Russian Keys

Opening Address NZSTI Annual Conference 2015

“Sleepwalking towards conflict?” The role of the interpreter in revolutionary times”, Stuart Prior, Keynote Speaker
Wellington, Saturday 27 June 2015

E NGA MANA
E NGA WAKA
E NGA RAU RANGATIRA MA
HUI NOA A TENEI WHARE
TENA KOUTOU, TENA KOUTOU, TENA KOUTOU KATOA
Thank you very much, Mr Chairman and members of the NZSTI, for the privilege of addressing you this morning. I should like to acknowledge two special guests – interpreters from Afghanistan – and to thank them for their service to New Zealand.
I should like to begin with a quotation from the late Gunter Grass.
In his last interview, with El País, Gunter Grass commented:
“There is war everywhere; we run the risk of committing the same mistakes as before; so without realising it we can get into a world war as if we were sleepwalking.”
The theme of my address is simple: We live in revolutionary times. Change is happening everywhere, and at bewildering speed. To survive and prosper we as nation must – not should, not could – invest in our public policy. This requires two things: a clear understanding of our national interests today, and in the long-term, and an investment in the public policy needed to protect and enhance those interests.
This requires investment, above all, in people. The interface between New Zealand and the world requires investment in people who are professionally trained to act as bridges between the nations and peoples with whom New Zealand and New Zealanders are bound to interact. The professions of diplomacy and the related profession of interpreter are, in my view, “Siamese twins”. We have neglected the former, to our disadvantage, and we have largely ignored the latter.

 

Background
A few words about my background. I am part of the “baby boomer” generation, that generation born after the appalling Second World War. I did not realise at the time I was growing up and during my education how lucky I was. The cost, in human terms, which New Zealand had borne as a result of this War and the Great Depression and First World War which preceded it, became clear only in time.  The failures of public policy which led to that century of mayhem have become for me a matter of the deepest personal and professional interest because I know that the vast majority of potential conflicts can be prevented by peaceful means, and actual conflicts resolved by intelligent negotiation.
The second formative influence was university where I studied under an émigré Russian professor, in Dunedin. He gave me, in his teaching which was both disciplined and chaotic, in the true Russian way, a priceless education – insights into the way people think, in the role of culture, in the role of values and beliefs.
The third formative experience was the privilege of working in the New Zealand diplomatic service for thirty years, with the Soviet Union, Russia, and – believe it or not, but it has a sort of Cold war logic about it – Antarctica – as my major areas of experience. My first diplomatic posting in Moscow, between 1978 and 1980, was a huge and critical shock to my system. It was also a necessary shock – it acted as a corrective on the comfortable assumptions with which I had grown up in New Zealand. It also made me aware of all those things about New Zealand which are without price and which are accorded no value but which are, in fact, hugely valuable, because they encapsulate two entirely different world views, two entirely different relationships between the governors and the governed. I like to sum these views up as:

WE THE PEOPLE  versus WE LET YOU
The fact that the New Zealand diplomatic post which was established in Moscow in 1944 was New Zealand’s first diplomatic mission in a non-English speaking country has provided many lessons as a benchmark, so to speak. Sometimes I wonder whether we have learnt anything about working with Russia in all the seventy years which have passed since that first meeting of Russian and New Zealand cultures in Moscow. All that time and effort and money which has been put into Russia often seems to me as little more than a sunk cost, rather than the investment it should have represented. And yet there has been so much learning possible from this experience – learning which would have been most helpful for use nearer to home, beginning in our South Pacific region, and extending more widely into our Asia/Pacific neighbourhood. 
What I saw then, and have seen time and again since, including in New Zealand’s relationships with the tangata whenua and our closest neighbours in the South Pacific, is a failure to understand the people and cultures with whom we have to deal, a failure to negotiate successfully, a failure to achieve what we could and should have achieved. One reason for this is that we have not used interpreters who are on our side, people who know us, “warts and all”, people who know and love New Zealand, and who can and will fight in our corner for us. To be honest, I have often found myself cringing at our ineptitude in handling negotiations with another culture. The “she’ll be right” “Number 8” wire approach to relationships between cultures just does not work any more.
I should note at this point that I am NOT a linguist and not an interpreter. In the era in which I learned Russian, interaction with Russians other than Soviet officials was not possible. I learnt the language “with my eyes” – and, many years later, found that exactly the same was true for Russians of my generation who could understand and read English but were hesitant about using the oral language. Working with interpreters, which began with learning how important a good interpreter is and how to make use of this medium of communication, was an essential part of diplomacy, as I experienced it.  But I am a translator – both in the sense of making written translations from one language into my native language; and in trying to convey the meaning and sense of New Zealand, and the New Zealand way of doing things, to people from other nations and culture, to mutual advantage.
Today, New Zealand has the great good fortune of having many new citizens who come from countries which are important to New Zealand now and in the future. Within these different cultures are those who can fulfil the role of communicators between our countries and cultures – but they need to know what to look for, and part of this challenge is that they need to understand what national interests of New Zealand are connected to their home country. The need for intermediaries is critical – in politics, social interactions, sport, and business. Each country, each culture is a unique socio-economic situation, with its own unique political economy, and way of doing things. Who calls the shots? Who makes decisions? Where does real power lie? How can New Zealand negotiate in any context of competition where we cannot answer these basic questions?

