My blog entry about allegedly Feckless Poles described how a small slip by an official interpreter caused some unwanted and unexpected headlines.
Yet that at least was a slip. Back in Bosnia in the mid-1990s the interpreters of President Izetbegovic had a much more ambitious streak.
After Bosnia’s first post-conflict elections in 1996, the Contact Group Ambassadors led by High Representative Carl Bildt had to meet Izetbegovic to try to persuade him to accept the highly annoying proposal of co-President Krajisnik – then still unindicted on war crimes charges – that the new BH collective Presidency meet alternatively in the two BH Entities. This in practice meant that Izetbegovic would have to set foot in Republika Srpska – something he found repugnant. Izetbegovic insisted that all the Presidency meetings take place in down-town Sarajevo, which Krajisnik likewise claimed to find objectionable.
When our meeting with Izetbegovic happened, the International Community urged Izetbegovic to be flexible, to get his country’s governance going again after so much disaster. Was a rotation of the sort Krajisnik proposed really so bad? Izetbegovic finally lost his temper as we nagged him and said crossly in Bosnian "OK, whatever he wants – we can rotate every first, second or fifth time (svaki prvi, drugi, peti put)!"
But his interpreter/adviser saw that he had been worn down. She brazenly translated that outburst as something quite different, holding the earlier line against the sort of rotation he had just accepted.
When Bildt and the Ambassadors returned to base there was general gloom at our failure to make any impact, until I (having been the only one of us who spoke Bosnian) told them that Izetbegovic had in fact made an important concession.
When the deliberate mistranslation happened, I could have intervened briskly to ask the interpreter to give a correct account of what Izetbegovic had just said. I don’t remember now why I did not. A fleeting moment of self-restraint? But if I had done so that might have made things worse, as he would have been embarrassed and humiliated as well as annoyed. Being Right is one thing. Being Wise is another.
So we built quietly on Izetbegovic’s effective concession and started planning the Presidency meetings on a rotating basis. This eventually led to some grim encounters in a derelict college of some sort just over the ‘Serb’ side of the inter-Entity boundary-line on the edge of Sarajevo. And having wasted time arguing about the venue the Presidency then started arguing about … the table-plan! See my earlier posting on a Balkan Geometry Lesson.
Moral? Always have your own interpreter so as to try to cross-check afterwards whether any communication went awry. And when in doubt learn Bosnian.