Recently there’s been a digital fuss about Mark Cave, an Auslan interpreter, uncomfortably dubbed #signguy by people with smartphones. He is the latest in a line of interpreters in recent years who have lingered for their fifteen minutes of limelight, following Lydia Callis, Jonathan Lamberton and (in a very different category) diagnosed schizophrenic and alleged murderer Thamsanqa Jantjie. Depressingly, the story is rarely about what is really happening, but about people’s reaction to it. Tweets used to react to news media stories, but now they are the stories. (Updated 17/3/2015: a mere three weeks later, we can now add Tommy Krångh to the list, a Swedish interpreter whose TV performance triggered a social media reaction which virtually eclipsed the original artists.)
I sheepishly admit to getting a little side-tracked, but my grandma told me to always finish what you start. Part 1 was all about the surprising diversity of nonsense, the difference between non-language, pseudo-language and lies; we encountered the idea that many if not most language utterances are riddled with invisible implications that even users of the same language have to unpack and infer from without even noticing (we call this pragmatic competence); and that in order to reformulate a concept from one language to another, we have to be able to understand it in languageless terms in the middle, to “see” it internally, to connect it deeply to knowledge. Part 2 was about ambiguity, failure, intentions, co-production and, for some reason, sophisticated mouse civilisations. Sorry about that.
Happy New Year to all the diligent interpreting robots out there accessing T9000 via their cranial hypernet implants. I hope you are all managing to “adhere strictly” to the rules (they are sticky, which helps with the adhering) and are continuously “raising standards” in a small way every day. If you ever feel like this is a futile task, don’t worry: in the alternative future dystopia that T9000 originates from, the world energy crisis has been solved by hooking up a generator to a perpetual motion machine made entirely from crystallised standards. [Read more…]
I was a bit blown away by the interest in my Great Flounce – in just five days, it had double the total traffic of the last ten months – a little nerve-wracking. Some very fair criticisms were made: I agree completely with those who pointed out that it isn’t especially helpful to dismantle things without offering any kind of solution. This post is an attempt to redress that, pulling together bits and pieces I’ve rambled about here over the last year.
Here’s what would bring me back into the loving arms of my comrades, if a register (or equivalent) could manage it. It’s not a shopping list: they are my terms, which sounds super-butch but has that faint implication of compromise. Most of them (except possibly the first) have been talked through by others for decades, and they all overlap to some extent. If you don’t like longform (essay-length) blogs, here’s a quick list with soundbites.
- A twenty-first century register: the register as a “really useful” public-facing database interface, emphasising specific competencies
- Certification to work in critical domains: the death of the “pancake profession”, the birth of structure and progression
- Pupillage/internships: mandatory hours of supervised work experience for full registration status, post-qualification
- An end to deontology: no more stone tablets which contradict contemporary research and cripple us with dissonance
- Evidence-based decisions and practice: a permanent ban on blind faith and “off-the-shelf professionalism”
This wasn’t an easy decision. You could choose to look at it as though I were leaving a profession. If you really want to think that, I can’t stop you. But to me, it feels like I’ve decided to join one.
Graduating as a qualified interpreter was one of the proudest days of my life. I got to surround myself with the most important people to me, the ones to whom I owe everything and who have put up with all manner of crap over the years, while shuffling around in a Harry Potter costume. I was called up onto a stage, saluted by men carrying giant sceptres, and shook hands with a very important personage in gold-threaded robes (I don’t even remember who she was, just that she was venerable and illustrious and vaguely beneficent). We were flanked by my academic superiors, arranged in tiers of increasing breadth and floppiness of hat, looking on with weary approval. Hundreds of strangers applauded, there were drinks and flashing cameras and a thousand permutations of mutual congratulation. We were the very last BSL/English interpreters to graduate from the University of Leeds MA programme, a course that was axed without even a whimper from sign language interpreting professional membership bodies.
The same month, my yellow NRCPD badge arrived in the post, and everything went downhill rapidly from there.
