The Embassy Translator Revisited

Through translating and editing embassy documents with a U.S. reader or audience in mind, a translator for a foreign embassy in the U.S. plays a vital role in helping the embassy accomplish its mission and achieve its goals.

In 2004, I wrote an article for the September issue of The ATA Chronicle based on my presentation, “The Embassy Translator: A Connecting Link Between Cultures and Countries,” at the National Capital Area Translators Association’s “Translating for Foreign Governments” seminar, held in April of that year in Washington, DC.1 Now that so much time has passed, I would like to bring you up to date on the job of an embassy translator.

What Do Embassy Translators Do and How Do They Facilitate Communication between Cultures and Countries?

As the in-house translator for the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, DC, I work from German and French into English and edit documents written in English primarily by non-native speakers; that is, by speakers of German, French, and Italian, three of the four official languages of Switzerland. The fourth official federal language, Romansch, also called Rumantsch Grischun, is rarely used at the embassy. However, just in case, I’m prepared with my Romansch-English/English-Romansch Dictionary and Phrasebook, by Manfred Gross and Daniel Telli.2

In addition to translating and editing for Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States Martin Dahinden and his administrative staff, I translate and edit for all the sections of the embassy:

  • Political and Legal;
  • Economic and Financial;
  • Communications, Public Diplomacy, and Cultural Affairs;
  • Consular and Administrative;
  • Science, Technology, and Higher Education;
  • Defense;
  • Military Procurement; and
  • Police Liaison.

What is the Mission of a Foreign Embassy in the U.S.?

In a nutshell, it’s to represent the home country and defend its interests in the U.S. So, how does an embassy translator help carry out the embassy’s mission? The translator is charged with the official translation of a wide range of material, which can include items of an official, political, legal, economic, cultural, scientific, technical, or military nature (e.g., reports, speeches, memoranda, legal documents, media releases, diplomatic notes, and cultural and technical documents). In addition to being accurate, each translation must relay the embassy’s message so that it is understood across cultures. Based on my 22 years of experience at the Embassy of Switzerland, the following are just a few of the tactics I’ve used to help ensure that all embassy communications with which I’m entrusted achieve their desired objectives.


One way of achieving a successful translation is through what I call “Americanizing”—translating and editing embassy documents with a U.S. reader or audience in mind to achieve the desired results or objective. “Americanizing” documents can also help improve the image of the country the embassy represents in the U.S.

As the Swiss Embassy’s in-house translator, I do translations into American English of documents written in German and French by Swiss native speakers of those languages. In doing so, I work with three different cultures: Swiss German, Swiss French, and U.S. American. The following are some examples of “Americanizing” I’ve encountered in my work.

Using American English instead of British English spelling and expressions: Since the Swiss are taught British English in school, they write in British English and are not always familiar with the differences between the British and American forms of English. My Swiss colleagues appreciate having their British and uniquely “Swiss” English transformed into idiomatic American English because it helps them get their point across and make a favorable impression on their American readers, conversation partners, or target audiences.

When my Swiss colleagues have specific questions, I’ve found that a dictionary of American English usage can be very helpful in pointing out and confirming the differences between British English and American English spelling and punctuation.

Correcting errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, word order, and capitalization according to American English usage: In that connection, my “bible” at work is The Chicago Manual of Style published by the University of Chicago Press.3

“Americanizing” correspondence through the use of correct titles and forms of address for American officials: It’s important to know, for instance, that a senator or representative should be addressed as “The Honorable.” In that regard, you’ll be able to find everything you need in the 35th anniversary edition of Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official, and Social Usage, by Mary Jane McCaffree, Pauline Innis, and Richard M. Sand, Esquire.4 Over the years this handbook has been an invaluable resource when editing letters to presidents, former presidents, vice presidents, cabinet members, members of Congress, and other high-ranking government officials. The publication is also a handy reference for formal and informal invitations, which are such an integral part of diplomatic life.

What else does “Americanizing” mean to an embassy translator, especially when the job involves translating potentially politically-sensitive documents?

