Turn taking and interpreting

Turn taking in discourse governs who has the right to talk, when you are allowed to talk and who decides whose turn it is. A turn in a discourse is the period when one speaker has the exclusive right to talk. It is based on a common norm system, but the norm can of course differ from group to group or culture to culture. The turn can be taken by one speaker or can be given by the speaker to another listener. There are different ways to indicate a turn, you can do it linguistically (questions such as “What do you say?” or “You see?” and so forth, but also other cues) or para-linguistically (pause, glance, hem and so forth).

Turn taking can be more or less difficult for participants in a communicative event depending on whether you share the same norms or not. However, when we add an interpreter we add one more participant, but who are not participant on the same grounds as the other two. Particularly in dialogue interpreting, the interpreter has implications for the turn taking. The other participants in the dialogue cannot freely regulate the turn. However, the interpreter can use paralinguistic turn taking signals to take the turn (to interpret) or to give the turn (signal that it’s time for a new turn from one of the other participants). Cecilia Wadensjö has studied this and how interpreters manage this. In this paper for instance.

Halliday, Systemic Functional Grammar and Descriptive Translation Studies

The total opposite of structural language theories (such as Saussure) are functional language theories. Here represented first and foremost by Michael Halliday. Halliday is the father of SFL, systemic functional linguistics, from which genre pedagogy (see for instance Pauline Gibbons) seeks its roots. SFL seeks to analyze language from both structure and words in order to establish three meta-functions namely ideational, interpersonal and the textual. I haven’t seen any interpreting research using SFL (absolutely not a guarantee that there isn’t any), but guts feeling says it should fit well. There are some translation research done with SFL as one analysis model though. Apparently the problem with SFL as tool (only as hearsay as I haven’t tested it) is that it is descriptive, but does not really lead you any further. A bit like DTS, Descriptive Translation Studies. DTS was founded by Gideon Toury and became a revolutionary change in direction in translation studies, which up until then was almost solely prescriptive.


I teach from a book by Jan Svennevig Språklig Samhandling and the post is only my interpretation of his book in particular and of systemic functional linguistics in general.

Communication Theory

I’m trying to conquer Communication Theory for the second time round. Teaching a topic is always better than just studying it if you want to really conquer it. I find communication theory very relevant for interpreting which might be the reason for why it’s often taught to first year interpreting students. The only problem, just as for rhetoric is that when you are a first year interpreting student you don’t necessarily understand how useful it is. But here we are anyway.

The lecture is quite heavy, a lot of information to take in in a fairly short time, and mostly theory. And of course people get tired listening attentively for 45 minutes, more than you actually CAN do  if I remember my teacher training correctly. I don’t have much to remedy this, but this year I tried to lighten it up at little bit by putting in photos of all the theoreticians I refer to. I don’t know if it really changed anything, but at least I had a great time looking them up. Haven’t you always wanted to know what Ferdinand de Saussure looked like? I teach from a book by Jan Svennevig Språklig Samhandling and the post is only my interpretation of his book in particular and of communication theory in general.

What kind of interpreter are you?

An old received idea on interpreters is that they are invisible transmitters of meaning or message. This is the kind of interpreter I was brought up to be. You leave your feelings outside the booth or the meeting room, you just transmit the message. As I learned the profession I have also come to question this statement more and more. Is it possible for any human being to be perfectly neutral in any situation?

By this I don’t not mean that I, in my role as an interpreter should go in and give personal comments on the message, but what I mean is that I do believe that just the way I am transmitting something affects my neutrality, my choice of tone, voice, tense. Where I chose to start or stop interpret, in a smaller setting, where I cut in to deliver my interpretation.

There is a Swedish researcher, Cecilia Wadensjö, who wrote a book called “Interpreting as Interaction”. She calls interpreting a pas de deux for three. Claudia Angelelli is an American researcher who wrote “Revisiting the Interpreter’s Role”. In the end of that book she has a letter from one of the respondents in the survey she made who says that interpreting is everything but to “just translate what he says”.

You could also ask yourself if your client wants a perfectly neutral interpreter. In some settings my struggle to be neutral can be seen by my client as a strong hint that I am part of the establishment too, rather than the go-between.

I don’t have any answers to this of course but I find the issue more and more fascinating.