When a diplomat says “yes”, he means “perhaps”. When he says “perhaps”, he means “no”. When he says “no”, he’s no diplomat. 
Ambassador Raimundo Bassols at a lecture in Salamanca, Spain, 2004

Over the last two hundred years, diplomatic interpreting has evolved quite significantly, due to changes in the world’s geopolitical landscape, new political settings and technical revolutions which have vastly modified transportation and communications systems.

These are some salient phenomena:

1. The number of independent States has increased dramatically, particularly over the last century, and so have bilateral relations. At the same time, the international community which emerged with the establishment of the United Nations (1945) and its predecessor, the League of Nations (1919), continues to operate in multilateral settings.

2. If “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means”, as Carl von Clausewitz said, one of the threads of the last two hundred years up until this day has been war and conflict, followed by peace negotiations.

3. Diplomatic relations have evolved from secret negotiations to a diplomacy by conference, and the roles of diplomats have become increasingly complex, not least because Heads of State are ever more often in direct contact with each other. At a time of instant communications, diplomats are still the main representatives of their nations abroad. Their movements, however, may be scrutinized from capitals and made public by the media almost in real time.

4. While French was generally considered as the primary language of diplomacy, at least in the Western hemisphere until the First World War, English has become the main vehicle of global multinational conversation in the last decades.

5. None of the aforementioned developments translate into the end of language intermediaries. If anything, they are more necessary than ever, as a result of the proliferation of diplomatic interactions.

The Nineteenth Century

When the main powers met at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 to reorganize the map of Europe, severely altered by the Napoleonic Wars, negotiators worked behind the scenes to preserve the interests of their respective nations. Ironically, the language which served as the main vehicle for the negotiations was French, that is, the language of the vanquished. Friedrich von Gentz, a Berliner in the service of Lord Robert Stewart Castlereagh (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland), and, at the same time, chief assistant to Prince Klemens von Metternich (Austria), is known to be the most eminent interpreter and translator at the forum, to whom historians attribute a significant role in the talks. Referring to his task at the Congress, where “translation was of far greater importance than interpreting”, von Gentz laments in a diary entry, “What difficulties and misunderstandings might not be avoided, and how much time saved, by leaving matters trustfully in the translator’s hands!” (Roland, 1999: 51-53).

The nineteenth century opened with that resettlement of national boundaries in Vienna, which preserved the old order, based on the balance of power, but diplomatic interpreting was also necessary in other settings. Geographical exploration continued during the 1800s in various parts of the world, and as a result, a number of countries expanded their territories. Interpreters were vital in the usually asymmetric contacts with the peoples encountered in those explorations, often crowned with the signature of bilateral agreements and the dispossession of land, benefiting, among others, the dominant Western empires and nations. Interpreters were a critical link in the consolidation of the new republics that became independent of their metropolis in the Americas, or in the colonization of Africa, where native African interpreters were “indispensable to the operation of the colonial system” (Lawrance, Osborn and Roberts, 2006: 10).

The role of interpreters in diplomatic relations between Western nations and the Ottoman sultans at Constantinople had been historically regulated by the statute of the dragoman. The need for bilateral interpreters at diplomatic missions of the United States was underscored in a New York Times article entitled “Our Chinese Consulates”, published on 13 January 1880 (p. 1). It described a proposal made by a Department of State official in China to provide training for interpreters, who would be United States citizens appointed at American missions in that country. The ideal profile of a consulate interpreter would include language competence, knowledge of the culture and, above all, loyalty to their own nation.

In 1898 Spain lost its last colonial vestiges and the United States began building its empire, after peace negotiations at Paris, where the only interpreter, Arthur Ferguson, was provided by the American delegation. The Spaniards had expected to negotiate in French, but their counterparts didn’t speak or understand it, so the Spanish delegation had to rely on the enemy’s interpreter.

The Last Hundred Years

The First World War (1914-1918) required an effort of coordination among the Allies, and later between the armies and the civil populations, where liaison interpreters were essential at various stages. The war was followed by the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, advocated for the creation of an international organization to deal with global affairs in a transparent way through multilateral negotiations. That is how the League of Nations was born, symbolizing what Lord Maurice Hankey called “diplomacy by conference”.

A significant debate at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 was whether or not French would maintain its status of the language of diplomacy. United States President Wilson and British Prime Minister Lloyd George did not command Molière’s language, so interpreters like Paul Mantoux had to be present throughout the negotiations. Communication barriers were compounded by diplomatic tradition, where spontaneity “was anathema” (Jönsson, 1990: 43). Speaking about the work of the Rumanian Commission, a United States delegate of the Austro-Hungarian Division of the American Commission to Negotiate Peace aptly noted that:

One has to be far more polite and diplomatic than in an ordinary committee. If the French make a proposition which is perfectly rotten and the chairman asks your opinion, you can’t say “I don’t like it,” but rather: “At the present moment I feel that my government would have some hesitation in accepting the proposition of the French without reserve; may I suggest that a modification in the following sense would perhaps provide for a settlement which might, in the eyes of the inhabitants concerned, appear more equitable.” I find that I am losing all capacity to say just plain “no” or “yes”; it has to be, “I should be rather slow to agree,” or, “at the present moment I should feel inclined to concur”  (Seymour, 1965:162).

