AIIC staff interpreters meet in Africa

For the first time in its history, the AIIC Staff Interpreters’ Committee held its annual meeting on the African continent. In September 2011, superb hosts at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda welcomed a large group of staff and freelance interpreters, including delegates from over ten organisations, to two days of productive meetings in Arusha, Tanzania. The theme of this year’s session was training. Opportunities and initiatives in member organisations were highlighted, and guest speaker Jibola Sofolahan provided an overview of activities on the African continent.

The ICTR is headquartered in northern Tanzania, at the foot of Mt. Meru, in the town of Arusha, an hour from Mt. Kilimanjaro International Airport

Searching for a venue late in the planning stages, the Staff Interpreters’ Committee was delighted when Mr. Elolo Kumodzi graciously offered to host the annual meeting at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). On the first day of the meeting, which was open to all interpreters, Mr. Adama Dieng, United Nations Under Secretary-General and Tribunal Registrar, rolled out the red carpet in welcoming an extraordinary number of participants—over forty. He explained the origin, history and mandate of the tribunal, headquartered in Arusha, and expressed his sincere appreciation for the work performed by the interpreters. Ms. Justine Ndongo-Keller, Head of Language Services, and Mr. Oscar Tanifum, Chief Interpreter, provided additional details on the development of the interpreting service, the work of the interpreters in the court setting, and the use of French, English and Kinyarwanda, the official languages of Rwanda and the ICTR.

A total of 72 interpreters have worked at the tribunal with 29 still active at the time of the meeting. Altogether, 18 of the tribunal’s interpreters are AIIC members. Freelancers are recruited only rarely. Interpreters work primarily into their A language, although the Kinyarwanda interpreters also provide retour into French. Recognising the role and importance of training when building the interpreting service, the ICTR recruited primarily Africa-based interpreters who had attended the best interpretation schools. Employment opportunities were also offered to African language speakers, who received nine months of training from their colleagues. Now in the final phase of its work, the tribunal is winding down its business and, as the number of cases dwindles, our colleagues in Arusha are already preparing for the next chapters of their careers.

A significant factor when interpreting at the ICTR, and other international courts, is the stress caused by proceedings involving the victims of atrocities, who provide detailed testimony in the presence of individuals accused of heinous crimes against humanity. Approaches to successfully addressing such stress were shared at length in the discussion.

Guest speaker Jibola Sofolahan, corresponding member of AIIC Training and Coordinator of the AIIC Africa Region Training Committee, delivered this year’s thematic presentation on training in Africa. She described the acute need for well-trained interpreters on the African continent and the challenges of coordinating and financing training initiatives across large geographical distances and a range of African languages. The situation in various regions and countries is also highly diverse, with a long tradition in Cameroon and a growing number of programs in South Africa, for example, while a lack of standards exists in some areas. Great hope is placed in the UN/EU pilot program in Nairobi, which has the ultimate goal of becoming part of a framework for a pan-African Master of Arts degree in conference interpreting offered through four universities (Buea, Maputo, Nairobi and Ghana).

Ms. Sofolahan’s recommendations for further action included the improvement of coordination through a proper mechanism for exchange and creative thinking regarding costs, such as holding professional development seminars on the sidelines of conferences where interpreters are already scheduled to be present. Existing schools should be strengthened and encouraged to train more students hailing from outside their regions, and formal recognition of the importance of training by organisations employing interpreters should be advocated, so that there is an incentive for untrained interpreters to attend courses, rather than launching themselves onto the market with insufficient preparation.

The exchange of ideas and suggestions lasted into the late afternoon, as each representative provided an overview of the training situation in his or her home institution. The group then attended a memorable dinner generously hosted by the Tribunal at the trendy and hip Mt. Meru Hotel.

As is customary, only committee members and local staff interpreters attended the second day of meetings. The crucial exchange of information across functional areas of the association was then in focus, as the participants heard the reports from representatives of the Council, the Private Market Sector, and the Consultant Interpreters Committee. Regrettably, the Agreement Sector had not been able to send a representative. The remaining time was spent with preparations for the General Assembly in Buenos Aires, the transition to new committee leadership, budgets and activity reports, and consideration of possible activities and themes for future gatherings. A special session of the Staff Interpreters’ Committee was convened on the sidelines of the General Assembly in Buenos Aires in January 2012, and the next annual meeting will be held in Strasbourg autumn of this year.

As the thought-provoking deliberations drew to a close, all participants expressed their heartfelt thanks to their congenial hosts and to Ms. Sirpa Lehtonen, the outgoing chair, for her skillful leadership in a special venue that showcased the diversity of a truly global body, representing twenty-seven organisations in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The incoming officeholders are David Sawyer (President), Andrew Constable (Vice President), and Luke Tilden (Secretary).

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Staff Interpreters. "AIIC staff interpreters meet in Africa". March 14, 2012. Accessed June 2, 2020. <>.