Those who sneer at the slightly New Age term “finding yourself” might be enviable: they have probably never known the feeling of being truly lost.
Visiting interpreters really should read this liberating short article by translator Andrew Morris on the ITI website. It begins with a story about a sculptor who “finds” a fully formed likeness of themselves inside a solid block of marble, by simply chipping away at it until nothing but the likeness is left. (The story is unattributed but I wonder if Andrew was thinking of Michaelangelo.) The author describes the final realisation that for all his language skills, there will always be topics, texts and genres that he will never be much good at translating; he sets out to “chip away at the world of translation” until he finds his own likeness within it.
It’s a refreshing point of view and easy to appreciate the cheerful candour of saying that it’s perfectly legitimate, and maybe even a necessity, to whittle away your more bothersome and soul-destroying work and pursue a specialism that you revel in and excel at, resulting in better quality of work and a more satisfied, enriching life. Yes, I’ll have some of that, please.
I do wonder, though, whether this way of thinking is completely compatible with the goal of being a public service interpreter. Council meetings, Entry Level 1 Literacy and the continuing saga of Mrs Scroggins’s bunions at her GP may not be conducted in Wildean epithet but they are very necessary evils and of critical importance to others. A quick browse through Amazon’s offerings on books about translation might tempt us to believe that translators have a more entrepreneurial bent. Andrew’s post raised the following questions in my mind:
- Where is the boundary between the obligation of a social duty, and the personal fulfilment of pursuing an expertise?
- Is “access” simply good in and of itself, or is an interpreter allowed to make determinations about the quality of that which is accessed?
- Do I love specific assignments just because they “suit” me, and do I really do a better job with them or does it merely seem that way?
- I’m an appalling interpreter when working in art classes; but am I the very worst?
- Why do I feel like I have some kind of debt to some kind of community to pay off?
- Is it not a little privileged to assume that I can simply edit the interpreting world to my own fancy?
- If I don’t do those jobs, why should anyone else? What about solidarity, collegiality?
- Or is it simply pragmatic to accept that a specialised, choosy interpreter is better than a burned out one?
- Do I have as much of a “right” as anyone else to lead a happy life or do we just make up “rights” like that when it suits us most? (Clue: interpreters tend to invoke Codes of Conduct most often when it benefits them, not the interlocutors, or to dismiss some perceived conflict of “role”.)
I can’t answer any of these questions very well today and they are, of course, very much polarised. But the first steps towards an answer would be to establish whether as an interpreter, I can actually apply a translator’s work ethic at all.
Much is made about the difference between translators and interpreters; both groups are fully capable of exhibiting pique when named for the other. As someone who trained at the University of Leeds Centre for Translation Studies, where both translators and interpreters take the same core modules and it was perfectly possible to specialise in translation within the interpreting programme (I took a roughly 50/50 mix of options), and appreciating some of the astonishing variety both fields contain, this thinking seems at best odd and at worst a little petty to me. Are we really so different?
AIIC have a guide to some of the more commonly held differences and repeats the common assertion that translation is written and interpreting is spoken, although to someone working in a sign language or any other language with no written form, there are some immediate problems with those definitions – even assuming for the moment you can get temporarily get away with describing sign language as a “spoken language”, what about working with a recorded clip of someone signing BSL and voicing it into spoken English, or (as I routinely did in my one very busy Access to Work assignment – l33t typing skillz required) taking “dictated” but very informal live BSL and turning it into a business e-mail on the fly? Are those activities interpretation, or translation, and does it matter? This is the kind of confusing thinking which has led to Deaf people being arbitrarily encouraged to title themselves as translators and hearing people as interpreters.
Interpreting is often described as “live” or “immediate”, but then there are some practices in consecutive interpreting which are not remotely “immediate” by any conventionalised definition of the term – ten minute lags are possible and beyond. Translation is sometimes described as not time pressured or not involving “extreme speed”, but try telling that to someone who just successfully bid the lowest price on an online translation portal to translate a thirty page Portuguese legal document with penalties for not delivering before the deadline. Then there are the huffy but frankly dull debates on the minute differences between “sight translation” and “sight interpretation”. Well then, perhaps interpretation is different because it’s “face to face” – sorry, no again, interpreter “professionalisation” arguably started with the technology boost granted by the Nuremberg Trials and we didn’t stop innovating in 1945: today an interpreter might be actual miles away, notwithstanding one colleague’s confusion on several levels about why the interpreter who corrected the French president could not “interrupt him” to ask for clarification (aside from the social consequences of interrupting a world leader, the connection was both remote and one-way, but it was still interpretation).
Your mileage may indeed vary. Going well off the beaten path, I have also been told to my face by an experienced interpreter that translation is “word for word” but interpretation is “free”. Then there are the dearly belovéd sign language interpreter colleagues who list “technical translation” and “localisation” as skills on LinkedIn, giving the impression that they spend a good deal of time in software houses reconfiguring user interfaces or producing Japanese camera manuals. There are not enough “facepalms” in the entire box set of Star Trek: The Next Generation to express how I feel about these things, but then, I talk a lot of crap as well, frequently.
Maybe we can just accept that there are probably differences some of the time in some places, mostly in the setting or “domains” and possibly the lifestyle, but it would be churlish and counter-productive to deny that interpreting and translating are extremely closely related. Professionals from both sides can learn a good deal from each other, and I would immediately recommend texts on translation studies to any interpreters who have never read any – Mona Baker’s In Other Words or Jeremy Munday’s Introduction to Translation Studies are great places to start. Any interpreter training which does not contain at least an introduction to “translation as a purposeful activity” is not worthy of the name, in my view. As the saying goes, if you walk a mile in another man’s shoes, you’ll be a mile away and have his shoes.