A dearth of English-to-Hindi interpreters had first surfaced when Narendra Modi had visited Bhutan in mid-June, his maiden trip abroad as prime minister. At that time, the Lok Sabha secretariat had come to the rescue by loaning one from its pool of interpreters. The ministry had largely ignored this scarcity until Modi became the PM.
But even as Modi on Sunday leaves for Brazil via Germany to attend the Brics Summit, the secretariat has turned down the ministry's request to provide interpreters again. It has shown its inability, citing Parliament's ongoing session.
According to secretariat sources, however, the real reason for the refusal this time is that the interpreter sent to Bhutan had felt insulted. They claimed the interpreter was pilloried for her real-time translation of Modi's extempore Hindi speech into English for the benefit of the members of Bhutanese Parliament. In view of this incident, the Lok Sabha Secretariat interpreters have decided to refuse a trip to Brazil in solidarity with their colleague.
Now, this poses a bit of a problem for the ministry, as it will have to make do with the available resources of its missions in South America. But more than that, the issue will be having to rely on translators of other visiting delegations which could mean bilateral meetings lasting longer than usual.
In Brazil, Modi is likely to hold bilateral meetings with the Presidents of Russia, South Africa, Brazil and China. Of them, only South African President Jacob Zuma speaks in English at his meetings with other heads of state, while Brazil's Dilma Rousseff speaks in Portuguese. Russia's Vladimir Putin, though fluent in English, chooses to use Russian during his diplomatic engagements, while China's Xi Jinping, like all other Chinese leaders, sticks to Mandarin at international fora.
The external affairs ministry doesn't have trained interpreters to translate any of these languages into Hindi. This was evident during Russian Deputy Prime Ministry Dmitry Rogozin's meeting with Modi in the third week of June in New Delhi.
According to sources, diplomats from the Russian embassy surprised the Indians with their command over Hindi. One of the Russian diplomats who interpreted for the Rogozin-Modi meeting was more comfortable in translating from Russian to Hindi than the Indian interpreter, who was from a non-Hindi speaking state.
It is not that this lack of trained Hindi interpreters was never noticed earlier. A 2012-13 Parliament report on demand for grants for the ministry had pointed out the "non-availability of interpretation facility from Hindi into foreign languages, and vice versa".
The report had said interpreters with working knowledge of Hindi were "either not available" or "not competent enough to handle the job during the meetings". It asked the ministry to take necessary steps "to develop a cadre of interpreters" so that these services could be utilised by Indian parliamentary and other high-level delegations visiting abroad.
Sources say the ministry never felt the need to hire interpreters to translate English or any other language into Hindi. During the United Progressive Alliance government's first and second terms, external affairs ministers like K Natwar Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, S M Krishna and Salman Khurshid were mostly more comfortable with foreign languages being translated to English, as was the then prime minister Manmohan Singh.
This stress on English has also meant that the ministry's interpreter cadre has largely remained underutilised and ignored. The ministry has a sanctioned cadre of 33 interpreters, but only 26 of them are to be posted at its missions and posts, while seven have to be at the headquarters in Delhi. Sources, however, indicate there are several vacancies.
At present, MEA is making do with available resources, which has meant Indian Foreign Service officers pitching in as interpreters during the PM's meetings with visiting dignitaries, who speak in English - for example, during the PM's recent meetings with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. Modi conducted the two meetings in a mix of Hindi and English, with an officer from the Indian side pitching in to explain the nuance of a particular word or where the accent of the visitor made what was said difficult to comprehend.
The prime minister, sources said, was fluent enough in English. But he is likely to stick to Hindi during his diplomatic parleys, since diplomacy is a lot about nuance. A diplomat pointed out how US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had in 2009 presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a gift-wrapped red button that had inscribed on it "Reset" in English and "Peregruzka" in Russian.
The attempt was to send a message that the two Cold War rivals were trying to mend relations. Embarrassingly for the Americans, "Peregruzka", as Lavrov pointed out to Clinton, meant overcharged or overloaded - in Russian, a term of hostility.
The correct translation was "Perezagruzka". "Isn't that reason enough to hire interpreters comfortable with translating English and other foreign languages into Hindi and vice versa," the diplomat said.To tide over the current crisis, the ministry has created a pool, under Joint Secretary (Counter Terrorism) Vinay Mohan Kwatra, of JS-level officers who are fluent in Hindi. These officers have been doubling up as English-to-Hindi interpreters for the PM and will accompany Modi to Brazil.
However, government sources concede a more permanent solution to the problem by hiring trained interpreters is much needed.