IJEN’S VIEWS
A colleague of mine, a former student, a Parisian-trained interpreter and translator, Moscow-based for many years, but with amazing interest in China and fluency in mandarin, has some remarkably perceptive views on the role of the interpreter today. A New Zealander with firm grounding in two of the world’s countries most different culturally and most important politically, she answered my request to comment on the role of interpreter today. As she is not able to be here in person, I shall take the liberty of drawing on her comments.
“the interpreter is a bridge between cultures. Over history, this bridge has suffered all the usual fates of bridges, variously appreciated and loathed, sometimes destroyed.”

“Interpreters have been perceived as devious and unreliable, potentially treacherous, as people so often assume that patriotism and loyalty to one's country etc are like the traditional view of marriage - you are supposed to have one spouse only. Interpreters have been made into spies, scapegoats, all manner of despicable characters. But they have also been indeed the bridges and roads bringing peoples and cultures if not closer, then at least spreading information about each other.”

“Language is so much what makes us what we are, what gives us our unique possibilities in this world, but it is nothing in itself, only a verbal cover for our lives and environments. Interpreters are perhaps not so much bridges as boats ferrying people from point to point in what is really one great ocean. People argue all the time about whether this or that term can be accurately conveyed in another language. They say, 'there is no word for such and such in x language'. I disagree. It might take more than one word to express a particular concept in this or that language, but translation is not about numerical equivalents. All human experience is fundamentally similar and we can convey it to each other if we understand what we are trying to convey.”

“The interpreter in revolutionary times is an interesting notion. Revolutionary times are supposed to be about novelty, in with the new and out with the old, though in reality only the forms have changed and the fundamental essence remains the same and eventually proves the full circle notion contained in that word 'revolution'. Revolutionary times assume passion, taking sides, a subjective rather than objective perspective, and an extreme rather than moderate approach. The interpreter has a difficult job because one duty is to remain professionally neutral, objective and
moderate, but another duty is to transmit the message faithfully, and if the message is shrill and hysterical, the target audience has to see that too. The black and white nature of revolutionary times calls on us to take sides and make our values clear. .. But (whatever one thinks about a particular leader – and the same applies in business and in politics) it is in fact better that (the leader) have someone taking the effort to transmit their message in a faithful and clear fashion, so that others can see and hopefully understand if not what they really think, then at least what they want people to believe they think”.

“…being a good interpreter requires not just good analytical and information-processing skills, but above all, the ability to be a truly attentive and objective listener. One of the great problems in politics and society is that people are not good listeners. The participants in conferences and such events might all be not good listeners either, but the interpreter has to be. The more revolutionary the times, the less people are likely to be good listeners. They will either be persuaders, or defenders, and will think they already know in any case what the other side is trying to say.”

A time of revolution
As a said, we are living in and through revolutionary times. A business commentator, Rod Oram (1), whose insights I value highly, has encapsulated the challenges as follows:
“Over the next twenty years we’ll experience transformations of a speed, complexity and scale unprecedented in human history. We need such radical change if we are to meet our environmental, social and economic challenges.”
“Many people in many countries are enjoying unparalleled prosperity and political freedom. Yet cynicism and distrust of business and politics is rampant. We’re resisting profound change when we need to embrace it.”
In the age of the Communications Revolution there is need more than ever for accurate and effective communication between nations and peoples, as well as between and among human beings. Our problem is that we are OK on the latter – internet and Facebook and selfies – but amateurish, not to say naïve, with respect to the former.
What do I mean? Just in the past couple of days I met a group of young Singaporean accountancy graduates. They were in the middle of a three week car tour of New Zealand, as an end-of-education road trip holiday, before they started their careers in the workforce. One of the impressive young men in the group asked me: how much use do you make of the internet in your work? How helpful is it? I said that the internet is a helpful tool, but without first-hand knowledge of countries and cultures, first-hand experience of the way people think, the way their societies are constructed,  it is not, in my experience, possible to make effective use of the information resources of the communications revolution. The graduate agreed with me. Singapore, a state without natural resources, has invested in its people who have made this country the success it has become,

