(A transcript of this video is here)
For a long time, I’ve been bothered by questions about what to do, as a working interpreter, when you are presented with a long barrage of unexpected nonsense. Most of the time, I’m fairly sure I’m working with real human beings, so it’s a regular occurrence.
I think my anxiety about it stems from a brain-curdling experience in a Higher Education art lecture that’s been nagging at me for over three years now. I wrote about it during my interpreter training in my critical reflection logs: I knew I was flailing around for excuses because I flippantly listed “jumping through a plate glass window and falling two stories in order to escape” as a potential but grudgingly unprofessional “coping strategy”. Those logs and the critically reflective essay they produced got me the highest mark I have ever received in all of my academic endeavours, which says to me that (a) my supervisor had a sense of humour and (b) I was asking all the right questions, but didn’t necessarily have any decent answers.
Sometimes, when an answer seems very elusive, it may be because we don’t understand the question. So I’ve done a little thinking and reading about nonsense, gibberish and gobbledegook. If the following doesn’t make any sense, I’m sorry for being insufferably meta. Nonsense is not all the same, so in time-honoured interpreting tradition, our responses to it are going to depend – but on what?
These are utterances which might not be language at all, definitely aren’t the language you’re expecting and couldn’t even be mistaken for it because they don’t use the expected set of phonemes. For example, Znteq npunj’o qrdiwigf is not English in any sense and is barely pronounceable to a native English reader. You would hope that this kind of thing is fairly rare in public service interpreting. A suggested coping strategy if you encounter it repeatedly during an assignment would be to call for an ambulance.
Pseudo-language and “literary nonsense”
These are utterances which sound a bit like they could be the expected language but aren’t: they follow the phonetic “rules” of the language (and if spoken, the expected intonation) but contain no or few recognisable words from its (current) lexicon. For example, Waps a bliffy nooger eff tha quinnels possibly sounds a bit like British English, but isn’t.
This kind of nonsense can be highly amusing or extremely tiring. At a DCAL Open Day a few years ago, I watched lots of visiting Deaf folks try out an experimental task: a series of randomly-chosen signs were played on a laptop, each of which were either an established BSL sign, or a sign which was not BSL and had no overt gestural connotations but which was formed from legal BSL phonetics (an “allowed” handshape, movement and orientation within BSL conventions). Participants hit a green button when they saw a BSL sign and a red button for the gobbledegook. The experiment was really designed to time responses, to see what effect fluency and early language acquisition have on the speed of lexical retrieval (the finding, as I remember it, was that more skilled or native signers were slower to respond, perhaps because they have a deeper mental lexicon to step through – being better at a language means the capacity to do more work) – but what I noticed was that most of the participants were laughing every time a non-BSL sign came up (and I wonder whether this helped or hindered the reaction time).
Again, you’d hope that extended monologues in this form of nonsense are a fairly rare experience for a community interpreter – realistically it would only ever be encountered in the domains of experimental poetry, music and performance art (cf. James Joyce, Edward Lear, One Direction) where you’d hope for extensive preparation and consultation with the author and would probably have to rely on a very goal/effect-oriented approach to translation, although it could also be argued that this kind of “language play” cannot be faithfully translated at all. That’s right – interpretation is a compromise, and sometimes a fatal one.
Illogical, ambiguous or incoherent language
This vaguer category probably overlaps most of those that follow (especially “wine talk” or oinoglossia, which we’ll cover later). A classic example is Chomsky’s: colourless green ideas sleep furiously. This is a complete utterance with well-formed English phonology, morphology and syntax, but what does it mean? At first glance it looks like a multi-layered paradox. How can something be both colourless and green when green is a colour? How can an idea, an abstraction, have the physical attribute of greenness? How can something which can never be awake ever be asleep? Sleep is the penultimate passive experience, so how can you sleep furiously?
It’s surprisingly easy to forget that individual “words” can mean a very many different things in context, and as interpreters we sometimes forget (or are too tired, or are not prepared, or are not sufficiently psychic) to consider the pragmatic function of the sentence, which can guide us through the dizzying web of possible meanings: what is the intended effect, what is the speaker trying to do? Oxymorons (eg. “deafening silence”, one of my favourites to interpret for a Deaf audience) exist for a reason. This is the tricky world of metaphor – we say that metaphor and idiom don’t translate well, but perhaps it’s just harder.