Early this year, I wrote a blog post titled Machine love which, inspired by the blogs of others, argued that translators and interpreters will never be made obsolete by machines. I was on a high, excited about starting to run introductory translation studies workshops again. Now, the evenings are drawing in and I think I’ve changed my mind. We’re doomed.
T9000 interrupts its scheduled broadcasts on the topic of nonsense to bring you this breaking news. A glacial process of reform at Signature/NRCPD, which began a year and a half ago, would finally appear to be bearing some fruit. (I mention merely in passing that Signature has taken in an estimated £300,000 in registrant fees during that time.) Two new things are happening, either or both of which might be cause for concern if you still believe that NRCPD have any relevance to your work.
The first issue is that the governance of NRCPD, the board of trustees, is finally being refreshed: this was announced to registrants by e-mail last week. BD Consulting UK, a private firm, has been appointed to manage the recruitment process of four permanent “registrant trustees”, in the model of several other registers which have four professional members, four lay members and a Chair. This is good news, and what we all wanted. Isn’t it?
The second is that following a good deal of pressure (not to mention about 30 years of academic literature about interpreter “role” and deontological ethics) a revised Code of Conduct has been published in draft form, together with a draft revision of the complaints process. “Consultation” on the drafts has been requested, in the form of two more Surveys Monkey which ask the questions NRCPD wants answered. But this “consultation” fails to meet one of the most fundamental requirements of a consultation: hardly anyone knows it is happening. It has not been announced to registrants by e-mail; it has not been published on any form of social media that I can locate; it was not highlighted in an NRCPD newsletter because NRCPD does not produce a newsletter; it was simply dumped on their website without fanfare, a website which incidentally has no means of keeping in touch with its audience such as an e-mail subscription list or an RSS feed to name just two popular internet technologies which have existed for over 15 years.
Let’s take a closer look at both of these developments. [Read more…]
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.
(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?
I returned last night from the annual conference of the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters in Antwerp, Belgium, which was simply amazing. It was fascinating to be surrounded by so many spoken and signed languages (with participants from 25 countries, some of which represent more than one language in each modality) and hugely satisfying to meet interpreters from hundreds and thousands of miles away and immediately recognise their experiences. It was a total pleasure to leave “local concerns” behind and talk about what interpreting is for once. I’m already looking at how to get to Warsaw for the 2015 conference.
The theme of the conference was the underlying cognitive processes (“mind tricks”) that make interpretation possible – totally my cup of tea. If I were going to be constructively critical, I’d say that the only flaw in the extremely well-organised proceedings was the total onslaught of information – my brain currently resembles an over-boiled primary school dinner cauliflower, and physically I feel like I’ve spent the weekend mountain climbing. The main day was a long series of (fascinating) presentations with no “break out” exercises or workshops – although the standard was extremely high and all of the topics useful, I’d have enjoyed the opportunity to pause from passively receiving information and engage in more structured dialogue with colleagues from abroad.
Because of this, there is absolutely no way I can describe here everything I took away, and most of it hasn’t settled down yet – I expect things will continue to poke me for months to come. So the following is an almost random selection of just a few of the bitesize “messages” I found easier to process as they’ve fit with my reading and thinking so far – I should say that they do not necessarily represent the views of the presenters, and there was a metric shedload of other interesting stuff.
Can we take a break from “professionalisation”?
Peter Llewellyn-Jones, president of efsli (and my former supervisor) began and ended the conference by reminding us that while the early years of interpreting research had a notable focus on cognition, perhaps that fell by the wayside: we have collectively spent much of the last 15 years talking instead about what it means to be a “professional”. That dialogue is sometimes useful but arguably there is little point in endlessly elaborating on our status as interpreters if we do not understand how interpreting works.