The danger of propaganda, mirrors
It was the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 who first deliberately harnessed the power of mass communication technologies to get across their message. The question of the truth of what they were broadcasting was secondary. Anticipating Marshall McLuhan by several decades, the medium became the message.
The industrialisation of the process of information processing has been through various phases. The Second World War spurred further changes – and the dangers of what was happening was picked up brilliantly by the English writer George Orwell.  
In order to look behind the façade, to penetrate the curtain of distortion and obfuscation, first-hand knowledge is needed. That is where the professional work of the diplomat and the interpreter comes into its own: understanding things as they really are, and conveying that reality to those who make decisions, whether for public policy or for business, is a service of critical importance.
To help prevent war and to help peoples work together on matters of planetary importance that affect the survival of the human race: this is summed up in the concept of sustainability. And it is a fact that negotiations about the use of resources on the global scale are going to require careful, respectful negotiations among nations and peoples and the ability to establish facts and to find compromises in the interests, and to the benefit, of all.
Gunter Grass in his last interview focused also on mankind and Planet Earth, expressing concern over climate change and overpopulation.
“All of this together makes me realise that things are finite, that we don’t have an indefinite amount of time.”
One outcome of information manipulation, useful for those in power – but incredibly dangerous for a healthy society, in my opinion – is the creation of a sense of helplessness in the recipients: everything is so hard and so complicated and so complex that nothing can be done.  It is a version of the old Roman approach to keeping the masses happy – bread and circuses.
But nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. Interventions can make a difference, a real difference, especially at the level of Government.

Public policy and the Interpreter
Here we come face to face with a huge obstacle – the Public Policy Deficit – the product of the past 30 years in which our country and others have been guided by an ideology which in essence describes “public good” as “public bad”.  Rod Oram’s reference to the cynicism and distrust of politics and business is symptomatic of this alienation and disengagement from focus on the common good - of our societies and of humankind in general.
Forgotten or ignored as an inconvenient truth is the fact that the public good is essential for the healthy and resilient societies which are needed in today’s bewildering world.
That focuses attention on the critical question of human capital and, what Joseph Stalin called, “the human factor”.
Here we in New Zealand face our own uncomfortable truths
- The world does not owe us a living, of any sort;
- Our position in the world and our ability to earn in order to maintain and improve our lifestyles, are dependent on how we use our brains and how we organise and conduct ourselves in our business with other nations and peoples;
- Leadership from the public policy perspective is essential – the private sector simply cannot provide the leadership needed in such uncertain times; and last, but not least;
- Our thinking and our policies, if I may so describe them, are largely mono-lingual in a multilingual and multicultural world. 
We simply have to do better, much better to engage with the wonderful, stimulating, but unforgiving world of competitive opportunity which is out there today. Either we go forward and are enriched by new opportunities, or we go backwards, and are impoverished. There is no alternative because the world does not stand still while we pause and ruminate.
Who are the people who create these necessary links to the wider global community? – politicians, diplomats, business people?  – of course, we all know about these important roles. We all have seen people fulfilling them with skill and effect. But, we also have seen many who have these responsible roles not performing as they should. Some – probably too many - are suffering from what I think of as “TBBI Syndrome” – “Too Busy Being Important”… to do anything….
But links are created by everybody, and often the most effective in shaping the image of New Zealand are not the first three categories which I have noted but are what we might think of as “citizen diplomats”. Often, in my experience, the more effective interpreters and translators of New Zealand to the world at large have been the tangata whenua, with their deep and hugely impressive cultural heritage and dignity; pasifika, with their intimate links to the world’s greatest and most important ocean; creative people; tellers of stories; private sector voluntary contributors who maintain key social infrastructure; sportspeople; and others, such as Hobbits.
Here, one of the most important professions in our brave new world is that of interpreter – yet, in my view, it is singularly unrecognised in New Zealand and, indeed, little better recognised elsewhere in the world.
Today most building work in New Zealand has to be performed by a “Licenced Building Practitioner”. The same is true of plumbing and electrical work.
But to communicate? - Well, anybody who knows another language is accepted as an interpreter. Yet the profession of interpreter is needed as never before.  Among other things, it is an essential insurance policy
In public policy terms it is hardly a matter of under-investment in a core need and set of core competencies. It is a case of the absence of investment in a key element of the human capacity and infrastructure which New Zealand needs if it is to have a resilient society, and will need if it is to fulfil its potential as a world leader – in intelligent design of social policy and in intelligent and creative interaction with the outside world.

