written for the De Gruyter Handbuch (no one knows
when the thing will actually appear). Reproduced here
as a contribution to the workshop on Translation and
Institutions, SLE Congress, Leuven, August 2001.
At the end
of the millennium there are almost 30,000 non-profit
international organizations in the world. They range
from the highly developed institutions of the United
Nations system to the smaller informal associations
developed for regional issues, embracing anything
from ecology to Bible study. To the extent that they
cross cultural and linguistic borders, most of these
organizations may be expected to use translation—here
including oral interpreting—to some extent, although
the degrees and modes of use depend very much on factors
such as the size and structure of the organization,
and the relative availability of lingua francas. Although
the following survey of this vast field will address
the historical reasons behind this diversity, the
focus will more specifically be on the use of translation
in the United Nations and the European Union systems.
and Types of Organization
of International Organizations for 1999-2000 contains
entries on 29,495 non-profit organizations active
in 289 countries and territories. These are divided
into 24,325 international non-governmental organizations
(NGOs) and 5,170 intergovernmental organizations (IGOs),
which means there are almost five times as many NGOs
as IGOs. The distinction is of extreme importance
for translation services, basically because the governmental
foundations of IGOs tie them to the nation-state and
its corresponding language policies. IGOs, from the
United Nations system down, will typically privilege
multilingual policies for symbolic reasons and then
attempt to reduce the high translation costs that
ensue from those policies. NGOs, on the other hand,
rarely have the funding necessary for symbolic translation
practices; their use of translation is closer to what
might precariously be termed “real needs”; they are
far less likely to employ in-house staff translators
differences between these main types of organization
are also partly historical. If we look for distant
antecedents of contemporary IGOs, we would probably
have to consider the structures of the classical multicultural
empires, with their mixes of imposed lingua francas
and respected national languages. In such circumstances,
translation operated as a means of often symbolic
unification (see Esther 8:9). In Europe, the weak
and largely cultural Holy Germanic Empire was linked
to translation projects under Fredericus II Hohenstaufen
and in the candidacy of Alfonso X of Castile-Leon.
That might be one kind of distant background for the
use of translation such as we find it in the European
Union, where the central political figure is traditionally
weak, decision-making power remains with the major
nation-states and their preferred languages, and translation
foregrounds the symbolic plurality of those languages.
Intergovernmental undertakings may nevertheless also
be associated with the various military alliances
that have required rather more efficient communication
solutions. The weak imperial model that might underlie
the many (currently eleven) official languages of
the EU is thus not the same as the one justifying
the more restricted use of translation in an alliance
like NATO (which has English and French as working
probably have to look for their antecedents in the
structures and practices of the multinational churches,
where ideology, shared interests, and various senses
of mission tend to override the symbolic values of
language loyalty. Although there are obvious and important
differences between the Latin of Catholicism, the
Classical Arabic of Islam, the Hebrew of Judaism,
or the American English of various evangelical groups,
the international churches tend to use translation
as a means of radiating out from a main source language
(sometimes sacred) toward any number of “branch” target
languages. Since this model combines centralized power
structures and relative efficiency, it tends to be
the general rule of NGOs, and indeed of restricted-domain
IGOs such as the European Free Trade Association (which
had English as its lingua franca). Further, the demands
of efficiency increasingly bring about situations
where language-learning policies (mainly the learning
of the central language or languages) reduce the actual
need for translation within the actual organization
structure. In such situations, translation may even
be restricted to communication with external entities
only. One can thus not assume that translation is
of importance to all international organizations,
or that the growth in the number of organizations
means a necessary growth in the demand for translators.
Catch-cries such as the “multilingual information
society” may point more to the number of languages
in which individuals are able to send and receive
information rather than the actual need for translators
to intervene in communication flows.
rise in the number of international organizations
has been since the Second World War. This is firstly
because the foundations of the UN and EU systems of
IGOs were established by the victors of that war,
with attendant selections of official languages and
correspondingly decentralized translation policies.
Their patterns have largely been followed by the growing
co-ordinated institutions sector, where organizations
are basically limited to arranging contacts and agreements
between national or governmental entities in specific
domains such as health, telecommunications or banking.
Yet the rapid growth since the beginning of the 1960s
has been in the number of NGOs, which may be seen
as a response to the growing inadequacy of the nation-state
as a unit of economic control, at the same time as
the advent of cheap international communications has
allowed civil society to cross political borders.
