Due to the multinational nature of peace operations, most peacekeepers will not be able to communicate with the local people of the host country in their own language. The UN will typically employ local people as language assistants to help peacekeepers with translation and interpretation.

This lesson provides some guidance on how to work with interpreters, and how to make use of an interpreter in a negotiation or conflict situation. It will help you to understand the cultural context that creates the need for interpretation, and to understand the roles and importance of interpreters.

It will also include practical information and the ‘dos and don’ts’ of working with interpreters.

Key Things to Learn

• Understand the cultural context that creates the need for interpretation
• Understand the importance and roles of interpreters
• Learn basic approaches to working with interpreters
• Be familiar with the ‘dos and don’ts’ of working with interpreters

When You Don’t Speak the Language

Most peacekeepers are, by definition, foreigners. Often you will not speak the languages spoken by the parties to the conflict, and will need to operate through an interpreter. This person will be your interface, through which you experience the conflict, and you will have to base decisions on the information they provide. Working effectively with your interpreter is critical.

Negotiating in Another Language

Our languages are extensions of our cultures. It requires great cultural sensitivity and knowledge of both culture and language to be able to translate correctly not only the words, but also the content, emotion and meaning of the words, when interpreting a conversation between two people with different languages and cultures.

Issues to Consider

• Language reflects culture
• Expect misunderstandings
• Position of interpreter in society (at home)
• Danger for interpreter

Most interpreters in peace operations are not professionally trained interpreters. They are people with some knowledge of the mission language (for example, English) and the local languages, and have been hired by the UN as language assistants. Very few language assistants would have received any formal training in interpretation. This does not mean that they are not dedicated; just that they are not professional interpreters, and one should thus work with them with that understanding.

It is thus quite possible that much of what you are saying to the other party is not being conveyed and understood in the same way that you said it or meant it. Much of what you understand about what is being said by the other party may also not be very accurate.

Brief the Interpreter

• Short sentences
• Physical position of the interpreter 
• Look at the other party, not the interpreter  
• Interpret word for word what is said
• Do not analyse (the interpreter may explain the culture or context where necessary to you, in addition to interpretation)
• Respect confidentiality

Assume, therefore, that there may be a lot of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. If something sounds out of context, or does not make sense, double-check it for accuracy through paraphrasing or repetition.

Remember to allocate twice the expected amount of time when conducting a meeting, negotiation or mediation with interpretation.


During the early stages of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), food was distributed in response to food shortages in certain areas of the country. As the situation improved, this was changed to Food for Work and Vulnerable Feeding campaigns. At one of the meetings, where UNTAET and World Food Programme (WFP) officials were explaining this change in programming to the local community through interpreters, it was clear that their explanations were not understood, and caused confusion. 

After some time, they realised that they used words such as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘programmes’, which were not familiar to the interpreters, and did not have readily obvious meanings in the local languages that were being used by the interpreters. 

Through this experience, the UN officials learned not to use UN or humanitarian jargon when speaking to the local community, but instead always to use easily translatable concepts. They also learned to make sure, beforehand, that their interpreters were familiar with the subject matter about which they were going to talk. Where relevant, they also explained concepts with which the interpreters were not familiar, so that they could figure out beforehand how best to explain these in the local language.

Practical Steps

It is unlikely that the language assistant assigned to your section would have received any formal training as an interpreter. It will thus be helpful to tell the interpreter what you want them to say, and how you want them to act. 

  • Try not to show disrespect towards the local country, religion, people, leaders, culture or food in front of your interpreter. Also, do not show disrespect to any of the parties in a conflict situation in front of your interpreter.
  • Think of the interpreters and other local staff as your ambassadors to the local community. Interpreters are normally influential in their communities, because they are more educated than most others. Interpreters and other local staff stay within their own communities and one can thus expect that they will be asked by family and friends about their experience of working with the UN. One should also take this into account in terms of their personal safety, and not expose them to situations that may result in reprisals against the interpreter.
  • Brief the interpreter of the physical position you want them to take, e.g. half a foot behind you, on your right-hand side when standing and talking, or seated to your left when sitting down.
  • Look at the person you are speaking to, not the interpreter. Maintain eye contact (or show that you are focused on the other person in whatever way may be culturally appropriate under the circumstances) when the other person is talking, even if you don’t understand the actual words.
  • Brief the interpreter to repeat verbatim what is being said, not to give you a summary or evaluation.
  • Brief the interpreter not to analyse, clean up, value-judge or edit what is being said. What the interpreter can do is to explain the culture or context, where necessary. They should make a clear distinction between the interpretation and the contextualisation.
  • To avoid miscommunication, you should make the work of the interpreter as easy as possible by:
    • using short sentences, and encouraging others to do the same;
    • not using technical terms and abbreviations (where this is unavoidable, discuss the terms with the interpreter beforehand so that they can look them up in a dictionary, and prepare an appropriate word or phrase in the local language);
    • not using culturally specific idioms; and 
    • not using jokes.
Treat your translator with respect – they are members of the local community, and their loyalties will lie with the local community before the peace mission.

Key Principles

Negotiating is a difficult business at the best of times. Negotiating across a language barrier only makes things more difficult. Ideally, find people on your team who can speak the language of the other side, or ask them to do the same. If that is not possible, you may have to use an interpreter.

These are some principles to bear in mind:

Interpreters are real people, not machines. Apply the same principles to them as you would to yourself – allow them to take breaks, work in comfortable conditions and recognise that they may absorb stress and find the process difficult, just as you do.
• Ideally, each side should have their own interpreters – expecting one neutral interpreter to represent the discussion to both parties places the interpreter in a powerful position, which may be abused.
Show your interpreter respect and appreciation, and they will be more likely to respect the very powerful position they are in, and translate carefully and consistently.
• Make it clear to the interpreter that their role is simply to communicate what the other party says, and vice versa. The first sign that the interpreter has lost neutrality is that they answer the other side back and engage in discussion, without translating what is going on. If finances allow, it may be valuable to have a back-up interpreter checking that the translation is correct.
Simultaneous translation is generally more accurate and relies less on the summarising skills and memory of the interpreter, but requires special facilities for large groups. However, it requires parties to speak slowly and clearly, and to restrain their emotional expression.