The “interpreter factor” in ethnographic fieldwork

La première mission by Benoît Cliquet.
Drawing by Benoît Cliquet.**

“Anthropologists are normally expected to ‘learn the language’, and while most try to do so, many of us feel we fail. Since this means failure to measure up to a publicly required occupational definition, anthropologists have often taken refuge in silence.”
(Tonkin, 1984, 178)

Learning the language spoken by their research participants and in the location where they carry out their field research is a point of pride for many anthropologists. However, there are many reasons why it is often not possible for anthropologists and ethnographers from other disciplines to enter their research field having full mastery of their languages:

  • the time allocated for fieldwork in research grants is often very limited,
  • the location of a study might have to change at the last moment because political turmoil or natural disasters render the original destination inaccessible
  • finally, learning a language takes far longer than the time allocated to this endeavor even in the most generous research projects!

It is simply not very realistic for anthropologists to achieve sufficient mastery of their participants’ language in six months to one year – not to the point where they can discuss complex and often intimate issues with their participants.

Indeed, according to Mudimbé “most anthropologists only speak pidgin” (1988, 66), and numerous publications acknowledge the presence of a “research assistant” during fieldwork, although one sometimes has to read between the lines to understand that this assistant is also an interpreter (Mandel, 2003; Molony and Hammett, 2007).

When interpreters are explicitly mentioned in papers (Ficklin and Jones, 2009; Turner, 2010; Temple and Edwards, 2002), we get an idea of the complexity of the “interpreter factor” and the challenges researchers face when collaborating with bilinguals who simultaneous take on the role of research assistants, fixers and interpreters.

What is rarely questioned, however, is the capacity of these ad hoc interpreters to adequately perform their task. To my knowledge, only two papers dwell on this “detail” in some length, namely Borchgrevink (2003) and Gibb and Danero Iglesias (2017). Their authors highlight the complexity of language mastery, and emphasize on an aspect that, in my experience, is very relevant during fieldwork interactions: language mastery comes in degrees. The two articles are really worth reading for practicing or aspiring field researchers!

The fact that language mastery is not something that, like a bit, comes only as either “1” or “0” might seem completely obvious but it is nevertheless often neglected. Knowing a language is not just useful to “do” research: even a very basic mastery can allow a researcher to establish a trust relationship with her participants or understand the basic ideas of a conversation overheard in public transport. More importantly, basic language mastery paired with a few tricks can also allow a researcher to check on the work of her research-assistant-cum-interpreter.

The “interpreters” found in ethnographic fieldwork are rarely trained in this task and perform it to the best of their judgement and ability. Although their presence undeniably has an impact on the research process, the data collected and the results obtained, their influence is rarely acknowledge in anthropological publications.

Based on my research into interpreter positionality and non-professional interpreting in a variety of settings, I have developed a list of questions that each anthropologist should ask himself or herself when working with an interpreter. These questions will allow the researcher to make the interpreter visible in her research, think about the influence of this person during fieldwork, and account for this factor in publications:

1. Positionality and role of the interpreter:

Who chooses the interpreter and according to what criteria?

What role does the interpreter have during different stages of the research project?

What non-interpreting tasks does the interpreter take on during the research project?

2. Language skills:

What level of mastery does the interpreter/the researcher have in each of the languages used in the study?

How did the interpreter/the researcher acquire her language skills?

3. Relationships and ethical aspects:

What is the relationship between the interpreter and the research participants?

Is the study likely to change the relationship between the interpreter and the research participants? If yes, how is this relationship likely to evolve during the study?

What participants might not be accessible to the interpreter/the researcher?

What is the relationship between the interpreter and the researcher? How is this relationship likely to evolve during the study?

What information does an academic readership require in order to understand the role of the interpreter during different stages of the research project (research design, data collection, data analysis, write-up)?

Can you answer all these questions for your interpreters? Have you thought of all these elements before writing up your interpreter-mediated research project? If not, this list of questions might be worth keeping in mind during fieldwork.

*The ideas in this post follow from a research paper on the use of interpreters in anthropological fieldwork that I recently submitted in collaboration with Dr. Yvan Droz. His contribution is gratefully acknowledged here and the paper will be referenced here one it is published. 

** The illustration above was drawn by a very talented conference interpreter: Benoît Cliquet. Thank you, Benoît, for allowing us to use these illustrations in our work!


Borchgrevink, A. (2003). Silencing language: Of anthropologists and interpreters. Ethnography 4(1), 95–121.

