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.