So what else does “green” mean, what imagery does it call to mind? It can indicate inexperience, or envy, or nausea. Perhaps the ideas are related to one of those concepts and also “colourless” because they are insipid, emotionless, or apathetic; they sleep because they have slipped to the back of the mind, furiously because they are upsetting an emotional equilibrium. We’ve arrived at a possible intralingual translation: Envious and insipid thoughts lurk disruptively in the subconscious, which makes a bit more sense (to me). You could argue that this is a completely subjective rendition and you’d be right, because that’s exactly what interpretation is. Without more information, it’s the best I can do.
A funnier example is Stephen Fry’s in the video embedded above, in which the point is also made (cf. T9k earlier this year, via xkcd) that the set of all possible utterances in just one language is so inconceivably vast that selecting one which has never, ever been spoken before is trivially easy. But having it also “make sense” is much harder. With Fry’s example (Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers) I can make several sections of that sentence make some kind of sense individually, but have serious issues with combining them all to make a coherent idea. I “see” nothing in my mind’s eye. We can know all the common words of a language and still not understand each other.
But it’s not really a fair task, because this sentence was not constructed in order to communicate a coherent idea in the first place. It was fabricated for the purpose of (a) being silly and funny and lovingly mocking of linguistics academia and (b) being a unique and new utterance. This is the essence of pragmatics: real language has a purpose. You are always talking to someone for a reason, even if it’s to yourself, even if it’s as mundane as passing the time of day. Meaning is intersubjective: all the interlocutors and the interpreter bring their own baggage. All utterances cannot avoid having a context, being part of a setting and a discourse. The exact same text can and should be translated differently for different speakers and different audiences: we’ve covered this ground before, with the squirrel that became a cat because it fulfilled the same function as one.
So beware of over-contextualisation. The speaker might be incoherent on purpose – there are settings in which language has to challenge, to test, to assess – in which case your faithful interpretation might have to try and retain that incoherence; or, more problematically, it might not make any sense because the speaker does not know what they are talking about. It is important to know which.
If, as an interpreter, you’ve tried hard to co-operate with the speaker to establish all of those intentions and identities but been thwarted, I suggest that you acted with integrity and can fail gloriously and honourably and any sane colleague would congratulate you for doing your best in a no-win scenario. Please do not give yourself a hard time: there are more than enough people queuing up to do it already.
You might argue that lies are not really nonsense, and I would quite happily accept such an argument.
That last bit was a lie. I totally wouldn’t. A lie is an utterance which is consciously false, a deliberate description of that which is not. A lie is definitely and offensively nonsensical when you know or find out it is a lie, and interestingly, interpreters only have misgivings about interpreting lies in exactly that situation, when they know it, when they feel they’ve become an agent of deception. Yet again, we’re back to intentions and effects.
UK sign language interpreters used to be bound by a Code of Ethics requirement to “do no harm”, which opened up interesting interpreter OS crash conditions, because we also had to simultaneously obey other important directives such as creating a faithful interpretation: this led to some interpreters falling over, drooling uncontrollably and asking for a valid disk to be inserted, while others went on a murderous rampage. This society-wide interpreter meltdown will one day be dramatised by Hollywood with a lot of explosions and my part will be played by Will Smith. Fortunately, the quasi-Hippocratic nature of our collective interpreting ethic was snipped from the offending code by NRCPD at the start of 2010, and we can now do as much harm as we like without collapsing into our own ethical navels, as long as we’re unflinchingly “professional” about it.
Unbecoming sarcasm aside, perhaps the way to cope with this kind of nonsense is, again, to consider the effect of interpreting a lie over and above the requirement to be faithful to the source text. There are models of translation (eg. Skopos theory) in which some concerns hierarchically override others. We teach our children not to lie and then, as a society of adults, employ a trillion tiny white lies every day because we know that things often work out better that way. The classic example of the tension between deontological stone tablet rules and actually living in the real world is the true story of Natalia Dmytruk, the Ukrainian sign language interpreter whose personal ethics contributed to a revolution, for better or worse. If you have difficulty with interpreting lies, consider why the speaker chose to lie, and consider that you may never know.
More in part two next month.