A trivial bit of new knowledge on my part was finding out how interpreters are named in other languages – for example, I met Swedish, Dutch, Danish and Flemish interpreters who use some linguistic variant of the word tolker, which is best translated as “interpreter” but more literally means “talker” or “explainer” or “spokesperson”. Good luck to any statutory regulation afficionados with trademarking that title. On a related note, efsli’s long term aim (perhaps by 2020) is to create a Europe-wide register of interpreters – many countries such as Croatia and, surprisingly, Sweden do not have a national register – and I’m excited by the idea of an international register of public service interpreters set up by interpreters.
Why do we default to simultaneous interpreting?
Debra Russell gave the keynote presentation, which was a goldmine in itself and had my brain whirling before we’d even reached the first morning’s halfway mark. Evidence was highlighted which demonstrated what spoken language interpreters take for granted but sign language interpreters often completely ignore: simultaneous interpreting is worse than consecutive in terms of faithfulness, quality and, often, believability (a vital and sometimes overlooked requirement for settings such as court interpreting, business and education). In one measure of quality on the work of experienced interpreters in court settings, error percentages were worse for simultaneous interpreting by more than a decile compared to consecutive; accounts from Deaf users were highlighted, which clearly expressed that they disliked interpreting errors more than they disliked consecutive interpreting.
I’ve said this myself in my own workshops for CSWs – we “grow up” as interpreters emulating what we have seen others doing, and we think that it must be right just because that is the status quo. But the main utility of authority is that it is there to be questioned. We have successfully persuaded large sections of the community that just because bimodal interpreting can be done simultaneously without racks of specialist technology, it should be done that way, even though research shows time and again that it creates more errors and less “natural” target language renditions. Perhaps consec should be the default stance whenever possible – yes, it does have some disadvantages (lawyers don’t like it, for example, perhaps because it takes up more of their precious time), but in which situations are those disadvantages outweighed?
Discourse and what we are doing
A recurring theme in several of the presentations was that interpreters seem to struggle with maintaining the discourse functions of language, what language is doing above the word and sentence levels. Debra Russell talked about interpreters working in education, who tend to get sucked into processing language on just a lexical level but are not mindful of the discourse, where the language is headed, what the point is, even when they have actually been prepared and included in those aims as a proper colleague of the teacher (which never happens enough). Terry Janzen discussed “intersubjectivity” (a term which is ironically very hard to translate and which called to mind Robert Lee’s writing about the identity and personal history of interpreters) and communication as “construal”: the problem here is a possible tendency in interpreters for “over-contextualisation”, which I regrettably recognise in myself as an someone who started off working in the education field.
Yes, interpreters are “explainers”, but perhaps it is more common than we realise for a speaker to need to leave things unexplained, to be obscure on purpose, at least for the time being. Discourse is co-constructed: we all unconsciously probe each other’s understanding all the time, and maybe an interpreter who is driven to make everything crystal clear, to the lowest common denominator of meaning, is completely screwing up that everyday process. In education, it is common and important for a teacher to “test” learners by saying things s/he expects to not be understood. So how can you interpret something “faithfully” if you don’t know why it was said? When interlocutors complain that they didn’t understand the interpreter, do we have the courage to tell them, when it’s true, that they weren’t supposed to? These themes kept bothering me all the way through my training – all these wonderful models and diagrams about interpreter-mediated communication seem to assume that people make sense all the time. They don’t. They frequently talk a load of crap. We should recognise and indeed celebrate that.
What I found fascinating is that as frequent as these ideas about discourse, goals, construal etc. were across the presentations, there seemed to be many colleagues present (both from abroad and home) who seemed to find it all quite new, and there were even suggestions that it needed more of a focus in interpreter training. I was a bit surprised and disappointed to find out that people aren’t really being taught this stuff. Pragmatics, discourse and illocution – functional/purposeful approaches – were introduced on day one of my own interpreter education, but (for example) I don’t see them prominently listed in Signature’s NVQ curriculum.
There was so much more – you’d need a short-ish book to properly cover everything that came up – but I’ll stop there for a lie down: the over-boiled cauliflower needs time to cool off. Thanks to all the organisers and participants for an amazing experience.