Volume 3, No. 4 
October 1999

Adrián Fuentes Luque




Translation Journal
Diplomatic Translation


An Approach to Diplomatic Translation

by Adrián Fuentes Luque

Uncovering diplomatic translation

The world of translation generally appears to us in one of three facets: academic, where teaching plays a pivotal role; research, that sort of sanctuary to which we all aspire, and with which we all flirt to the extent of our abilities, so that we can then share our findings or boast about our assumptions in conferences or through dense papers. Finally, there is professional translation, the primary and fundamental pillar (in the broadest sense of the term), but also, sadly and shamefully, a great unknown, constantly questioned by all those who, from their theoretical ivory towers, continue to ignore it.
Diplomatic translators must have a vast wealth of knowledge and be very familiar with international affairs and in particular with the political, social and economic situation of their own countries.

   There are many fields in translation, almost as many as there are adventurers of this noble and challenging field; economic translation—not too profitable, legal translation—sometimes very biased, scientific translation, whose chemistry often escapes our understanding; and technical translation, which makes us hate the cosmic synergy of a car or the reflection of a computer screen. The latter is probably the best known, as it accounts for some 90% of the translation workload around the world. Obviously, what we have in mind here is software translation (or localisation) (mainly manuals and software).
   Apart from these there are others, perhaps just as important and unfortunately equally unknown, like translation in international bodies or agencies; translation of advertising, community translation (nothing to do with the European Union, but rather with services offered to the community; this type of translation is very little known throughout Europe, but in countries such as Australia or Canada it fulfills a very important social function). Audiovisual translation is sure to become the most booming one in the next few years, but it is also the one where the most atrocious [whether intentional or not] mistakes are found. And diplomatic translation, something very few have ever heard about.
   Our aim in this paper is to give a brief overview of the complex, serious, esoteric, and unknown world of diplomatic translation.
   Diplomatic translation is carried out within diplomatic missions, embassies or consulates. In certain aspects, we could relate this type of translation to that carried out within international bodies, in terms of the type of texts translated and the conventions established. However, diplomatic translation has its own rules and peculiarities. That glamourous, romantic halo of 19th century intrigues, where the full load of foreign relations fell upon ambassadors and an army of translators and interpreters, is all but forgotten now. In the old days, interpreters working at embassies or diplomatic missions were called Dragoman (or Drogman), especially in the East Mediterranean region. In those days, however, they enjoyed a certain degree of protection. This term would later evolve, and would also encompass consular officers, possibly because of their need to master the language of the host country.
   Firstly, the diplomatic world is a very closed one, extremely inaccesible to outsiders and, paradoxically enough, not very diplomatic on many occasions. Not all embassies have, as one would logically think, a translation and /or interpreting service. On the contrary, very few diplomatic missions realise how important it is to have professional translators and interpreters among their staff. In this sense, we could mention that, of all the English-speaking embassies accredited to Spain, only those of Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom have at least one translator/interpreter. It is surprising that major embassies like the Canadian Embassy in Spain, Canada being an officially bilingual country, commission all translation/interpreting-related tasks to some of their administrative staff. Smaller missions, like New Zealand, do not even contemplate this possibility. There are, however, other diplomatic missions which, despite the fact that English is not the prime language of their country, use English as their working language. This is the case of countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan or India (where apparently diplomats themselves carry out translation duties, after a period of linguistic immersion).
   Some embassies, the biggest and most representative ones, have a team of professional translators/interpreters. They diversify their tasks and show a great degree of professionalism and specialisation. In this sense, we could mention the case of the British Embassy, where there is a team of translators/interpreters, headed by a senior translator, specialising in press and chancery matters, plus two more people specialising in military and defence affairs. As for consulates and consular offices, to the best of our knowledge, they do not have translators/interpreters among their staff.
   But, what exactly is diplomatic translation? What does it encompass? Well, the truth is, a little of everything and a bit more. This is precisely one of its most attractive, but also one of the most difficult, features. One has to reveal him/herself as a universal expert, as some sort of epitome of knowledge with all its nine letters in capitals, in order, for instance, to start the day with the translation of a health certificate for a licence to export crocodile meat, followed by a back translation of a dense and cryptic opinion article on macroeconomy and, to finish the day,an aide-mémoire on the treacheries of the common agricultural policy for dessert.

