Lost in Translation: The Complexities of Reaching a Global Climate Agreement

Kerrin Kinnear, OEP Intern

 

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Muscles tensed by a mind overcome with frustration, I exit the auditorium. I had just witnessed a keynote address made by the President of COP21, Laurent Fabius, at the start of the Global Landscapes Forum. Arguably a once in a lifetime opportunity for an environmentalist, I had not understood a single word he said. Why? The speech was in French, and my language skillset is primarily limited to English.

Language issues are significant in the realm of global negotiation. Prior to traveling to Paris for the United Nations Climate Conference, most of my conversations about international climate action focused solely on which strategies were most appropriate for effectively mitigating fossil fuel emissions and adapting to the current and future impacts of climate change. Speaking with delegates from Madagascar and Namibia as well as negotiation observers from Dickinson University, I realized I had overlooked a key concept for the conference – the profound impact complexities of language can have on the effectiveness of international coordination.

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With delegates and members of Civil Society from over 190 different countries gathered at COP21, ensuring a uniform sense of understanding is an incredible feat. To accommodate the resulting vast range of languages, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) mandates that all formal proceedings are interpreted into the organization’s six official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. Using headsets, delegates from across the globe are able to hear live feeds of the negotiations in their preferred language, and contribute when they are given the floor. Representatives who speak none of the six official languages have the opportunity to speak in their language, so long as they pay for an interpreter to translate their message.

lost in translationWhile this framework for communication demonstrates a certain commitment to universal comprehension, barriers still persist in the conference arena. During my conversation with Dickinson alumni, I was surprised to learn that a topic of debate for that day’s official proceedings was the clarification that international parties “welcomed” rather than “invited” countries to increase climate change efforts. From this, the importance of semantics and cultural word meanings in an international setting became evident. Additionally, when I spoke with a researcher from a French NGO focused on deforestation, he explained how quickly high-level jargon becomes integrated into the climate negotiations. As a result, delegates who have limited proficiency in the UN languages and who cannot afford interpreters struggle to keep up with and weigh in on complex conversations and policy strategies.

Despite the difficulties associated with communicating across languages, the United Nations and its member countries have held 21 climate change conferences and continue to plan global coordination on this issue. Because of the international community’s persistence in the face of cross-cultural communication barriers, I am more excited than ever before about the prospects for a global climate agreement.