killed when left behind in their home country by nations who benefited greatly from their services, yet then refused to grant them asylum. I am not defending this decision nor minimising the human suffering that has resulted from it. However, my argument is that the status of these individuals from the point of view of professional interpreting ethics is problematic, in particular regarding the practical possibility of impartiality.

Interpreters are ambiguous actors, who, depending on the nature of the interaction they find themselves in, have the ability to either reinforce or subvert established power relationships. More often than not, the decision to act impartially during the interpreted event only reinforces the status quo.

The term “interpreter” has been and will continue to be used to refer to individuals with very different backgrounds, levels of training, job descriptions and roles. Professional codes of ethics are useful for specific sub-groups of interpreters (conference, community, court, humanitarian, military) and their strength resides precisely in their specificity. However, placing the question of interpreter impartiality in a wider context spanning different groups of interpreters and types of scenarios helps us analyse the wider implications of impartiality.

In particular, we need to take into account that interpreters might work in an institutional setting that is in itself highly partial and that impartiality at the micro-level of an individual interaction might not mean much when communication primarily serves the purpose of furthering an agenda.

In short: Interpreter impartiality is about much more than what the interpreter says or does not say. It depends on who they are, who their employer is, what kind of communication scenario they are working in, what they wear, and why they are there to begin with.

Language and development

The current buzzword in development cooperation is “participation”.

Participation can mean all sorts of things but it most commonly refers to the (more) active involvement of beneficiaries at all stages of a project, and in particular during the initial stages, when the content and objectives of a development project are defined based on local needs. Indeed, modern development cooperation is supposed to be aligned with the real “needs” of “beneficiaries” so as to avoid the pitfalls of old (creating and maintaining dependency, building infrastructure no one uses, imposing change from the outside that no one wants, using development projects simply as a modern form of colonialism etc.).

In order to allow beneficiaries to participate, one must, of course, communicate with them. Surprisingly, the literature on participatory development has very little to say about languages. It seems that communication between NGOs in the North and the South and aid recipients (often rural populations who have not had access to formal education) happens seamlessly and essentially without hick-ups, despite considerable differences not only in terms of language but also in terms of culture, level of education, individual experience and exposure to development thinking.

As a trained interpreter familiar with several so-called “developing countries” I had reasons to believe that things are not as simple as that. Indeed, a development project involves a long chain of actors: institutional and individual donors, NGOs in the North and the South, grass roots organizations, beneficiary representatives and, finally, beneficiaries. It is safe to say that not all of them speak the same language and that no commonly shared lingua franca (no, not even English…) spans the whole chain.

When development workers meet potential beneficiaries they create a strange kind of hybrid communication space, a contact zone where different ideas about change, progress, development, work, life and the world come together. Negotiating difference can be enriching and valuable, but it is rarely a simple or painless process.

So how exactly does participation work? Who brings back the “stories” and “first-hand accounts” from the field that we find in every development aid publication? Who communicates with whom? Who are the people who broker encounters between different links of the chain?

That is what I am trying to find out in my current research project. You can view a short summary of it here.

Humanitarian Interpreter Training

Numerous interpreters work in conflict zones, not as military interpreters, but as civilians working for humanitarian organizations.

These interpreters might be individuals with a strong interest in humanitarian work and knowledge of English and a “rare” language used in the humanitarian context, who are recruited specifically as interpreters by a humanitarian organization. For instance, the interpreters working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are generally expatriate aid workers who have no direct family links with their country of assignment.

Alternatively, interpreters may themselves be beneficiaries of humanitarian organizations who speak English as well as the language used by beneficiaries. The interpreters ensuring communication between encamped or urban refugees and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, are themselves refugees.

This difference in background has direct implications for training, which is what I explore in the talk below given at the University of Reading (UK) in the framework of the Translating in Danger Zones seminar series in October 2016.