Ficklin, L. and B. Jones (2009). Deciphering ’voice’ from ’words’: Interpreting translation practices in the field. Graduate Journal of Social Science 6(3), 108–130.

Gibb, R. and J. Danero Iglesias (2017). Breaking the silence (again): on language learning and levels of fluency in ethnographic research. The Sociological Review 65(1), 134–149.

Mandel, J. L. (2003). Negotiating expectations in the field: Gatekeepers, research fatigue and cultural biases. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 24(2), 198–210.

Molony, T. and D. Hammett (2007). The friendly financier: Talking money with the silenced assistant. Human Organization 66(3), 292–300.

Mudimbe, V.-Y. (1988). The Invention of Africa. Rochester, NY: James Currey and Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Temple, B. and R. Edwards (2002). Interpreters/translators and cross-language research: Reflexivity and border crossings. International Journal of Qualitative Methods 1(2), no pagination.

Tonkin, E. (1984). Language learning. In R. F. Ellen (Ed.), Ethnographic research: A guide to general conduct, pp. 178–187. London, UK: Academic Press.

Turner, S. (2010). Research note: The silenced assistant. Reflections of invisible interpreters and research assistants. Asia Pacific Viewpoint 51(2), 206–219.

Ethical concerns before, during and after ethnographic research

As I will soon be teaching a module on research ethics for PhD students in translation and interpreting, this post a bit more of a literature review. Social research is, at its core, a relational activity. We interact with colleagues, participants and audiences/readers.

So, how can we make sure these interactions remain ethical?

1. Ethics of anticipation: ethical review and informed consent

Anthropologists have long argued that the requirements of institutional ethical review (common in the UK and the US, not at all in francophone countries!) and informed consent do not fit the specificities of ethnographic field research, where ethics is a “recognition of the problem”, rather than a solution (Lambek, 2012, p. 142) and an on-going decision-making process that cannot be reduced simply to obtaining informed consent:

“A wider conception of ethics recognizes that moral judgements are made at every juncture of ’scientific’ practice, and these judgements are made together with other parties involved in the research. Despite wider pressures to do so, it is vital to resist discussion of ethics as a methodological and institutional ’tool’, or as a mode of legitimization and authorization, and to continue to argue that ethics involves a broader field of negotiations with varied moralities, philosophies and politics.” (Mookherjee, 2012, p. 133)

Ethical review and informed consent are problematic in ethnographic research, as it supposes that the researcher is able to anticipate “with whom, for how long, to what end, and where” she will work (Simpson, 2011, p. 380), which runs counter to the inductive, iterative and open-ended nature of ethnographic inquiry. Furthermore, it is not easy to define who is a participant, i.e. who is affected directly or indirectly by the researcher’s presence in the field. Therefore, “[a]pplying the logics of autonomous individuals and signed consent forms to the ethics of participant observation necessarily makes ethnographic practice appear non-consensual” (Mookherjee, 2012, p. 133). Secondly, obtaining informed consent mainly in order to allow the researcher to protect herself and avoid liability (cf. the “audit culture” in contemporary anthropology (Lambek, 2012, p. 141)) is an unethical use of research ethics.

In light of the specificities of ethnographic research, the American Anthropological Association has adopted a broader definition of informed consent:

“Anthropological researchers should obtain in advance the informed consent of persons being studied, providing information, owning or controlling access to material being studied, or otherwise identified as having interests which might be impacted by the research. It is understood that the degree and breadth of informed consent required will depend on the nature of the project and may be affected by requirements of other codes, laws, and ethics of the country or community in which the research is pursued. Further, it is understood that the informed consent process is dynamic and continuous; the process should be initiated in the project design and continue through implementation by way of dialogue and negotiation with those studied. Researchers are responsible for identifying and complying with the various informed consent codes, laws and regulations affecting their projects. Informed consent, for the purposes of this code, does not necessarily imply or require a particular written or signed form. It is the quality of the consent, not the format, that is relevant.” (American Anthropological Association, 2009, Art. 4)

Ethical review requirements vary considerably between countries, we can argue that there are “national cultures of ethics” in the social sciences (Fassin, 2006), linked closely to national traditions of higher education. The ethnographic method is particularly difficult to fit into ethical review requirements (“serious tension” (Simpson, 2011, p. 379); “useless restrictions” (Fassin, 2006, p. 524)). More importantly, ethical review and informed consent fail to adequately address the ethical concerns that arise during fieldwork:

