During Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Dhaka in June, the Pan Pacific Sonargaon hotel where he stayed, opened a small textile outlet for the Indian guests with a good number of the famous Jamdaanis on display. Nilakshi Saha Sinha, who was accompanying Modi as his interpreter, however, could not visit the stall because of the busy schedule. Finally, towards the end of the visit, she managed to sneak out and paid a visit to the stall. “In Dhaka I can take a bit of a chance, as Bangladeshis understand Hindi well and the PM will have no difficulty,” she said, rushing to the shop. She had every reason to be worried because during Modi's 14 foreign trips, she was his interpreter, effectively, his voice.
Nilakshi's choices are simple, fine saris, Bengali sweets from Delhi's CR Park and French literature. But she also knows how Modi's mind works, allowing her to frame his answers for leaders like Barack Obama and Françoise Hollande. “The prime minister prefers interpretation to be done directly to Hindi. He needs very little help since he grasps the language easily,” said Nilakshi. She is fluent in Hindi, Bengali and English, but her real competence remains French, which she studied in Paris. Deputy secretary Sipra Ghosh, the Russian expert, travelled with Modi as his interpreter during his recent visit to central Asia. The prime minister’s interpreters are reluctant to interact with media and, although Nilakshi spoke briefly to THE WEEK in Dhaka, Sipra refused to speak on record, underlining the pressure that the small group of interpreters was under.
The interpreter cadre came into the limelight as Modi preferred to deal with the nuances of diplomacy in a language which he was more comfortable with. In his use of interpreters, he is different from External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. The ministry's spokesperson Vikas Swarup said Sushma chose to stick to English in all official engagements abroad unless the host spoke in his native tongue.
The key task for the interpreters is to ensure that nothing is lost in translation and no misunderstanding or diplomatic embarrassment is caused by it. While interpreting for Modi during his interaction with Obama at Hyderabad House on January 25, Nilakshi, for instance, stuck to formal interpretation. So, while Modi was criticised for his first-name informality with the US president, Nilakshi was spared.
According to available estimates, only seven interpreters are stationed in South Block whereas 26 are posted abroad in various Indian missions. Deputy secretary Suniti Sharma, an emerging interpreter, belongs to this group of seven, but she is tasked with the propagation of Hindi at the international level. Apparently only two of this group are considered suitable for “principal”-level work.
Despite the importance of the task at hand, the interpreters are not trained well. At present, the ministry of external affairs sends its officers to the School of Foreign Languages in Delhi under the ministry of defence to sharpen their skills. Ironically, the Delhi-based Foreign Services Institute under the MEA, which is the primary training centre for budding diplomats, is yet to get a functional language faculty. The SFL offers courses only in six languages, leaving out strategic ones like Pashtu, Dari and Myanmarese.
Insiders said the MEA's ad hoc approach resulted in a crisis during Modi's maiden foreign trip to Bhutan. The ministry chose an employee of the Lok Sabha secretariat as the PM's interpreter in Thimphu. But the interpretation was not appreciated as the courtly Hindi that Modi spoke reportedly surprised the interpreter, who fumbled on the job.
With the thin pool of available interpreters, a couple of A grade officers of the Indian Foreign Service are being increasingly preferred by the government for interpretation assignments. Shilpak Ambule, of the 2002 batch, is said to be rated highly by foreign secretary S. Jaishankar for his Chinese language skills. Another rising star is R. Madhu Sudan of the 2007 batch, who was used during high-level visits to Beijing. South Block sources said the growing number of language experts among the IFS cadre had begun to erode the interpreter cadre’s strengths. But Modi, by opting for two interpreter cadre officers, seems to have revitalised the low-profile cadre. A search is on for an interpreter to accompany him on his trips to the Arab countries later this year. One name doing the rounds is of Azar Khan, India's ambassador to Libya.
The interpreter cadre was the brainchild of Indira Gandhi who herself spoke English, Hindi, French, Urdu and a bit of Bengali. “She demanded a separate interpreter cadre for the MEA. Recruitments began in 1978 when I joined as an Arabic interpreter. But the cadre was formalised by Indira in 1984,” said Zikrur Rahman, who interpreted for Indira and later conducted negotiations with Iraqi insurgents who had kidnapped four Indian truck drivers in 2004.
Rahman said one of the main reasons for the neglect of the interpreter cadre, whose members suffered from the lack of professional training and confidence to interpret at the level of the prime minister, was the lack of opportunities. Training facilities for the cadre have not improved despite a 2012 order to train them at the level of the A grade probationers of the IFS. The order, however, also specified that no separate training programme would be possible for them, given their low numbers. Interpreters conceded off the record that the training disparity was one of the reasons for their sad plight.
An Indian ambassador posted in an Arab country told THE WEEK that the Indian interpreter cadre failed to perform well because they were denied exposure to the culture of the language in which they had specialised. “Official interpreters often fall short, compared with local interpreters. But then, they are helpful when confidentiality is the last word,” he said.
As Indian diplomacy gets more enmeshed in security and financial affairs, the need for confidentiality is becoming paramount. In this context, freelancing interpreters or consultants may prove to be security risks. “A government interpreter has the unique skill of forgetting all those important things that are discussed in his presence,” said Rahman, who rose to become the ambassador of India to Palestine. “Forgetting the discussion between the principals is part of the training which ensures that state secrets stay with the interpreters.”
The shortcomings of the interpreter cadre have started affecting the ambitious foreign policy agenda of the Modi-Sushma duo. For instance, there was no official interpreter for Sushma’s speech in Sanskrit at the World Sanskrit Conference in Bangkok last month. The situation is unlikely to improve unless the government initiates measures to enhance the quality of the interpreter cadre.