How many interpreters does it take to change a lightbulb? It depends.
In part 1, we looked at a few distinct ways in which people fail to make sense, and what we (as interpreters) can do about it, if anything. Some themes cropped up more than once:
- That we need to be able to “see with the mind’s eye” what things mean, either as an actual visualisation or as an abstraction (like the hovering multicoloured towers of Lego that followed me around and haunted my dreams when I was a programmer), and that if we can’t do that – if the input doesn’t create anything we can understand in languageless terms – we probably can’t produce anything very meaningful in the target language. One of the situations in which interpreters stop making sense is when they start acting as a conveyor belt, a translation machine that only works on a lexical level: a participant in a study I worked on expressed this as interpreters who “pass the parcel”.
- Following from that, we also need to understand language as discourse: where is it going, what is the point? Preparing for an interpreting assignment by looking up words, doing background research and making glossaries is all fine and good, but it might not be enough if we don’t understand why language is being uttered.
- That sometimes people don’t make sense on purpose, and we might need to collaborate with that aim. Interpreters are typically “explainers”: but sometimes a speaker needs to baffle, challenge, test their audience.
To explore some of these ideas in practice, I offer up a failure as example: a totally awful interpretation I was recently responsible for. I completely cocked it up and it was mostly my fault. But I learned something.
As some background, look at the following utterance:
The officers debated what to do about the protesters. They were anarchists.
Who is “they”? Many people, who have certain ideas about anarchism, would immediately assume it’s the protesters, because that “makes more sense” in their world, even though there is nothing in the grammar of that sentence which demands it to be so (and most of us don’t even notice these ambiguities when they happen). There is nothing to stop the officers from being the anarchists. On the other hand:
The officers debated what to do about the protesters. They feared a riot.
Again, there is nothing in the structure or the semantics of that sentence to prevent it being the protesters who feared a riot. Without any other context, it would be a perfectly valid interpretation (and this is before we’ve even started looking at turning it into another language). You could argue that the first part leads us to expect that it’s the officers who feared the riot because they are the subjects of the first clause, the ones taking some action (debating), and (cf. Grice, Wilson & Sperber etc.) we expect the next part of the utterance to be propositionally relevant to the first part (they are debating because they fear). But it’s all subjective and might depend on what had been said earlier. The most famous example is:
The dog bit the cat. It died.
Most of us inhabit a self-constructed universe where dogs chase cats and cats chase mice, so we have certain ideas about dogs, cats and mice. Because being bitten is semantically connected to bodily harm and thereby to death, we might assume the cat died. But there’s nothing in this sentence from preventing it from being an Amazonian Tree Cat, filled with a lethal toxin as a natural defence mechanism against swarms of predatory chihuahuas, famously used to coat tiny arrows by a recently-discovered mouse civilisation which is preparing for an event they call the Return of the Cheese. Pronouns in English (it, we, they) are entirely context-dependent, and we are all a walking, talking embodiment of context. Imagine you’re walking down the street and a piece of paper flutters down out of the sky: on it is printed the single word “We”. What does that mean? Almost nothing. Is it you and me? Is it some other bunch of people? Is it the writer’s football team? Without context, you just don’t know. (What about the “Secret Beer Garden” near my workplace – is it a garden of secret beer or a secret garden of beer? I bloody-mindedly lean towards the secret beer, because the enormous chalkboard advertising the garden pretty much prevents it from being a secret.)
And of course there are many other ways of framing these ideas that are much less ambiguous: the officers, who feared a riot, took action against the protesters; the dog bit the cat, which then died. But just because it’s possible to reduce ambiguity doesn’t mean that people will. As community interpreters, we work in the real world, which is a shocking mess and we probably wouldn’t have it any other way. This isn’t nonsense in the way that colourless green ideas sleep furiously or frintjom sneckin ploob are nonsensical – but it most definitely still challenges sense-making and someone who was a native speaker of Lojban would think it was utter gibberish. Really, people do this all the time. A lot of my interpreter training, and the journal articles I’ve read subsequently, seemed to assume that people always make sense, that our interlocutors glide around producing cut-glass language that interpreters smear their greasy mitts on; we discuss studies which show that this interpreter made errors in 7.2% of the utterances while that one ran all the way up to 14.4% and isn’t that shocking, and I’m thinking, I’d love to see that source text because I bet you it would be riddled with ambiguity and subjectivity. In some public service settings, making sense is the exceptional circumstance.
So, a couple of weeks ago I was interpreting for a teacher who, it turned out, set out to test and challenge her class. She read out a short passage filled to the brim with exactly this kind of ambiguity – agents interacting in a story about a robbery, very heavy on the pronouns – which I interpreted into BSL. The written passage was then handed out to the class, who had to tick off “true”, “false” or “don’t know” against a series of statements relating to the passage.
I did not know this exercise was coming or why the teacher was doing it. I was also tired because my assignments that day required me to make a 40 mile round trip by public transport, and the room had that special quality of both stuffiness and headache-inducing breeziness only achievable in classrooms. I didn’t think very carefully about what I was hearing.
What I failed to think about was pretty basic linguistic stuff, for a signer. BSL doesn’t handle the examples above in the same way as English. It doesn’t technically have “pronouns” at all: it routinely uses “indexes” and “placement” as referents to “third person” entities. There is no directly equivalent sign for “he”, “she”, “it” or “they” – there’s a way of achieving more or less the same thing that “she” and “they” achieve, but it’s much less prone to ambiguity. BSL can even distinguish in a single “sign” between we (you and I), we (us three but not you) and we (you, me, and that other guy but not that other guy because, well, you know why).
Unthinkingly, I let the English words form a completely subjective mental picture and then used placement, indexes, role shift and discourse markers to produce a very definite picture of what I had understood, because that’s what I’ve been trained to do: this man asked for the cash register to be opened, that person ran away. So the student then answered most of the statements wrongly – the correct answer for at least half of them was “don’t know” but my interlocutor was a lot more certain than most of those in the room, because that’s what I had said. They had the opportunity to read the passage for themselves but I had already planted ideas in their head which the speaker did not want to be planted. Despite some more than adequate BSL, I failed completely to be “faithful”, mostly because I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. I hadn’t been included in the aims of the session, which was to push the students to become critical readers, to test their own assumptions about what they read: I had no sense of the discourse function of the exercise until it was almost too late.
Interpreters and CSWs have to repair this kind of self-inflicted damage all the time, because we are not included as fellow professionals by the system which provides for Deaf students. I don’t blame the teacher for this lack of inclusion, they’re an excellent colleague: the problem is that we are parachuted in and then whisked away when the minute hand hits twelve like a rented laptop or dictaphone. Our work is funded and apparently “regulated” by people who love spreadsheets and optimisation but haven’t studied interpreting or teaching. Changing that is going to be an epic struggle, but at least we can mitigate it in the meanwhile with a bit of mindfulness, and when we get the time and resources to do so and a pig is flying over a blue moon, by spending some time with people to ascertain what their aims for the discourse are.
Conversely, often people will utter these kind of ambiguities but everyone who speaks that language knows immediately what they really meant. So ambiguously rendering ambiguities every time you hear one is no solution either. Your strategy will depend – on who the speakers are, where they are, why they are there, what they are trying to achieve.
And you will fail, some of the time. What matters is how you fail.
(Part 3 will be about “wine talk”.)