Ear-witnesses and Conduits of Voices: On the Labor of UN Field Interpreters
This paper focuses on the work of interpreters, focusing on those who worked for the UN Office for the High Commission of Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), during and after the Maoist civil war. The paper is the beginning of an ethnographic study of interpreters that aims to provide insights into the way translation is linked to broader global projects from within a specific ‘field’. What is entailed materially and affectively in speaking two voices at once – neither of which is “one’s own”? What happens when the medium for circulating another’s voice is another human being, whose labor is often compared with machines? I explore interpreters’ work through the lens of translatability that goes beyond the problems of language correspondence. We must also consider the materiality of sound and voice, the physical immediacy of being with one’s ‘source’, subjectivity and the body. Working within a global bureaucracy that values transparency and unmediated evidence, interpreters necessarily become invisible, a part of the broader infrastructural apparatus of the UN, even as their work is essential to realizing the international goals of the organization.
Interpreters fall into a category of modern workers and technologies that might be thought of as conduits of voice. Other conduits of voice might include: stenographers, diplomatic and religious translators, voice-over artists, telephone captionists, but also technologies like radios, telephones, and voice recorders. The primary work of the human conduits of voice is to faithfully reproduce and recycle the speech of others to produce as close as possible an accurate copy of the original or in UN terminology ‘the source’. Insofar as their work is assumed to produce mechanical-like fidelity, interpreters are often compared to machines, either in celebration of their remarkable skills or as a means to degrade their humanity and assert their lower status within the UN hierarchy. Yet, in contrast to machines, interpreters must understand the sounds they transform into another code.
The ideal of transparency – while certainly not new – has gained prominence in global bureaucracies during the 1990s through both economic and government reforms that celebrate information as a cure to many ills (Hetherington 2011: 4-5). Less acknowledged is that the information inscribed in transparent documents comes through the messy and contingent encounters between people, such as UN officers, interpreters, and the people with whom they speak. To produce seemingly unmediated information, interpreters must disappear from the scenes they describe. Interpreters are ‘voicebox’ of another’s words, and their dissociation from both the ‘principal’ and ‘authorship’ of the speech they produce creates the illusion of transparent evidence of possible truths. In the context of Nepal, I explore the tensions and collaborations entailed between interpreters and human rights officers, as well as differences in the experience of ‘international’ versus ‘national’ interpreters, through interviews and in-depth stories about their work.