Organizations such as Greenpeace or Medecins sans
Frontières manifest ways in which an internationalized
civil society seeks to pressure or complement the
work of governments, but they do so on necessarily
restricted budgets that often call for “user-pays”
translation policies or the employment of translators
on a voluntary basis. In these cases, the need for
efficiency radically reduces the number of working
languages, in effect bolstering the status of international
languages such as English and French, which also dominate
the main IGO systems. The International Olympic Committee,
which is an exceptionally wealthy NGO, has French
and English as its official languages and then requires
that, for each Olympiad, information on all sports
be published in “the language of the host country”
(1999, article 60, bye-law 1), at the cost of the
local organizing committee. In the case of the 1992
Barcelona Olympiad, this reference to “country” meant
that translations were carried out into both Spanish
and Catalan (Pym 1996). Yet the resulting four-language
translation policy remains one of the very few occasions
on which the internal multilingualism of nations has
affected international schemata.
Policies in IGOs
policies of many IGOs remain officially based on the
Romantic principle of “one nation, one language”.
This is apparently despite the fact that the very
rise of these organizations ensues from the decline
of the nation state as an effective decision-making
unit. Perhaps the most extreme case is the European
Union, which with 15 members at the end of the millennium
currently has 11 official languages. Since the possible
language combinations are given by the formula n.(n-1),
an EU of 11 languages must allow for 11x10=110 combinations.
In practice this organizational nightmare is mostly
avoided by a number of real-need measures, the foremost
of which is a pragmatic restriction of the central
working languages to English and French, although
attempts have been made to enhance the role of German
(for background, see Volz 1993). Coulmas (1991), in
a wide-ranging critique of what was then the European
Community of 12, calculated that even with the reduction
of working languages, the multilingual policy accounted
for some 40% of the total administrative budget (which
means it was about 2% of the total budget), and there
seem to be few reasons to downsize the estimate now
(cf. Heynold 1994: 13). Coulmas saw these costs as
defending national languages against the growth of
international English, concluding that “the European
Community has been used by member states to defend
their languages’ privileged position rather than being
given the chance to produce a language policy of its
own” (1991: 8). A similar gap between idealist democratic
policy and motivated pragmatic restriction can be
seen in the United Nations. The UN’s six official
languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian
and Spanish) represent different moments of international
expansion rather than nation-states as such, yet few
organizations within the UN system actually use all
AIIC Training Committee advises students on finding
employment as conference interpreters, it provides
notes on 44 international organizations. Significantly,
all of these are IGOs, since NGOs tend not to have
staff translators or interpreters. All 44 of these
interpreter-using organizations have English as one
of their working languages, 43 have French (the one
exception being the Washington-based Pan-American
Health Organization, which does use French occasionally),
31 have Spanish, followed by 19 Arabic, 19 Russian
and 14 Chinese (these three languages are used notably
within the UN system of IGOs), 10 German (mainly in
the EU system), 8 Portuguese (mainly in the Americas),
and the remaining languages are official in three
organizations or less. This indicates quite massive
concentration on just a handful of international languages.
Even within the relative pluralism of the EU system,
the input languages for written translations in 1997
were predominantly English (54.3%) and French (40.4%),
with the next language being German at 5.4% (European
Commission 1999). This means that, even when translations
are being carried out into a wide range of target
languages, the actual operation of organizations may
be restricted to just one or two working languages.
Obviously, in such situations not all official languages
are used in all meetings or for all internal written
to the pragmatic tendency to reduce the number of
working languages and thus economize translational
resources, there are firm ideological arguments in
favour of widening the number of languages used and
thus promoting increased use of translation. It is
pointed out that the very function of most IGOs, particularly
within the UN system, is to check the power imbalances
that would predominate in direct relations between
nation-states. Indeed, since many disputes come to
IGOs precisely because of different views and interpretations,
the function of the organization must be to manifest
the cultural and linguistic dimensions of those differences
(Jastrab de Saint-Robert 1978). Tabory (1980) associates
multilingualism with the doctrine of the equality
of States, also arguing that, in tune with notions
of linguistic ecology, in the drafting of legal documents
“the use of more than one language may clarify or
focus on problems of formulation” (1980: 145). Such
arguments need constantly to be restated in the face
of financial pressures. Although various official
resolutions passed by the UN do ostensibly tie translation
services to “needs” rather than budget constraints,
changes in the nature of international communication
may leave such moves as little more than pious hopes.