“[The ethical review model] leaves aside most of the important ethical issues raised by fieldwork and gives a false guarantee that ethics is respected through purely formal operations. In this sense, as well, it threatens ethnography by proposing lazy responses to real needs and, thus, avoiding the more painful moral and political questions sociologists and anthropologists should deal with.” (Fassin, 2006, p. 524)

And create the illusion that ethical dilemmas have right or wrong answers:

“Sometimes the course of action is obvious but more often it is ambiguous, as one is confronted with novel circumstances and criteria, or even the ostensible absence of criteria, and pulled between different sets and kinds of obligations and commitments. It is a mistake —an ethical blind spot —to expect there is always an obvious, single, right, virtuous judgement to make or a correct path to follow in every situation” (Lambek, 2012, p. 143).

In the context of research involving participants from developing countries, the considerable power gap between researchers and participants, and the often vulnerable status of aid beneficiaries begs the question of their general ability to provide informed consent (Simpson, 2011, p. 379)! Relationships with research participants in the field are particularly challenging from an ethical perspective and differ considerably from the types of relationships built in an interview setting. One of the negative consequences of ethical review is a “conflation of interviews and ethnography”, where one becomes a proxy for the other and ethnography is reconfigured as a series of discrete, recordable interactions (Simpson, 2011, p. 381).

2. Ethics of interaction: relationships with participants

In development projects and humanitarian aid, researchers might easily be perceived as being part of the NGO/international organisation delivering aid (Batianga-Kinzi, 2014), and sometimes they are (Moussa, 2014). The power asymmetry and agency gap between researcher and aid beneficiaries creates a potential for dependency, including the solicitation of money (Molony & Hammett, 2007), and close emotional involvement (Ouedraogo, 2014; Sundberg, 2014). The “participant” in ethnographic field research comes in many forms, “informants, interlocutors, consociates, collaborators, consultants, and friends” (Simpson, 2011, p. 384), and exists as part of a wider network of relationships. This relationality of participants makes it difficult to manage informed consent in practice (e.g. A driver provides useful information about how an NGO is viewed by the local population. This information is crucial to understand our data, yet no informed consent has been obtained from the driver.).

The anthropologist as participant-observer becomes part of the field and of the network of relationships between actors. As interlocutors in the field are far from homogenous, conflicts might sometimes be unavoidable. Furthermore, researchers will likely encounter attitudes that go against their own values. The ethical challenge here consist of engaging with these attitudes, even though this might sometimes result in advocacy or taking sides. Far from a “rule-based notion of ethics”, researchers are confronted with building complex relationships that are “founded on trust, respect, and an avoidance of delimiting the subject” (Simpson, 2011, p. 385).

An example from my PhD fieldwork in Kenya:

A Kenyan informant, who had provided me with very useful insights about Kenya throughout my field work, got angry when, during my third visit to Nairobi I went to UNHCR to train refugee interpreters. Why was I spending time training Somalis when there were many Kenyan’s not able to get education? Why was I helping the refugees who were already getting everything for free and just benefitting from handouts? My liberal, generally open attitude had allowed me to build a good relationship with this Kenyan, yet in applying the very same attitude to Somali refugees, I was compromising this relationship. In the interest of my relationship with my Kenyan informant, and in the interest of an ethical relationship with my interlocutors in Nairobi in general, I sat down with him for a long conversation. My aim was to better understand his attitude, but also to humanise Somali refugees. We discussed ethics, in the form of Christian values that I knew he adhered to, and the implications of these values for interactions with others. In an environment where the risk of ethnic and inter-religious violence remains high, neutrality or pretending to agree with his attitude for the sake of a peaceful relationship did not seem like the most ethical way forward.

3. Ethics of textualisation: anonymity and dissemination of results

Confidentiality refers to not discussing research-related information with anyone outside the research team, while anonymity specifically refers to protecting the identity of research participants (Wiles et al., 2008; Saunders et al., 2015). Anonymity can be preserved by using pseudonyms for participants and research locations (Zolesio, 2011; Wiles et al., 2008; Saunders et al., 2015), or by completely omitting data segments from a publication (Thomson et al., 2005) (which makes it difficult to assess the rigour of a study! (Wiles et al., 2008)). In some cases, authors have opted to transform their qualitative data into a fictionalised account (for an example involving a development project see Rottenburg, 2009). Anonymising research locations allows for greater decontextualisation of findings, making it easier to draw comparisons across locations, however, it also creates the risk of over-generalisation (Nespor, 2000).