After the First World War the United States acquired an increasing role in international affairs, and the role of English as an international language also grew: the League of Nations adopted French and English as official languages, having staff and freelance interpreters appointed to facilitate multilateral negotiations. The international relations between the two world wars, however, evolved, with dictators such as Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler performing their political roles with almost unlimited power, leading to personal, one-on-one relations with other leaders, and eventually to the Second World War. Paul-Otto Schmidt, who was Hitler’s interpreter, represents that model of highly personalized diplomatic interpreting, where the leader’s trust in his interpreter was vital.

Significant events associated with interpreting at the highest political levels after the Second World War were: 1) the war crimes tribunals at Nuremberg (1945-1946) and Tokyo (1946-1948), and 2) the establishment of the United Nations (1945), as a universal forum for international negotiations. In the second half of the twentieth century, it has become the only diplomatic venue for formerly allied powers involved in the cold war confrontation for decades to communicate directly. Those moves signaled a return to international gatherings and multilateral diplomacy, conducted in all official languages, generally in simultaneous mode:

At international conferences nowadays the most urgent business never appears on the agenda. That’s the task of turning what is said in one language into another language with a maximum of accuracy and a minimum of delay (White, 1955: SM12).

In that context, diplomats have evolved from top hat aristocrats to highly educated professionals who negotiate with their counterparts in short sleeves (Haensch, 1965). Their discussions are no longer limited to the issues of war and peace, even if conflicts, including those which involve multilateral forces, require interpreters at different levels of the line of command. Topics encompass anything imaginable, from issues concerning the continental shelf to outer space, or from tariffs on goods to climate change, crime prevention or human rights. A good deal of those international negotiations are conducted by experts rather than by career diplomats: conference diplomacy “owes its growth chiefly to the increasingly technical character of international relations” (Thayer, 1959: 106).

To conclude this quick overview, two phenomena have had an impact on diplomatic interpreting in recent decades, apart from changes in the world’s geopolitical map: the increasing participation of civil society in the international arena—myriad non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are present in international fora—and the revolution in information and communication technologies, as well as faster means of transportation.

Although NGOs and other civil society representatives are not entitled to vote in international organizations, their role of giving voice to ordinary people’s concerns has added complexity to the conduct of international gatherings, increasing the demand for interpreters.

Information and communication technologies have significantly altered the manner in which international relations are performed nowadays. Some argue that “negotiations conducted via the Internet remove the trappings of direct communication” (Kurbalija and Slavik, 2001: 11). Easier and faster means of transportation have also allowed for a proliferation of summit meetings in various multilateral groupings. Not all experts accept that summits cure all ills and some continue to think that “quiet diplomacy without publicity, presidents, and prime ministers is still imperative” (Eubank, 1966: 209) and that traditional diplomacy will survive—La diplomatie est vieille comme le monde et ne périra qu’avec lui (de Maulde-La-Clavière, 1970, vol I, p. 1).

The technical innovations derived from instant communication have altered the manner in which information is conveyed, and that is reflected in the increasing use of remote interpreting, which means that interpretation can occur not only instantly, but also irrespective of the interlocutors’ location. Present-day and, above all, future interpreters will have to adapt to these changes that are shaping the world at tremendous speed (Baigorri-Jalón, 2004: 173-174).  


Baigorri-Jalón, Jesús (2004). Interpreters at the United Nations: A History. Translated by Anne Barr. Salamanca, Spain: Universidad de Salamanca.

Eubank, Keith (1966). The Summit Conferences 1919-1960. Norman, Oklahoma: University Of Oklahoma Press.

Haensch, Günther (1965). Técnica Y Picardía Del Intérprete Diplomático. Conferencia pronunciada el 22 de marzo de 1965 en el Instituto de Cultura Hispánica de Madrid. Munich: Max Hueber.

Hankey, Maurice (1946). Diplomacy By Conference: Studies In Public Affairs (1920-1946). London: Ernest Benn Ltd.

Jönsson, Christer (1990). Communication In International Bargaining. London: Pinter Publishers Ltd.

Kurbalija, Jovan and Hannah Slavik, eds. (2001). Language and Diplomacy. Malta: DiploProjects, Mediterranean Academy Of Diplomatic Studies, University Of Malta. Available from http://www.diplomacy.edu/resources/books/language-and-diplomacy

Lawrance, Benjamin N., Osborn Emily Lynn and Richard L. Roberts, eds. (2006). Intermediaries, Interpreters, and Clerks. African Employees in the Making Of Colonial Africa. Madison, Wisconsin: University Of Wisconsin Press.

Maulde-la-Clavière, R.A. de (1970 [1892-1893]). La Diplomatie au temps de Machiavel. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints.

Roland, Ruth (1999 [1982]). Interpreters As Diplomats: A Diplomatic History of the Role of Interpreters in World Politics. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Seymour, Charles (1965). Letters from the Paris Peace Conference. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Thayer, Charles W. (1959). Diplomat. Foreword by Sir Harold Nicolson. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

White, Peter. T.  (1955). The Interpreter: Linguist Plus Diplomat. New York Times, 6 November.