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Translating and interpreting for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Argentine translator and interpreter Estefanía Rubio talks about her team’s experience providing translation and interpretation services for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the main human rights body in the Americas together with the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

Created in 1959, the IACHR is an autonomous body within the Organization of Americas States (OAS) located in Washington DC. Its mission is to promote and protect human rights in the Americas, particularly, those of historically discriminated groups and populations.

What is translated

The IACHR produces a wide range of documents that support its prevention, protection and promotion efforts. Many of those documents are reports, published both in Spanish and English, and sometimes, in Portuguese too. They can be of different types:

  • Thematic reports, which address a specific human rights branch; for example, union and labor rights, LGBTI+ persons, freedom of expression, among many others.

  • Country reports, which describe the human rights situation of a country in the region; they tend to make special emphasis on the level of access to those rights by different historically discriminated populations.

  • Case reports, which can be of two kinds:

a. admissibility reports, which are approved when a petition meets the admissibility requirements; if that’s the case, the petition turns into a case and the merits of the case are studied;

b. merits reports, which collect all the facts of a case and present the analysis of law conducted by the IACHR to determine whether the facts constitute human rights violations or not.

In addition, short documents, such as friendly settlement agreements and precautionary measures, are translated.

Some of the challenges faced by translators

Comparative law

Due to the large number of countries that make up the OAS, there are often significant differences between the procedural legal systems based on Common Law and those based on Roman law. A typical example is the translation of recurso de casación. In general terms, it is an extraordinary remedy in the legal systems of Latin American and European countries that must be filed with the highest court of a country to revoke a judgment.

The highest court examines how lower courts have applied the law. In Common Law, there are similar remedies, but they are not exactly the same, since there are differences in terms of jurisdiction or those who can apply this remedy. As a result, when translating recurso de casación into English, “cassation appeal” is the preferred translation, as observed in reports previously published by the IACHR.

In addition, there are several differences between the Latin American systems. In Colombia, the Office of the Attorney General is made up of different bodies, including the Procuraduría General de la Nación, which investigates public officials. Choosing to translate it as Office of the Attorney General would not work. A more accurate choice would be Office of the Inspector General, which is the version proposed in the AG Office website.


As with any other international organization, there are terms that have an official translation. These can belong to the field of human rights, such as “indivisibility of human rights,” “intersectionality,” ESCERs,” “regressiveness,” and “progressiveness,” or they can be related to the Commission, as in “thematic rapporteurship,” “merits report,” “advisory opinion,” among others.

Intratextuality and intertextuality

Reports usually include several intra textual references (and thus consistency within a text is paramount), as well as direct and indirect quotes from UN resolutions, international treaties and conventions, advisory opinions and court decisions. Most of the time, there are official translations, which must be followed.

Quotes are often easy to find, although they can be paraphrased or summarized. Special attention must be paid in these situations. Copying and pasting could be a huge mistake!

What we interpret

The IACHR is a collegiate body, made up of seven commissioners from different countries. Acting as experts, they address matters related to the 35 OAS Member States. As a result, language interpretation is a frequent need in the Commission. These are the main forums in which interpreters are required:

  • Executive and internal sessions, in which the commissioners meet in private or with the different teams of the Executive Secretariat. They plan, discuss issues and cases, and make decisions.

  • Meetings with States, civil society organizations, representatives from other international and regional organizations.

  • Working meetings, in which victims and States have the chance of submitting additional information on a case and reach agreements.

  • Public hearings during the IACHR’s extraordinary and regular periods of sessions.

The perks of interpreting for the IACHR

Going the extra mile...

As mentioned above, terminology must be followed at all times. There are no exceptions. The discourse complexity of some of these meetings also adds up. The brain’s processing capacity is especially challenged in those hearings and meetings addressing the different phases of a legal proceeding or the merits of a case.

The emotional side

Interpreting about serious human rights violations can be an incredibly moving experience. Reproducing the voices of victims is not an easy task. The verbal as well as the non-verbal component shall be conveyed, and emotions shall be kept to a minimum.

A thing of the past... and the present

The speed at which participants speak usually complicates the interpreter’s job, particularly when interventions are time limited.

What’s more, in remote simultaneous interpreting, issues related to virtual environments may arise: there may be sound or connectivity issues. For instance, this is often the case when there are representatives from indigenous communities living in remote settlements, far away from urban areas.

Lessons learned

This is a demanding job. But it is a truly inspiring one too. For every single project to be a success, teamwork is a prerequisite. The translation process involves translators, editors and a content reviser who specializes in human rights. The final version of a document, as well as the changes that might be suggested by the IACHR, are shared with the whole team.

In the booth, interpreters always work in pairs and, if there are several language combinations, the team of interpreters is always in touch to help each other out. Relay is not a common thing, but when it is required, the work of the pivot booth has a huge impact on the rendering of the remaining booths. This is when coordination between the booths makes all the difference!

To sum up, as Celeste Sudera, member of the interpretation team, concludes, each project is “both a professional and personal living experience, and a new opportunity to match one’s profession with one’s convictions.”

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