WHY INTERPRETERS? WHY DIPLOMATS?
Why and where are interpreters needed?
A simple example: people have started wars because another party has shown “a lack of respect” This idea sounds medieval. It isn’t. It is contemporary - utterly contemporary. Yet – respect is earned. It cannot be bought – spraying money around does not help. Neither does the swagger of the playground bully.  Then there are other concepts critical to relations between nations and people, and among businesses – trust, confidence, ethics, values, tolerance, respect, decency, fairness. Again, you can’t put a price on them, but you can put a price on the consequences of their absence. I am reminded of that amazing Maori term – “mana”. .  Like trust and confidence, mana can only be earned.
Maori also remind of the challenge of first contact – when you watch a performance of the haka for the first time do you interpret its message as “run for the hills” or “grab the nearest Kalashnikov”?
Some reflections on the interrelationship between diplomacy and interpretation are appropriate at this point. Ambassador Raimundo Bassols (2) at a lecture in Salamanca, Spain, 2004 commented, very appropriately in my view, as follows:
When a diplomat says “yes”, he means “perhaps”. When he says “perhaps”, he means “no”. When he says “no”, he’s no diplomat.
As the article, devoted to the role of the interpreter, in last December’s United Nations Chronicle explained, “At international conferences nowadays the most urgent business never appears on the agenda. That’s the task of turning what is said in one language into another language with a maximum of accuracy and a minimum of delay.”
“In that context, diplomats have evolved from top hat aristocrats to highly educated professionals who negotiate with their counterparts in short sleeves. Their discussions are no longer limited to the issues of war and peace, even if conflicts, including those which involve multilateral forces, require interpreters at different levels of the line of command. Topics encompass anything imaginable, from issues concerning the continental shelf to outer space, or from tariffs on goods to climate change, crime prevention or human rights. A good deal of those international negotiations are conducted by experts rather than by career diplomats: conference diplomacy “owes its growth chiefly to the increasingly technical character of international relations”
“To conclude this quick overview, two phenomena have had an impact on diplomatic interpreting in recent decades, apart from changes in the world’s geopolitical map: the increasing participation of civil society in the international arena—myriad non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are present in international fora—and the revolution in information and communication technologies, as well as faster means of transportation.”

Conclusions
Treating other peoples with courteous respect needs a bridge, an intermediary, somebody who can convey the nuances of body language, the relevant influences of history and of culture, the key features of the mindset of the other person.
There are two avenues we need to consider: external, and internal:
External: I would argue that the professional interpreter requires skills which are the equal of the professional diplomat – in mono-lingual New Zealand the two professions in fact go hand-in-hand.
Internal: communication among and between citizens: this helps with meeting practical, day to day needs, but also through enfranchisement, through giving everybody a stake in their own society,  puts up a huge barrier, against de-humanisation, via stereotypes and propaganda which portray people as “enemies” – witness the propaganda we see coming from conflict zones demonising; but witness also the often stereotyped and somewhat negative portrayal of Pasifika and Maori in New Zealand. 
What is to be done? I began with the wisdom of Gunter Grass, and it is only proper that I finish with his profound thought:
“The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open”
It is your job as a professional interpreters to make sure that the messages from these open mouths are conveyed accurately, with integrity and authenticity – in the interests of all, politicians, businesspeople, officials, representatives of society as a whole, and, of course, Hobbits and other products of our creative intelligence.
The development of skilled, professional interpreter profession will contribute to the development of the resilient society which we need in our wonderful country if we are to preserve the values which we cherish and if we are to prosper through taking advantage of the global opportunities available to us in these revolutionary times. 
It is our collective responsibility and our task to exert every effort to have professional interpretation recognised, nurtured and rewarded as an essential contributor to the formation and execution of New Zealand public policy and business practice at home and abroad.

References
(1) Rod Oram in Commentator Column, Sunday Star Times 21 June 2015
A(2) Ambassador Bassols quoted in article Two Centuries of Diplomatic Interpreting: From Top Hat to Short Sleeves Diplomacy in UN Chronicle Vol LI No 3 2014, December 2014

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