“Americanizing” also involves editing for content or meaning. In my job, that entails providing feedback to my Swiss colleagues when they ask for my “American” reactions to their documents. They are especially interested in knowing if something that they’ve written could be misunderstood or viewed as offensive by an American reader.

In translating Swiss government documents, “Americanizing” frequently entails finding appropriate U.S. equivalents for titles and institutions specific to Switzerland. Finding U.S. equivalents for Swiss officials and agencies on the federal level is not particularly difficult. There are excellent resources available, such as Swiss government publications in English and TERMDAT, the Swiss government’s multilingual terminology database.5

Even with access to these resources, you still need to watch out for some tricky terms. For example, one tricky title is Staatssekretär in German and secrétaire d’état in French. The correct English translation is “state secretary.” In the Swiss government, a state secretary ranks right below the head of a federal department in four departments: the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Federal Department of Justice and Police, Federal Department of Finance, and Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education, and Research. There are seven federal departments, each headed by a “federal councillor,” who belongs to the seven-member Federal Council, the executive branch or “government.” In Switzerland, the government only consists of the executive branch, but the U.S. government is comprised of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.

Sometimes Staatssekretär is mistakenly translated into English as “secretary of state.” Please note, however, that the Swiss counterpart of the U.S. secretary of state is the foreign minister or head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs: Aussenminister, or Vorsteher des Eidgenössischen Departements für auswärtige Angelegenheiten, or ministre des affaires étrangères, or chef du Département fédéral des affaires étrangères.

When translating Swiss military documents, the translator has to know that the English equivalent of die schweizerische Armee and l’armée suisse is Swiss Armed Forces. The Swiss Armed Forces are comprised of the Land Forces and the Air Force. Army, as defined in the U.S., or Land Forces, would be translated as Heer and Forces terrestres.

It can also be challenging to find U.S. equivalents for Swiss officials and government bodies on the cantonal, district, and municipal levels. For example, a Swiss canton is equivalent to a U.S. state, and there are 26 cantons in Switzerland. One problematic Swiss German cantonal job title is Staatsschreiber. Since there is no exact equivalent in the U.S., I had to find a definition of the term in the Dudenverlag publication Wie sagt man in der Schweiz? Wörterbuch der schweizerischen Besonderheiten, by Kurt Meyer, and then come up with an approximate translation.6 With helpful hints from some of my Swiss colleagues, I finally came up with “the head of the cantonal chancery.” A cantonal chancery is the central authority of the cantonal government and cantonal parliament. Depending on the canton, a Staatsschreiber might also be called a Kanzleidirektor, Landschreiber, Ratsschreiber, Ratschreiber, Staatskanzler, or Kanzler, and, in a French-speaking canton, a Chancelier or Chancelier d’Etat.

A recommended resource for finding the titles of Swiss federal officials and the names of federal government bodies in English is The Swiss Confederation—A Brief Guide, which contains an English description of the organization of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.7 The guide is also published in German, French, Italian, and Romansch. A very good source of information on the Federal Council and the Swiss administration is the Swiss government’s portal at www.admin.ch.

In searching for appropriate German translations for titles and institutions specific to the U.S., I’ve found that the Politisches Wörterbuch zum Regierungssystem der USA, an English-German, German-English political dictionary on the U.S. government by Ulrike Ehnes, Patrick Labriola, and Jürgen Schiffer, can be useful.8

“Americanizing” also constitutes finding appropriate translations for Swiss concepts that don’t exist in the U.S. For example, there is no exact English equivalent for the Swiss term Heimatort because the concept simply doesn’t exist in the U.S. Although the term is usually translated into English as “place of origin,” hardly anyone in the U.S. knows what a Swiss “place of origin” actually is. In Switzerland, the term Heimatort, or lieu d’origine, is extremely important since every Swiss citizen must have one. In addition to being a citizen of a canton of origin and the Swiss Confederation, everyone is a citizen of his or her “place of origin” and is entered in the family register of that place of origin. The “place of origin” is defined as the place where the family (usually the father) comes from, and should not be confused with the “place of birth.” Although the “place of origin” could conceivably be the same as the “place of birth,” that is not necessarily the case. To complicate matters further, a Swiss citizen could even have more than one “place of origin.”

