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.
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?