studies, criticisms of such policies tend not to concern
the selection of working or official languages as
such, although it has been argued that an EU with
just one working language could then use the savings
to enhance democracy by translating into the 50 or
so regional languages of Europe (cf. Pym 1999). Translator-trainers
and theorists tend to be more concerned about the
effects that centralized international bureaucracies
are having on the various registers of official languages
(cf. Goffin 1994). Gambier (1998: 299) claims that
EU accession has actually reintroduced into Finnish
legal prose some of the long convoluted sentence-constructions,
excessive nominalizations, connected subordinate clauses,
ambiguities, and general jargon that the previous
historical tendency had been eliminating: “From the
Finnish perspective, the composition and style of
Finnish EU texts has meant a historical regression”
(Gambier 1998: 300).
high costs involved and the difficulties of ensuring
consistent quality, organizations in the UN and EU
systems have sought to reduce translation needs in
various ways. Many meetings, especially in the more
technical areas, may effectively take place without
translation services because delegates have adequate
competence in English or French. In some cases this
may involve solely passive competence, so that a meeting
can take place in several languages, all of which
are at least understood by all delegates (Dollerup
1996: 300-306). Statistics on actual use of this “passive
multilingualism” are nevertheless hard to locate.
It would seem that the fundamental options remain
either the use of lingua francas (i.e. non-translation)
or various modes of low-cost translation (see Pym
1997). This in turn influences the way translators
and interpreters are employed.
of Translator Employment
larger entities of the UN or EU systems were founded,
the centralized organization cultures of the time
promoted the creation of in-house translation and
interpreting departments, able to provide most of
the communication services required within the organization
or for a set of related organizations. Such in-house
structures ensured a supply of skilled professionals
with experience in the specialized areas of individual
organizations, with elaborate revision practices allowing
certain quality standards to be maintained. However,
the employment of full-time staff translators and
revisers has in many cases been found to be expensive
and restrictive. In particular, it has proved unable
to provide the greater flexibility required by factors
such as increases in official languages (within the
EU system), new areas of technical expertise, the
irregular timing of translation and interpreting needs,
and various demands for more “remote meetings”(i.e.
those held outside the main headquarters).
services have thus been reduced in relative size.
This may involve a concentration of language options,
since the pragmatic reduction to one or two working
languages means that communication flows are increasingly
from those central languages (either as languages
of original text production or as “pivots”) to a range
of target languages. Combinations of non-central languages
(for example, two-way competence between Finnish and
Greek) would thus be required for little more beyond
interpreting at high-level public meetings; professionals
specializing in such combinations would then tend
not to be employed on a full-time basis. Thus, the
recruitment of staff translators and interpreters
is becoming increasingly focused on the central languages.
services have been significantly complemented by other
forms of employment (Didaoui 1998). This clearly involves
the use of more part-time staff or various on-call
arrangements, particularly in the case of interpreters,
where the role of full-time staff may virtually be
reduced to the recruitment, evaluation and preparation
of external professionals. In 1997 external freelance
translators were doing some 17% of the workload of
the European Commission’s translation service (European
Commission 1999: 14), and this percentage was expected
to increase. Many interpreters similarly work on an
“ancillary” or “freelance” basis: Altman (1998) notes
that only 7% of the conference interpreters who are
members of the AIIC are employed as staff interpreters.
nevertheless involves the contracting of entire external
agencies, which would normally be provided with the
available terminology banks and documentation required
to complete tasks in a fixed domain. Didaoui (1998)
reports that outsourcing of part of the translation
work was recommended by the United Nations office
of Internal Oversight Services in 1995, largely because
of cost criteria, on the condition that “the contractors
be proficient and experienced translators, familiar
with United Nations terminology, whose work requires
no further revision.”
partial or complete outsourcing have obviously been
made possible by improving electronic communications.
Standardized software programmes and on-line data
bases also potentially allow staff translators to
work on a distance basis, which may further enhance
flexibility. Work-at-home arrangements were formally
adopted at the IMF in 1995, based on a system whereby
translators “provide their own computer equipment,
but remote access to software, modems, and network
security devices are supplied by IMF” (reported in
Didaoui 1998). This mode of work was considered beneficial
for translators who do not need to consult with colleagues.
