The profile of the foreign ministry’s interpreters appears to be on an upswing with minister Sushma Swaraj and Prime Minister Narendra Modi showing a preference to speak in Hindi at most diplomatic events, according to Hindustan Times.
The ministry of external affairs (MEA) has now started sending Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officers for training in at least four foreign languages so they can double as interpreters at high-level meetings.
It has also been taking steps to hone the language skills of its existing team of interpreters. Not just that, the ministry has, for the first time, approved two joint secretary-level posts for its interpreter cadre. So far, an interpreter would have only reached to the post of director by the time of retirement.
“We have taken a slew of measures necessary for addressing the increasing requirements for interpretation. This is required as high-level bilateral and multilateral engagements of the Government of India are significantly enhanced,” said an official.
Traditionally, the MEA has used IFS officers proficient in Mandarin as interpreters. Two such officers are Pranay Verma, who heads the East Asia division in the ministry, and Madhu Sudan, a 2007-batch officer who was the interpreter at the Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jingping earlier this year.
Now, IFS officers are being sent for special training in Russian, French, Arabic and Spanish. “This is part of the plan to have IFS officers who can double as interpreters during high-level exchanges,” said another official.
Other measures have been taken too, the official said. “To widen the pool of interpreters, the ministry of external affairs now sends all IFS (B) officers who get promoted into the IFS. Then we give a chance to serving diplomats to go back to language stations to refresh their skills. The missions have also been instructed to conduct classes in a way that hones the foreign language skills of posted officials,” he said.
But getting the right kind of interpreter has always been a tall order for the MEA. It took a while for Nilakshi Saha Sinha, a director-level officer, to become a more or less constant member on the Prime Minister’s team of interpreters. She is trained in French but equally proficient in English and Hindi, too.
Former minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor was a bit iffy on how far these measures would work. “It’s a positive step but slightly contradictory. IFS officers who are mainstream diplomatic professionals are being trained and asked to serve as interpreters. Meanwhile, interpreters who do not perform mainstream diplomatic functions are being promoted to joint secretary level. I am not sure whether the two courses of action aren’t two opposite approaches to the same problem,” he said.
Tharoor said the issue of additional trained manpower was gaining urgency. “We still do not have enough diplomats to open all the missions we need to or to staff the ones we do have adequately. A country like India deserves better than the skimpy human resources we permit ourselves,” he said.
Earlier this year, a parliamentary committee had said that the “linguistic base of India’s diplomats” was far from adequate.
“The Committee were constrained to note that the linguistic base of India’s diplomats is largely limited to the five UN languages only and roughly 35 percent of the Officers posted abroad are serving in their respective language zones. Moreover, out of around 770 IFS Officers in service, the number of Officers with proficiency in a foreign language is only 569. It may easily be inferred that around 200 IFS Officers are not equipped with any foreign language,” the committee said in a report submitted to Parliament in January this year.