In translating legal documents into English, “Americanizing” means taking into consideration that Switzerland and the U.S. have entirely different legal systems. The Swiss Embassy occasionally receives questions about legal matters involving American and Swiss citizens residing in the U.S. or Switzerland. Translating the responses to such questions requires an understanding of how certain issues pertaining to citizens of Switzerland and/or the U.S. are handled under Swiss and U.S. laws. Therefore, it’s essential to be aware of the differences between the Swiss civil law and U.S. common law systems.

Much of the legal translation work I’ve done for the Police Liaison Office involved translating letters of request, also called letters rogatory. These are sensitive and confidential documents usually issued by a Swiss court to a U.S. court requesting judicial assistance in criminal investigations where there is cooperation between Switzerland and the U.S. The Federal Act on International Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters (IMAC) is an excellent resource that provides the legal basis for such bilateral cooperation. It can be found on the Swiss government’s online portal.9

Comparing the German, French, and English versions of bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the U.S. is an excellent way of finding correct legal equivalents in the three languages.

There are several highly recommended resources for translating Swiss legal documents into English. The U.S. Department of State’s Treaties in Force10 provides a listing of the treaties between the U.S. and Switzerland, among other countries. The TIAS database, also available online from the U.S. Department of State, contains some of the texts of international agreements to which the U.S. is a party, such as the English and German versions of the Extradition Treaty between the United States of America and Switzerland.11 The texts of treaties between Switzerland and the U.S. as well as other countries can also be consulted online in German, French, and Italian from Das Portal der Schweizer Regierung.12

Since English is not an official language of Switzerland, there are no official English versions of Swiss laws. However, unofficial English translations of selected Swiss laws and ordinances from the Swiss Federal Council’s Classified Compilation are available online in a variety of categories, including private law, criminal law, education, national defense, finance, public works, health, and technical cooperation.13

Editing English-language publications on Switzerland with American target audiences in mind contributes to the Swiss government’s public diplomacy efforts throughout the U.S. In the past few years, the Swiss government has focused increasingly on public diplomacy to introduce Americans to different aspects of Switzerland and Swiss culture. I’ve participated in many of those efforts by editing English-language publications on Switzerland on a wide variety of subjects, including On Track to the Future: Sustainable Transportation, A Challenge for the 21st Century; Modern Direct Democracy in Switzerland and the American West; Switzerland’s Economic Footprint in the United States: Creating Jobs and Supporting the U.S. Economy; and Earn While You Learn: Switzerland’s Vocational Education and Training System, A Model for Apprenticeships in the United States.

In addition, I’ve helped Ambassador Dahinden and his wife share their passion for Swiss and Swiss-American culinary history by translating and editing nine small books on colorful historical personalities, including Oscar of the Waldorf, César Ritz, and the Delmonicos, the Swiss-Italian family that founded the original Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City.

In translating and editing press releases and official statements intended for the U.S. media, it’s essential to use accurate, precise, correct, and up-to-date terminology. In my job, I especially enjoy translating press releases and Sprachregelungen, which are official statements by the Swiss government in response to inquiries by the news media. Since my translations are quoted by newspapers and online media, such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the ABC News and CBS News websites, I must ensure that they fully convey the meaning of the original Swiss German or Swiss French text and that they are written in idiomatic American English.

When I edit English press releases translated in Bern, for example, I often have to change words and expressions from British English to American English. Sometimes I also have to correct terms that are old-fashioned and incorrect from the standpoint of diplomatic terminology.

In one press release, I was amused to find the term Potentatengelder translated as “potentates’ assets,” conjuring up visions of oriental potentates from the Tales from the 1001 Nights. So, I changed the term to the more modern and accurate “dictators’ assets.” To my dismay, Schutzmacht is sometimes translated incorrectly into English as “protective power” instead of “protecting power.” In Swiss diplomacy, the term is very important because Switzerland presently has six protecting power mandates: representing U.S. interests in Iran, Iranian interests in Egypt, Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabian interests in Iran, Russian interests in Georgia, and Georgian interests in Russia.

