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The Fine Art of Diplomacy

When I was a kid, my friend Edgar and I were at his house in South London watching a film about American frontiersmen. The adventurous family was heading west in search of a new start. All of their possessions were packed tightly onto a raft made of tree logs and some extra-strength tree vine. Their vessel was slowly drifting down the river and the film’s soundtrack indicated all was well with “cruising down the river at a nice leisurely pace” music.

But then the music changed, it became a little quicker and louder.

The family’s raft seemed to be picking up speed, the water moving more unpredictably. The music had alerted us that danger was coming.  It was all very exciting and Edgar and I were sucked into the moment. One of the kids looked ahead down the river and yelled back to his parents with panic:

“LOOK OUT! RABBITS!….RABBITS AHEAD!”

Edgar and I looked at each other in astonishment. “Rabbits? In the river? Can rabbits swim? Even if they could, should they really be feared as if they were a school of long-eared piranha fish?”

After about a minute of eagerly awaiting these flesh-eating, cotton-tailed bunnies, Edgar and I figured it out. “Oh, rapids—they’re worried about rapids. Well that makes much more sense.” We hadn’t understood the American child’s accent.

In this instance no harm done. Kids watching TV. What if the context were different and the stakes much higher? What if the President of the United States was given information in a foreign language that was incorrect because the person conveying it misheard or misunderstood what was intended.

Enter The International Translator.

The international translator has the most important job in the world. Failing to decipher the real meaning of a sentence filled with ambiguity could be the difference between war and peace.

Example: “Let me give you some fruit punch.” Translate this from English into a foreign language and then back into English. You can bet that any rearrangement of words in that sentence could lead to trouble and perhaps even a scuffle.

In the game Chinese Whispers, one person whispers an original sentence into another’s ear, and then that person to the next person and so on. The last set of ears might receive some words totally different from the first. Depending on the room this can be dangerous. For example at a mafia meeting, “Can you pass down the coffee?” Could quite easily become “I think we should whack Don Corleone.”

The responsibility of the international translator’s job is beyond compare. Yet, who are these people? They stand off camera, lurking on the edge of the shadows with headphones on, a whisper away from the President’s ear. Do these people have relationships with their international counterparts? After the summit do they joke about how good it is to finally have a President that can properly pronounce the word “nuclear?”

Surely these multi-linguists must have relationships with each other, after all, they are the kings and queens of diplomacy and communication. If an argument arose they could settle their differences with a well-chosen turn of phrase, with a multitude of languages to pick from to get the nuance just right.

After a hard day’s work, does the international translator lie awake at night wondering whether he conveyed to the President that the Russian Premier might have been being sarcastic when he offered to reduce the amount of nuclear weapons stationed in Cuba?

Words in a sentence or inflections in a word, perhaps a raised eyebrow here, a cough, a pause. All of these things change the meaning of what has been said.

So, kids, when you’re in school and told that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the reason that the world was catapulted into war in 1914—don’t be so sure. Someone may have ordered the assassination, but they might also have simply been asking for someone to pass down the coffee.

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