Diplomatic hierarchy

It is important to outline some of the terms and concepts common to the diplomatic context. Firstly, it must be said that a very strict hierarchy governs the diplomatic world. It is important to know the different levels within the diplomatic strata, since each level deals with different aspects and has a different approach:
: Also called Head of Mission or by the acronym, HOM. He/she occupies the highest level within a diplomatic career, and is the head of a diplomatic mission or embassy. There are different types of ambassadors: "career" Ambassador, politically appointed Ambassador, ad hoc Ambassador, extraordinary Ambassador (called Ambassador at large), and permanent representative. In Vatican diplomacy, the ambassador is called Nuncio. In countries with a Catholic tradition, the Nuncio is normally considered, for courtesy reasons, the "Dean of the Diplomatic Corps". If this is not the case, he is called Pro-Nuncio. Embassies are located in the capital of the host country. An embassy can also have "accredited countries", that is, a given embassy in a given country may also be in charge of several surrounding countries, to which it is accredited.
: Second in command in a diplomatic mission. He/she represents and substitutes, in his/her absence, the ambassador. In Vatican diplomacy this figure is called Auditor. When he/she is the acting ambassador, in the absence of the ambassador, he/she signs official documents as Chargé d'Affaires a.i. [ad interim].
: Category immediately under that of Counsellor. There can be several subcategories: First, Second, Third Secretary. He/she is directly above the Attaché. However, in some instances titles can be combined, i.e. the First Secretary can be Consul at the same time, or the Third Secretary also be the Cultural Attaché.
: Hierarchically situated below the Secretary, his/her diplomatic and administrative functions are basically consular affairs (looking after the country's nationals abroad, handling passports, visas, certificates of non impediment, etc.). He/she can be a "career" diplomat or an Honorary Consul (designated for his/her personal merits or profile, he/she does not need to be a national of the country he/she represents). In certain English-speaking diplomatic missions, the Consul is also called, due to the functions they perform as administrative managers of the offices, SAO (Senior Administrative Officer / Chancellor / Viceconsul). Consular offices can be located within the Embassy or be in a different location in the same city. Each country has different criteria for the establishment of consulates, consular offices or Honorary Consulates in other towns, according to its own interests.
: They can be diplomatic civil servants or of a lower category, in charge of a particular military, political, cultural or economic field, perhaps the most popular ones being the Military, the Cultural and the Commercial attachés. Certain countries also place attachés within their diplomatic missions and embassies whose real duties they do not wish to disclose. As in the case of the consuls, there can also be Honorary Attachés.

   Apart from the diplomatic staff accredited to a diplomatic mission, there is also local staff, basically composed of nationals of the country in which the diplomatic mission or embassy is located. The locally engaged staff are not civil servants, and therefore do not enjoy the privileges of diplomats. However, many local staff members perform functions and tasks that correspond to diplomatic staff of higher category. Local staff are known as Locally Engaged Staff or LES.

Formulae and diplomatic documents

Within the scope of diplomatic translation, there are two main groups of documents (although they are not the only ones):
  • chancery documents
  • consular documents

The first group consists of texts or documents aimed to serve as a vehicle for diplomatic communication between the given diplomatic mission and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and viceversa. The most common one is the Third Person Note, which is used to inform or advise about a particular issue, to obtain the support of the government for an international body or agency (for example, in cases of candidacies), to communicate the termination or commencement of a person's functions as a diplomat, etc. The Third Person Note is handed over by a diplomat or through other official channels. It is written in the third person (hence its name), and always follows the same structure, with regards to the introduction and the salutation:

   "The ... Embassy presents its compliments to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has the honour to advise / inform / request, etc. ...".
   "The ... Embassy avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the assurances of its highest consideration".