Yet technological change would seem to have had much
greater impact on the freelance sector, where “teletranslation”
has become the norm. This has allowed external freelancers
to replace many of translators formerly employed in-house
on a short-term basis. Teletranslators may work directly
for an international organization on a contract basis
or, perhaps increasingly, for a specialized agency
to which the organization has outsourced.
of teletranslation in the interpreting sphere is the
increasing use of “remote” or “off-site” meetings
where interpreters are recruited locally and solely
for the meeting concerned. A 1997 meeting of the UN
Inter-Agency Working Group on Improvement of Practices
in the Translation Process nevertheless stressed that,
“while the bulk of the work could clearly be performed
efficiently off-site, there were real advantages in
having a translation team on the spot, especially
when drafting was taking place: they would be fully
abreast of the latest developments and be able to
respond immediately to emergency needs, not to mention
side-benefits to the organization from the greater
motivation and sense of participation of staff” (reported
in Didaoui 1998).
thus expect to find creative combinations of staff
and external translators in which a reduced in-house
staff would control and orient the use of external
agencies or freelancers. This may involve new versions
of classical revising arrangements, which were once
a trait of clear hierarchical working relationships
within in-house translation departments. In the UN
system, the job reclassification scheme introduced
in the 1980s virtually did away with the system by
which a “superior” reviser revised the work of an
“inferior” translator, opting instead for various
modes of what is bravely called “self-revision”. In
the EU services, revising is mostly carried out by
translators employed at the same level, avoiding much
of the stigma of the hierarchical control of professions.
Translators may thus work and revise in pairs or in
reduced teams, effectively blurring the divisions
between the various drafting tasks.
organizations such as the European Commission, this
blurring of divisions also affects text production
practices. EU legislation is produced as a series
of drafts and revisions, with subsequent modifications
theoretically being introduced into any one language-version
and then being taken to the rest. Further, translators
may consult several prior language versions rather
than just the one source text, and there is reworking
and potential consultation between text originators,
translators, revisers and legal experts. All this
means that pragmatic directionality (the direction
in which any one translation act moves) becomes multiplied
so many times that it is no longer possible to point
to just one source text and just one target text,
although it may well be possible to isolate a major
“pivot” text in one of the central languages.
of text production has important consequences for
the way translators work. The resulting anonymity
of the individual translator (and indeed, in many
cases, of text originators) underlies the ethics of
“collective responsibility” that is indeed an EU norm;
the phenomenon of the “signed translation”, which
would encourage and underscore individual creativity
in the translation process, thus becomes a rarity
in the larger international organizations, no matter
how much this may contradict the various codes of
ethics subscribed to by translators’ organizations.
Further, as Koskinen (2000) argues, multiple directionality
encourages translators to think in terms of the immediate
factors of their institutional setting, working for
their peers rather than with a lived image of actual
readers beyond the organization. This would contradict
much of the functionalist training that is given in
European translation schools. A correlative of anonymity
and multiple directionality is institutionally required
equivalence, which becomes a legal fiction necessary
for the working of regulations and directives that
are binding in all language versions (Pym 1999; Koskinen
2000). This belief in equivalence further contradicts
the modes of thought dominant in translation schools
and academic theories, where effects on readers are
increasingly considered more important than any striving
for linguistic equivalence.
budgetary and time constraints nevertheless mean that
much translating is carried out at less than optimal
level, effectively abandoning beliefs in equivalence.
This is where machine translation (notably Systran
in the EU) provides significant help for the rough
rendition of short-lived texts used for information
purposes. The European Commission’s Translation Service
notes that some 200,000 pages were channelled through
Systran in 1997, mostly on the basis of information
scanning to see if the document needed further, more
careful modes of translation. MT outputs require post-editing,
most of which is carried out in the requesting department,
which presumably has appropriate expertise in the
specific field concerned.
circumstances, the future work of in-house translation
departments may well be to develop the technological
tools (databases, appropriate translator workstation
software and training programmes) that can then be
used both by a range of external translators and by
client departments within the organization. A positive
example of this is the Eurodicatom multilingual term-bank,
which was developed by the EU translation services
but is currently freely available on-line.
