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SPEECH ACT

The interpreter must have a unique view of history. If, at a crucial level, politics is about doing things with words, then to have to be the mediator of these words across a powerfully charged linguistic divide, while suspending all subjective involvement, must be a difficult but fascinating job. In the margins of international relations are many such shadowy figures, sworn to objectivity and confidentiality, yet holding a great deal in their heads — repositories of a specific kind of trust. Narendra Modi, the new prime minister of India, has reinstated interpreters in the negotiating chambers of history by a move that could be seen as a decisive shift in India towards a ‘post-colonial’ style of diplomacy. He is the first Indian prime minister to have chosen to speak in Hindi, the ‘national’ language, with all foreign dignitaries visiting India, using interpreters to translate his Hindi into English (or the other dignitary’s language), but not requiring translation in the opposite direction. He spoke in Hindi to the Sri Lankan president through an interpreter, but did not require the president’s English to be translated into Hindi. With dignitaries who know Hindi or Urdu — like the president of Afghanistan and the prime minister of Pakistan — the conversations were conducted in Hindi mixed with Urdu, without interpreters.

Although a notable first in India, with occasional exceptions in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bilateral exchanges, Mr Modi’s move makes him part of a widespread practice among world leaders, especially of those nations that do not have a colonial past. English, of course, is no more a colonial language in the former colonies, including India. So, interpreting Mr Modi’s decision as linguistic ‘nationalism’ does not make sense, especially when acceptance by the international community has been the inaugural note triumphantly struck during the first days of his coming to power. But it does initiate a somewhat different style and pace of diplomatic exchange, the presence of interpreters introducing inevitable pauses that may turn into moments of deliberation and reflection, subtly altering the nature and outcome of the exchange. So, the long-term effects of such a change are worth looking out for.