Due to the multinational nature of peace operations, CIMIC Officers are often unable to communicate with the local people of the host country in their own language.

The AU and UN typically employs local people as language assistants to help CIMIC Officers with translation and interpretation. This chapter provides some guidance on how to work with interpreters, and how to make use of an interpreter in a negotiation.

This chapter will be presented in three sections. The first deals with cultural awareness; the second with the difficulties of negotiating or communicating through an interpreter in another language, and the final section deals with some specific tools and techniques for the use of interpreters during negotiations.

Cultural Awareness

Culture is acquired through the process of socialisation. We learn relative values and appropriate behaviours from our community members. One level of culture deals with obvious or observable aspects – clothing, language, food and so on.

There is another level, one that we cannot always see, which includes our shared ideas, beliefs and values. These usually become apparent when people from different social systems interact.

About Culture

‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men [sic] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.’

(Mark Twain, 1867)

Our modern world is increasingly ‘multicultural’. Individuals do not embody a single culture, but have often been influenced and formed by multiple cultures. Underlying group identity also has a strong impact on the way we experience culture – age, gender, class, profession and religion all affect who we are as human beings.

Culture colours everything we see and do. It is impossible to leave our cultural lenses behind during our interactions. Our perspective and experience is a filter through which we interpret events.

Making Judgements

Human beings frequently make generalisations about, and attribute characteristics to, people. We create stereotypes. When we do this with cultural groups there is a danger of developing negative stereotypes, which leads to prejudice.

A cycle of prejudice begins when we start judging other cultures by our own set of standards to define the world around us. Lack of knowledge, or unwillingness to learn, can result in unintentional conflict or misunderstanding.

Prejudices are often based on imperfect information and are normally filtered through an individual’s background and experience. The only way to break this cycle is to be aware of cultural differences and to try to understand their origins.

Cultural Framework

Everyone involved in a peace operation – from those planning the mission, to the military and civilian peacekeepers deployed to carry it out, to the local population in whose territory it is carried out – is part of a cultural framework. This framework provides the context within which the actors’ beliefs and actions are constructed, expressed, interpreted and understood.

When working in culturally diverse environments as peacekeepers, we have to carefully question our own cultural expectations to avoid stereotyping, or forming prejudices against other groups.


All languages contain cultural undertones and you may not be immediately aware of a specific meaning or understand an example or idiom that another person may use. It is always advisable to ask the person to repeat themselves, or express themselves in a different way. Idiomatic language should be avoided as much as possible when you communicate with someone from another culture.

Humour can be good, but be aware that humour does not easily cross cultural boundaries. What is considered humorous in one culture can easily cause offence in another.

Body language, or non-verbal communication, is very important, as it conveys a lot of things that you do not say. Different gestures have different meanings in different cultures. A smile will, however, never be misunderstood. A polite handshake between people from the same sex is accepted in most cultures.

Brief the Interpreter on how you want to have things done

• 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)
• Confidentiality issues

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 correctly translate 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.

Most interpreters in peace operations are not professionally trained as interpreters. They are people with some knowledge of the mission language (which in most cases is English) and the local languages, and have been hired by the UN as ‘language assistants’. Very few language assistants will have received any formal training in interpretation. This does not mean that they are not dedicated to their role, just that they are not professionally-trained interpreters.

Issue to Consider

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

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.

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 by paraphrasing or repetition.

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

Liberians greet a convoy of members of the US assessment team during a mission in Monrovia, Liberia, in July 2003. The team visited a small college and a school, continuing their information-gathering about the situation in Liberia in advance of a possible deployment of US peacekeeping troops to the war-wracked nation.

Working with Interpreters

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 he or she 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/humour.

Negotiating with an Interpreter

It is unlikely that the language assistant assigned to your section will 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.

Do not 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 the 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 educated. Interpreters and other local staff stay within their own communities and one can thus expect that they will be asked about their experience of working with the AU or UN peace operation by family and friends. 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.

Practical Steps

Brief the interpreter on the physical position you want them to take, for example, 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 too, not the interpreter, and keep 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 explain the culture or context, where necessary. He or she should make a clear distinction between the interpretation, and the contextualisation.

A UN soldier counts fighter’s ammunition as part of a DDR simulation during the visit of a South African Ambassador, in the presence of the local media.