on Translator Training
some points of potential conflict, the larger international
organizations have had major impacts on the development
of the market for translation services. Military alliances
were largely responsible for promoting the public
role of the interpreter (at the Conference of Versailles)
and for introducing the technology for conference
interpreting (at the Nuremberg Trials) (see Delisle
and Woodsworth 1995). The European Commission, with
the largest translation bureau in history, has a massive
influence on the translation market in Europe, with
respect to both actual employment and symbolic ideals
of the profession’s ideology. There are also complex
and potentially conflictive relationships with the
wider field of academic translator training. The Commission’s
Translation Service has its own traineeship programme;
its recruitment system does not require any external
qualification in Translation or Interpreting. With
respect to interpreting, the more pronounced shortage
of properly qualified professionals has probably been
behind a change of approach. The Commission’s Joint
Interpreting and Conference Service (better known
by its French acronym SCIC) abandoned its in-house
training activities (cf. Heynold 1994) in favour of
co-operation with a few carefully selected academic
institutions. In 1998 it provided “experienced interpreter
trainers” to some 27 university programmes; it gave
subsidies to some 14 universities so that an “EU dimension”
could be added to existing courses; seven training
institutions are now involved alongside the SCIC in
a European Masters in Conference Interpreting. This
means a highly interventionist approach with respect
to the open market, such that the European field of
interpreting—much less so in the case of written translation—tends
to have its standards and ideals based on EU “best
practices” rather than on any competitive labour market.
Nations has had similar impact in a few cases such
as China, where the Beijing Foreign Studies University
was training interpreters specifically for the UN
in the 1980s, constituting what appears to be the
only specialized training programme in the country
at the time (Caminade and Pym 1995). The general UN
recruitment practice is nevertheless traditionally
through public examinations organized by the various
agencies, with increasing privilege being given to
candidates with specialized background knowledge.
of UN practices on general training may be seen in
the once moot question of optimal directionality.
One orthodoxy proclaimed that interpreters should
only work into their principle language (“mother tongue”
or “A language”), whereas the traditional Russian
position was that, since an interpreter’s miscomprehension
of an incoming discourse would bring worse results
than would a defective outgoing discourse, interpreters
should work from their principle tongue. This dispute
was variously waged in the Cold-War booths of the
UN, not without highly politicized contradictions.
Seleskovitch and Lederer note that “even the Russians,
who continue to occupy foreign-language booths, hesitate
to accept the logical consequence of their policy:
they only have Russians in the Russian booths, and
do not invite speakers of English, French or German
to interpret into Russian” (1989: 135). EU institutions
and the Association Internationale d’Interprètes de
Conférence generally accept that translation and interpreting
should be into the intermediary’s principle language
only. The adoption of this position is historically
due in no small measure to the influence of Danica
Seleskovitch, whose ideas on interpreting (known as
the théorie du sens) voyaged from Paris to
Brussels, were more or less adopted as a definitive
theory of translation and interpreting practice within
EU institutions, and have informed several generations
of practitioners. We thus find that a certain symbiosis
between a specific instance of academic training and
a major international organization can lead to an
extremely durable orthodoxy.
same sphere of influence, the translation profession
has developed its own international organizations.
The Conférence Internationale Permanente des Instituts
Universitaires de Traducteurs et Interprètes (CIUTI),
officially founded in 1964 as an association of prestigious
translator-training institutions seeking to guarantee
each other’s quality, arranges consultations with
“experts from the language services of several international
organizations”(CIUTI 1995). The Fédération Internationale
de Traducteurs (FIT) was founded in Paris in 1953
to protect and promote the interests of translators
and interpreters; in 1970 it was recognized by UNESCO
as a Category-A NGO. The Association Internationale
d’Interprètes de Conférence (AIIC), also founded in
Paris in 1953, remains the only world-wide body representing
the interests of conference interpreters, interacting
with international employer organizations. In 1999
the AIIC negotiated conditions and rates of pay for
auxiliary session interpreters and freelance interpreters
working for the institutions of the European Union.
It is perhaps not gratuitous that all three professional
organizations tend to prefer their official names
the increase in the number of international organizations,
the actual use of translators and interpreters on
the world stage remains highly imbalanced, weighted
heavily in favour of the larger and richer organizations
and their international centres. This can be seen
in the membership of the AIIC, which in 1996 had some
3000 members. Of these, roughly half were based in
Brussels, Geneva, London and Paris, with about six
times as many in Paris as in the whole of Africa (Altman
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et Interprètes (CIUTI) (1995). Translation and Interpreting
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