When editing texts written by non-native speakers of English, “Americanizing” can involve correcting unintentionally humorous and potentially embarrassing errors that might be misunderstood and misinterpreted by an American reader or audience. In editing Swiss documents, I’ve encountered some wonderful examples of unintended humor that would give American readers a hearty chuckle. In a draft of introductory remarks, I once came across “Mr. X is one of the most wanted men at the National Science Foundation.” Obviously, the author of the draft, a native speaker of Swiss German, had no idea that being one of the “most wanted” is not all that desirable in the U.S.

A Vital Link Toward the Embassy’s Mission

An embassy translator must be a renaissance person who is creative and adept at doing research, and must be able to handle a wide variety of documents covering many different fields. Furthermore, an embassy translator must be familiar not only with the culture of the home country and that of the host country, but also with the diverse cultures within the home country. Through facilitating and smoothing the way for communication, an embassy translator serves as a vital link between cultures and countries and makes a valuable contribution toward carrying out a foreign embassy’s mission in the U.S.

  1. Fain, Cheryl A. “The Embassy Translator: A Connecting Link Between Cultures and Countries,” The ATA Chronicle (September 2004), 32, http://bit.ly/Fain-2004.
  2. Gross, Manfred, and Daniel Telli. Romansch-English/English-Romansch Dictionary and Phrasebook (Hippocrene Books, 2000), http://bit.ly/Romansh-Dictionary.
  3. The Chicago Manual of Style Online (University of Chicago Press), www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html.
  4. McCaffree, Mary Jane, Pauline Innis, and Richard M. Sand. Protocol 35th Anniversary Edition: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official, and Social Usage (Protocol Red Book, 2013), http://bit.ly/Protocol-35.
  5. TERMDAT can be found at www.termdat.bk.admin.ch/Search/Search.
  6. Meyer, Kurt. Wie sagt man in der Schweiz? Wörterbuch der schweizerischen Besonderheiten, (Dudenverlag, 1989), http://bit.ly/Kurt-Meyer.
  7. The current edition of The Swiss Confederation—A Brief Guide, can be downloaded as a PDF from the Swiss Federal Chancellery website, http://bit.ly/Swiss-Confederation.
  8. Ehnes, Ulrike, Patrick Labriola, and Jürgen Schiffer. Politisches Wörterbuch zum Regierungssystem der USA: Englisch-Deutsch, Deutsch-Englisch (Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2001), http://bit.ly/Politisches-Wörterbuch.
  9. Federal Act on International Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters, www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/3.html.
  10. Treaties in Force (U.S. Department of State), www.state.gov/s/l/treaty/tif.
  11. TIAS (Texts of International Agreements to which the U.S. is a Party) Database (U.S. Department of State), www.state.gov/s/l/treaty/tias.
  12. Das Portal der Schweizer Regierung, www.admin.ch/opc/de/classified-compilation/international.html. (Texts of treaties between Switzerland and the U.S., as well as other countries in German, French, and Italian)
  13. Swiss Federal Council’s Classified Compilation of Federal Legislation, www.admin.ch/gov/en/start/federal-law/classified-compilation.html.

Cheryl A. Fain has been the in-house translator and editor for the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, DC, since 1994, and has over 30 years of professional experience. Her translations have been published on Swiss government websites and by U.S. and international newspapers and online media. She has also edited a wide variety of English-language publications on Switzerland. From 1984 to 1994, she was a medical translator in the Social Security Administration’s Central Translation Section. She is also an ATA-certified German>English and French>English translator. She has an MA from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a BA from the University of Rhode Island, and spent a year at the University of Salzburg in Austria as an undergraduate. Her articles have appeared in the ATA division publications Source, Caduceus, and interaktiv, as well as Proteus, the newsletter of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. Contact: cheryl.fain@eda.admin.ch.

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