Spotlight September 2021: Interpreting ‘In the Field’

This month’s feature comes from Language, Culture and Justice Hub member Laura Kunreuther, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Bard College. She has been investigating the world of “field interpreters” for several years and offers her reflections on an intriguing aspect of their critical work. 

“Interpreting ‘In the Field’”

What does it mean, practically and subjectively, to work as an interpreter “in the field”? How does interpretation in the field differ as a space of interpretation from interpretation “in the booth” that takes place in the halls of the UN General Assembly? Both forms of interpretation are bound up with questions of justice, global governance, and international law, but practical features of the work differ dramatically.laura kunreuther

These questions arise from my current book project, Interpreting the Field, Translating Global Voices, that explores the work of interpreters for UN field missions whose labor remains under recognized yet essential to the operation of global organizations like the UN (1). My project focuses on interpreters in two UN-supported field missions. The first centers on the work of interpreters at the Office of the High Commission of Human Rights' (OHCHR) office set up in Nepal during and after the Maoist civil war. The second centers on the work of interpreters in Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya, employed by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) or other organizations devoted to registering and servicing the lives of refugees. In each place, I have engaged in lengthy ethnographic interviews, collaborative research, and even joint publication projects that center on interpreters' experience at work and, most often, their work in the field. (2) As I have discussed elsewhere, field interpreters regularly move between being seemingly neutral conveyers of information while also being subjective “earwitnesses” of extremely difficult, sometimes violent, situations. (3) A rich, embodied, and deeply complex image emerges in their stories of work – not only of translation, but of “the field” itself.

Interpreters' descriptions of the field bristle with uncertainty. Interpreting in the field is “an adventure,” one Nepali interpreter, Madev, told me, but not always the kind of adventure that leaves you wanting more. Madev had been hired by OHCHR-Nepal because of his skills in English and the local language spoken in the area where a new field office was opening. Like many field interpreters, he had little or no training, and his stories about the field depict the lack of a clear schedule and constant movement, often along bumpy, windy roads. Similar to the work of translating the stream of words that spill out of another person's mouth, interpreters describe their trips to the field as being propelled forward, often in unknown ways, by the agenda of the human rights or humanitarian officer.

Madev and other field interpreters hired “in country” stand in stark contrast to professional conference interpreters working in booths at the UN Headquarters, who are rigorously trained, receive mandated breaks every 20 minutes, enjoy acoustically engineered spaces, and are supported by a network of secondary interpreters and reference material. They, too, occasionally travel to the field and there is a growing literature about UN interpreters in the field. (4)

One professional UN interpreter recounts in a video, produced by the United Nations Office in Geneva, that work in the field is “so grueling - the hours. You work such long hours, you are traveling all the time, jumping out of four by fours, in the heat. You haven't had any lunch. You probably didn't have time for breakfast. But it's so exhilarating as an interpreter...You get to really see what these rights really mean that we talk about all the time in the booth.” (5) The field is the zone of the concrete, where abstract rights can be seen and heard. At the same time, the field remains ever connected to the agendas and protocols of international law and humanitarian or human rights priorities, driven by the office and Headquarters.

I have come to think of “the field” in semiotic terms as an indexical shifter that points to specific activities, places, people, and kinds of social interaction, always in relation to and distinct from the office, headquarters, or, for professional simultaneous interpreters, distinct from the “booth.” As linguistic anthropologist Susan Gal describes, an indexical shifter "most often uses the speaker's body as an orienting center...[and so] these processes of ‘pointing’ away from self and toward self through speech have a strong materiality.” (6) The stories I have heard about interpreting in the field inevitably involve elaborate descriptions of the material conditions of the work and, especially, how these conditions effect interpreter's bodies. Human rights officers and interpreters I spoke with described the field (in contrast to the office) as a space “of the unknown,” where work is “more dynamic,” where time and schedule are uncertain, and often where there is a sense of “emergency.”

The field/office (or booth) distinction might be thought of as a “fractal distinction,” similar to the way in which Gal has analyzed the “public/private” distinction. In a fractal distinction, the differences between the field and office can be “reproduced repeatedly by projecting it onto narrower contexts or broader ones.” (7) Drawing on a term used in geometry, fractals describe the way a single pattern repeats itself often with multiple nestings. If the field/office is a fractal distinction, it underscores the way that one space, such as the UNCHR office in Kakuma camp, may be considered “the field” from the perspective of those in Geneva, New York or Nairobi, but simultaneously, from the perspective of those in Kakuma, it is an “office” where interpreters go to work or from where UNHCR staff (and their interpreters) are sent to “the field” to speak to refugee communities. Furthermore, within the UNHCR compound itself, there are different activities and departments that are themselves designated as “field activities” – usually those related to communicating with refugees about their specific needs or problems. These are distinguished from the other bureaucratic activities of the office, such as listening to cases for relocation or registering refugees into the camp. Following Gal, then, the distinction between office/field “can be projected onto different social ‘objects’— activities, identities, institutions, spaces and interactions— that can be further categorized” into distinctions between field and office.

Understanding the nuances of “the field” as a space of interpretation helps us clarify the practical ways in which international law, the global discourse of human rights, and humanitarian action enter local communities through the labor of an interpreter. It also highlights the local dependencies – and their invisible links to office Headquarters – that are central to the project of global governance, humanitarian and human rights action, and international law.

(1) There are many who discuss the unrecognized labor of language specialists, particularly in international organizations and courts. See, for example, Leigh Swigart, “Unseen and Unsung: ICC Language Services and Their Impact on Institutional Legitimacy” (2019), in Legitimacy of Unseen Actors in International Adjudication (CUP, Freya Baetens, ed.); and Sonya Rao, “Linguistic Lives as Working Lives: Conducting Lingual Life Histories for the Labor Movement,” Journal of Anthropological Research 77, no. 1 (March 1, 2021): 52–66.

(2) Laura Kunreuther et al., “Interpreting the Human Rights Field: A Conversation,” Journal of Human Rights Practice 13, no. 1 (February 1, 2021): 24–44.

(3) Laura Kunreuther, “Earwitnesses and Transparent Conduits of Voice: On the Labor of Field Interpreters for UN Missions,” Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 11, no. 3 (2020): 298–316.

(4) See, for example, Cherine Haidar Ahmad. "United Nations Interpreters in the Arab Spring." In Interpreting Conflict: A Comparative Framework. Marija Todorova and Lucia Ruiz Rosendo, eds. Palgrave Studies in Language at War. London: Palgrave Macmillion, 2021, 213 - 228; Lucía Ruiz Rosendo, Alma Barghout, and Conor H. Martin, “Interpreting on UN Field Missions: A Training Programme,” The Interpreter and Translator Trainer, March 31, 2021, 1–18.

(5) Osuna, Cristóbal. UNOG: Human Rights missions. Video, 2018. This video states its goal as introducing "interpretation students and other interested audience to the world of human rights missions, by presenting first-hand accounts of experiences in the field." It focuses on professional interpreters, in contrast to most of the people I have spoken with, who are hired, without training, to be interpreters for UN missions once they are 'in country'.

(6) Susan Gal, "A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction," differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13: 1 (2002): 77 – 95.

(7) Gal, 81.

(8) Gal, 81.