   The Head of Mission or Ambassador signs the Note, and the name of the addressee, that is, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is placed at the bottom of the document, together with the date.
   The Letter is another type of document. As opposed to the Third Person Note, the Letter is written in the first person and is normally signed by the Head of Mission. This is a much more direct and personal means of diplomatic communication, usually addressed to the Minister. With regards to Letters we find the term Exchange of Letters, to refer to a particular exchange of information concerning a particular issue.
   Perhaps one of the least known document type is the Non-Paper, which is a document that, having originated from an official body (Embassy, Ministry, Directorate General, etc.) has, intentionally, no official nature, and therefore it does not commits the body issuing such document. Its nature is marked by the use of plain paper, that is no crest or official letterhead, which is used both in Third Person Notes and Letters. The idea of unofficiality is often reinforced with the words "Non-Paper" at the top of the document.
   Upon taking up his/her post, the Ambassador or Head of Mission hands over the Credentials or Style Copies to the President or Head of State of the host country. Before presenting his/her Credentials, the diplomat must have previously received the Agrément from the host government, which states that there is no impediment to his/her taking up his/her mandate in the host country.
   Obviously, there is a widespread use of gallicisms in this type of translation. This is not coincidental, since French was for many years (and still is) the diplomatic language par excellence.
   Similar to the Third Person Note, albeit having its own characteristics and format, is the Memorandum or Aide-mémoire. This is a document presented by an embassy or diplomatic mission to a ministry (normally the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), explaining the situation of a given matter, including the position or viewpoint of the issuing country with regards to a specific issue, making particular suggestions, etc. This document is written in an impersonal way, excluding any courtesy formulae unlike Third Person Notes. Letterheads are not commonly used here.
   The Memorandum / Aide-mémoire is undoubtedly one of the many documents that translators in a diplomatic mission have to deal with most, especially in matters concerning issues such as international economy and commerce, farming and agriculture, and issues of international relevance (human rights, workers' rights, environment, etc.). The translation of these documents must be accurate and careful, given the intricacies of the issues in question. The same care applies to the Letters and the Third Person Notes, which demand the highest degree of thoroughness, as a mistake or a misinterpretation of the original meaning could compromise diplomacy and even lead to a diplomatic incident.
   Consular issues-related documents constitute a great deal of the bulk of translation work in an embassy. This is an extremely varied field, although highly related to the fields of legal and sworn translation. Thus, translators find themselves confronted by birth, marriage and death certificates, certificates of no impediment, divorce sentences, deeds, etc., together with other documents, mainly related to visas, passports, forensic death reports, assistance to arrested nationals, etc.
   The academic side is not, for the moment, highly developed in the world of diplomatic translation. Although embassies and diplomatic missions act as valuable intermediaries in the establishment and updating of different kinds of academic exchanges, the translation staff of these official bodies do not usually carry out translations of academic degrees or diplomas for recognition or validation purposes.

Eyes Only

Security and confidentiality are always crucial in professional translation, and in particular with regards to the client. Diplomatic translation is no exception to this. Furthermore, confidentiality is probably much more important and compromising in this field than in any other field of translation, as it involves the security of one or several countries. We are not saying here that the translator becomes a sort of James Bond—no, that only happens in the movies. Today, most confidential issues have to do with such "top secret" matters as farming or agriculture. Curious, isn't it? In any case, several degrees of confidentiality of diplomatic documents in English can be established:

  • Unclassified: not compromising, available to anyone.
  • Classified.
  • In confidence.
  • Confidential.
  • Secret.
  • Top Secret (the translator seldom has access to these documents).

Also worth mentioning, concerning confidentiality, is the question of professional incompatibilities. Can a translator in an embassy engage in other translation-related jobs? In principle, the answer is yes, provided that the nature of the job and its development do not incur a conflict of interest. In any case, it is highly advisable to seek permission and clearly state that it will not interfere with diplomatic tasks in any way.