Two recent trends have imposed practical limits on anonymity: technology and the participatory turn. Technology, in particular social media, makes it difficult to fully anonymise research locations (researchers presence in a city or their participation in a public event will leave an on-line trace, as people might take photographs and upload these to social media) and research participants (who might be part of the researcher’s network of friends) (Nespor, 2000; Saunders et al., 2015). Additionally, research participants might want to be mentioned by name and credited as participants in a particular project (Saunders et al., 2015; Wiles et al., 2012).

Ethical decision-making at the writing stage involves a threefold relationship between informants, truths and publics, and a selection process whose “politics” are rarely made explicit (Simpson, 2011, p. 389).

4. Further reading…

For an entertaining yet very realistic insight into the ethical dilemmas researchers are faced with as participant-observers: Bogerhoff Mulder & Logson (1996); Barley (2000).

General introduction to different forms of ethnographic writing and the textualisation of culture: Van Maanen (1988); Clifford & Marcus (1986).

Ethical challenges of ethnographic research in development/humanitarian aid contexts: Aympam et al. (2014).


American Anthropological Association (2009). Code of ethics of the American Anthropological Association .

Aympam, S., Chelpi-den Hamer, M. & Bouju, J. (2014). Défis éthiques et risques pratiques du terrain en situation de développement ou d’urgence humantaire. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 21–41.

Barley, N. (2000). The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut. Waveland Press.

Batianga-Kinzi, S. (2014). L’ethnographie au risque de l’agression : expérience de terrain à risque. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 87–97.

Bogerhoff Mulder, M. & Logson, W. (1996). I’ve Been Gone Far Too Long: Field Study Fiascoes and Expedition Disasters. RDR Books: Oakland California.

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. E. (Eds.) (1986). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley.

Fassin, D. (2006). The end of ethnography as collateral damage of ethical regulation? American Ethnologist 33 (4), 522–524.

Lambek, M. (2012). Ethics out of the ordinary. In R. Fardon, O. Harris, T. Marchand, C. Shore, V. Strang, R. Wilson & M. Nuttall (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology, Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 140–152.

Molony, T. & Hammett, D. (2007). The friendly financier: Talking money with the silenced assistant. Human Organization 66 (3), 292–300.

Mookherjee, N. (2012). Twenty-first century ethics for audited anthropologists. In R. Fardon, O. Harris, T. Marchand, C. Shore, V. Strang, R. Wilson & M. Nuttall (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Social Anthropology, Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 130–140.

Moussa, H. (2014). L’anthropologue entre les tyrannies des terrains et le choix d’une éthique. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 99–121.

Nespor, J. (2000). Anonymity and place in qualitative inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry 6 (4), 546–569.

Ouedraogo, R. (2014). Face à l’avortement : exigences éthiques et dilemme moral à Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso). Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 123–141.

Rottenburg, R. (2009). Far-Fetched Facts: A Parable of Development Aid. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Saunders, B., Kitzinger, J. & Kitzinger, C. (2015). Anonymising interview data: challenges and compromise in practice. Qualitative Research 15 (5), 616–632.

Simpson, B. (2011). Ethical moments: future directions for ethical review and ethnography. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, 377–393.

Sundberg, M. (2014). Ethnographic Challenges Encountered in Rwanda’s Social Topography. Anthropologie & Développement 40-41, 71–86.

Thomson, D., Bzdel, L., Golden-Biddle, K., Reay, T. & Estabrooks, C. A. (2005). Central questions of anonymization: A case study of secondary use of qualitative data. Forum: Qualitative Social Research 6 (1), no pag.

Van Maanen, J. (1988). Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Wiles, R., Coffey, A., Robinson, J. & Heath, S. (2012). Anonymisation and visual images: issues of respect, ’voice’ and protection. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 15 (1), 41–53.

Wiles, R., Crow, G., Heath, S. & Charles, V. (2008). The Management of Confidentiality and Anonymity in Social Research. International Journal of Social Research Methodology 11 (5), 417–428.

Zolesio, E. (2011). Anonymiser les enquêtés. Revue ¿ Interrogations ? 12 (Quoi de neuf dans le salariat ?), no pag.

My tailor is rich… but my English is poor

The little kid is sitting on the ground, staring at his knees. He is shy, I am told. Does not like to speak to strangers. Cannot really speak French.

Since the parents separated, the mother moved back to the German speaking part of Switzerland. “The school counselor told me I have to stop confusing him by speaking my dialect. So now I have to speak only French when he visits and then he goes to school in German.” He looks sad but eager to do the right thing for his child.