Functions and responsibilities

Diplomatic translators seldom deal exclusively with only translation-related matters. They go through a very difficult selection processes, rather similar to those of international organisations. The work is varied and multidisciplinary, which is, in principle, gratifying and generates a wealth of knowledge and experience. However, the tremendous workload and the level of experience demanded is not, in most cases, recognised.
   Basically, the duties of the diplomatic translator can be set out as follows:

  1. Translation: Most of the work is translation-related, including a wide variety of documents, as seen earlier. It could be said that the translator translates a bit (or a lot) of everything, even the weirdest issues, and all is done at a pace of "it had to be done by yesterday".
  2. Interpreting: Interpreting is, as in many other fields of life, a very little (if at all) recognised skill in the diplomatic world. We could even say that in many workplaces you can often hear: "mmmm, you know a bit of English, don't you? I need you to do some simultaneous interpreting for me with the Director General...". Interpreting work is much less frequent than translation, although virtually all varieties of interpreting are dealt with in the course of diplomatic discussions, including, and above all, whispered or chuchotage interpreting. We are aware of the case of a diplomatic translator, with very little training as an interpreter and hardly any "real life" experience, who was once called to carry out bilateral interpreting, "very informal and straightforward, 15 minutes, just for both interlocutors to know each other". The 15-minute bilateral turned out to be a 5-hour whispered interpreting into the interpreter's non-native language, about technical aspects of veterinary health. No comment.
  3. Information and documentation: Complementary to translation. This is no doubt a most gratifying challenge for the translators, who sometimes have to dive into administrative bureaucracy, or the ministerial meanders, until they find the right person or information. Fortunately, translators nowadays have access to good sources of documentation and information (bibliographies, dictionaries, Internet, direct information sources that are easily accessible in the capital, etc.). However, it is not always easy to find specific and thorough information about a particular topic, given the confidential nature of many matters.
  4. Research /advisory functions: In many cases, the translator at a diplomatic mission is required to write economic, political (or other) reports about the host country. Sometimes the limits are ignored and an excessive degree of responsibility or qualifications are demanded from the translator (as in the case of interpreting) that go beyond the translator's capabilities and/or training.
  5. A very interesting aspect of diplomatic translation is the possibility of working as part of a team. Let's take, for example, the case of Spanish. The Spanish translator in a given embassy in Spain can share, in certain cases, the workload with his/her counterparts in other embassies of the same country located in Latin American countries. This way the whole team of translators can have their workload reduced and they can all share a common document, that follows a set of previously established criteria, in order to achieve a greater degree of linguistic standardisation. In this sense, it should obviously be advisable to set out certain conventions and use a language (Spanish in this case) as neutral as possible, in order to avoid linguistic misunderstandings due to regional differences.

Professional situation

We have seen that professional diplomatic translation is not very well known or recognised. Diplomatic translators are not, as is popularly believed, privileged in the sense of making large sums of money, doing nothing but attending receptions. No, that is a stereotyped image from certain 19th Century-style movies. Diplomatic translators must have a vast wealth of knowledge and be very familiar with international affairs and in particular with the political, social and economic situation of their own countries (i.e. the host country and the country of the Embassy for which they work). It is only in this way that a certain degree of professionalism and thoroughness can be achieved. The work is varied (something that is always welcome, if we take into account the monotony of software translations, for example), and involves a high degree of difficulty and responsibility in many cases.
   On the other hand, the job is not always recognised, especially considering the level of thoroughness demanded for the diverse tasks, and the subsequent responsibility. Like in many fields of translation in so many other different instances, the existing legal vacuum and the lack of adequate professional associations to look after the interests of this group of professionals do not help this situation.
   Nevertheless, working as a diplomatic translator provides a unique opportunity to learn about many different issues that cannot be grasped anywhere else and which, to the best of our knowledge, are not taught in any translation school anywhere in the world.