His ‘dialect’? Bambara. An actual language, spoken by up to 15 million people in Mali and several neighbouring countries. A language with a rich literary tradition, maintained over centuries through griots. The language of a an ancient kingdom. The reason he should refrain to speak it in order not to confuse the child? Swiss German.

“Actually, I thought Swiss German is a dialect, while Bambara is a language…” He laughs at my observation. He laughs because he understands the implications. He laughs because he had not looked at things that way. He laughs because he realises that how we value languages is essentially a matter of perspective. And from my perspective, my tailor is rich.

Just like my tailor, thousands of parents whose mother tongue does not have the required economic, cultural or political capital refrain from communicating with their own children in the language that is closest to their heart and encapsulates their being. I have observed this in practice among diasporic communities in Europe (whether Congolese, Cameroonian, or Vietnamese) and among elites in capitals of the “Global South”.

The issue is far from straightforward. Western linguists are often eager to promote the use of African languages (in Africa), for example in primary education. There is of course a case to be made for educating children in a language they actually understand (duh…). I can imagine the uphill battle primary school teachers are facing in countries that try to enforce English or French as official language of instruction from grade one. The puzzled faces of first graders who understand nothing the lady in front of the blackboard is telling them. Who are told off when asking a question in the language they can speak and that they know their teacher understands. Hopefully by week two they get the basics and by month three they can repeat sentences. Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o describes this eloquently in his Decolonising the Mind. The language of the home, the language of school, the language of the self and of otherness.

I can furthermore imagine the plight of primary school teachers who, sometimes from one day to the next, are told that the language of instruction is now “mother tongue”. How to translate the teaching materials from English into Dholuo or Maasai? Hey lady, we never said teaching was an easy job. You just take care of it. Acha kulalamika.

Mother tongue education is one of these things where we as Europeans tend to make quick judgements, based on our own intuition of linguistic rights and wrongs. Of course children should be instructed in their mother tongue. Of course one needs to promote minority languages. How can this even be controversial? And yet, in today’s Sub-Saharan Africa, the intuitive answer is not always the right one. In today’s economy, native speakers of German and native speakers of Kikamba do not have the same opportunities. Not all mother tongues are created equal. A good mastery of English or French will open doors that remain shut to those who “only” master endogenous African languages. Sometimes the difference between those in managerial positions and those in long-term unemployment boils down to what they speak and how they pronounce it. Where English is a source of considerable symbolic capital, Received Pronunciation is the cherry on top. While this is not a good thing, it is a reality for millions of people.

In order to gradually change this state of affairs, the promotion of language diversity and mother tongue instruction makes sense. Not surprisingly, many governments have been promoting exactly this. At individual level, however, those parents who have the possibility (i. e. the money) to choose will decide to send their child to the kind of school that they think offers her or him the best opportunities. Individuals want to survive in the society they live in, not in a Utopian future that might materialize but probably never will. More often than not, the very same ministers who promote mother tongue education in rural areas send their children to expensive private schools where English (or French) is the only language of instruction. Mother tongue education and minority languages for the poor, international curricula with instruction in large languages for the rich. The language game obeys the same rules than many phenomena, well understood by any scholar who studies society: the interests of the individual and those of the group often run counter to each other.

In the West, we read statistics such as “One language dies every two weeks” and we are convinced that something should really be done about this. We read that people are losing their traditions, and we feel concerned. And yet, human beings everywhere in the world strive for happiness and a better life for their children. While we are wedded to our respective culture and tradition, we are often willing to embrace new languages, new religions and new ideologies in order to enjoy better living conditions. In the age of cultural relativism, we sometimes tend to forget that, while all cultures are fundamentally valuable in their own right, structural inequalities mean that, from a very pragmatic point of view, different cultures have different market values.

In today’s world, my tailor will be rich if his English is not poor.

Nevertheless, language mastery is a not a binary, it is not 1 or 0. As has been argued for instance by Borchgrevink (2003), a limited mastery of a language can already make a great difference in helping us to establish trust, build relationships, become part of a group. While perfect mastery of all languages present in a family or city is not a realistic goal in most contexts, artificially limiting a child’s exposure to a language that would normally be present in their environment strikes me as equally impractical.

The question of mother tongue vs. official language might best be answered with a question: “Why not both?

*If you do not understand the title of this post, click here: Arte Carambolage – My Tailor is Rich

Cited References:

Borchgrevink, A. (2003), ‘Silencing language: Of anthropologists and interpreters’, Ethnography 4(1), 95-121.

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.