In Translation – Saskia Holmkvist

Communication

Communication (Photo credit: P Shanks)

Last week I took my students to see a video installation by Saskia Holmkvist, a Swedish artist who has done a series of works on role distribution and power (no it’s not Saskia on the picture). One of her installations, called In Translation, deals with different roles in interpreting. In the installation, Saskia interviews two interpreters with their clients’ present. It is a Norwegian public service interpreter and Latvia’s former president’s interpreter. The interviews are short and deal with interpreting techniques and different issues in interpreting.

The installations are interesting from many different perspectives, though. First of all, the clients’ reactions when they were put outside the conversation. The minority language speaker in the first interview seems to completely disconnect from the communicative event, after a couple of minutes he is more interested in the camera than in the interview. I cannot help to speculate whether it reflects his earlier experiences of different interpreted communicative events, where at different occasions he may very well have been (unintentional or not) disconnected from the communicative event, and if he is used to it, he has also learned to deal with it. Another factor is also of course the asymmetric distribution of power in these types of interpreted events. This client hardly has any comments on his interpreter’s performance either. All this is absolutely not to say that the interpreter is not good, on the contrary, the interpreter comes through as very professional and impartial.

In the second interview the client has a completely different role, but now we’re talking about Latvia’s former president and his personal interpreter. This client is not waiting silently on the side. When he realizes that he is not part of the communicative event he jumps in with comments and statements. He will not silently sit beside the communication, even if his perspective is the users and he does not have any experience as interpreter, he still has many views on interpreting. His most interesting comment is probably the last one – something like; “The interpreter should not reflect on what I say, even if she doesn’t understand she should know I always have a goal with what I’m saying”. The relationship between this interpreter and this client is far from impartial, and she also says it,  when she represents Latvia (through her president) she wants Latvia to look good. Body language and spatial placement also shows that there is a more symmetric relationship between interpreter and client.

If the video installation comes anywhere near you it is definitely worth watching. There is more information here in Norwegian.

Interpreter mediated illusory communication

This is a post that I have translated from Anne-Birgitta’s tolkeblogg and publish with her permission. My apologies in advance to Anne-Birgitta and other Norwegian speakers if I have misunderstood or mistranslated something (in that case please let me know, I need this caveat since neither English nor Norwegian are my mother tongue). I wanted to share it on my blog because I think it’s a very good illustration of what can and do happen in interpreter mediated events. This is an illustration of why we need to train interpreters and work on interpreting ethics and standards.

The term, ‘interpreter mediated illusory communication'(tolkemediert skinnkommunikasjon) is defined here as two parallel dialogues with different contents, and where the interpreter is the only one who understands what is actually being said, as in the example below from an interview with an angry Palestinian who considers himself a victim of racism:

1. Police: So the police is lying about this?
2. Interpreter: Are you saying that the police is lying?
3. Suspect: He is a liar, yes, his mother is a liar, his father is a liar (raises voice)
4. Interpreter: Yes
5. Suspect: Tell him his father is a liar, his mother is a liar, the racist pig
6. Interpreter: (laughing out loud)
7. Suspect: His mother and his father are liars
8. Police: What’s he saying now?
9. Interpreter: Yes, the police is lying and mother and father also lying (laughs so much that the phrase is almost inaudible)
10. Suspect: Tell him that racism is like AIDS, the disease AIDS, racism is in his blood
11. Police: What does he say about AIDS?
12. Interpreter: (laughs)
13. Suspect: Tell him that he has the racist disease, like AIDS
14. Interpreter: They all have it, the police is sick (laughs)

In the example we see that the interpreter does not render what the suspect says, and that the discussion sounds quite different in Arabic and Norwegian. This example is taken from a tape recording of a police interrogation and is described in: Andenæs, Kristian et. al. Of 2000. Kommunikasjon og rettssikkerhet. Utlendingers og språklige minoriteters møte med politi og domstoler. Oslo: Unipub publishers.

The meaning of a word

I really liked this article on words that are like icebergs. When you think about it you can peel off layer after layer, and it’s not even sure one word means the same to you as it does to me, in fact it probably doesn’t. I wrote about Sapir-Whorf here, who claimed that your language affects the way you think (I simplify the reasoning of course), and in some way I DO believe that language (together with cultural heritage of course) affects the way you think. That’s why it may be so extremely difficult to grasp everything that lies beneth the surface, just as with the iceberg.

The interpreter’s role in the participation framework

Erving Goffman was an antropologist and sociologist who studied social interaction. Among other things, he proposed a model to analyse the distribution of responsibility between interlocutors. Cecilia Wadensjö (1998) uses this model to analyse the role of the interpreter in an interpreter mediated event. An interlocutor has a given role in a communicative context. The roles can be symetric or assymetric depending on the situation. Participants can either be assigned different roles depending on the context or they can take up different roles. The participation framework (Goffman, 1981) gives different participants different status. Anyone who hears an utterance can take on a participant status, but depending on the siutation you can have different production formats. The formats can be those of the animator (the person who conveys either his or her own words or of somebody elses) or the author (somebody who compiles fact or information and makes an utterance but without necessarily being the one who guarantees the correctness of the information in that utterance) and finally the principal (the actor who is fully responsible for an utterance [the fact, the information behind and so forth], you can be the principal both of an utterance regarding your own feelings or something very formal such as the application of a particular law). In order to fully understand the interpreter’s role in the communication Wadensjö adds three reception formats: the reporter (who just reports verbatim what has been said), the recapitulator (who reacapitulates what has been said but in an active listening and understanding act, not just verbatim repeating) and the respondent (who listens in order to respond, to take the communication furter). The interpreter’s role in the communicative context vary, but has to be seen in the light of the reception formats. The interpreter is an animator and sometimes a principal, but the interpreter is first and foremost a recapitulator (hopefully, since we all agree by know that a word-for-word translation is rarely successful) who sometimes step into the role of responder. The interpreter responds and becomes the principal in utterances such as ”Could you please repeat that” or ”The interpreter would like to ask a question”, i.e. situations when the interpreter goes out of his/her role of conveying somebody else’s message and goes into the role of transmitting a message of his or her own.

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. Particularily in dialogue interpretering 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.

Communicative Conventions

Conventions in language is an unconcious or at least covert agreement between the speakers of a language of the links between words and morphemes and their meaningful contents. The links are mostly random (altough for instance onomatopeic words have a clear sound link to its meaning e.g. splash). This conventional connection between content and expression is called a sign. Linguistc signs can be combined into a system we call syntax.

However a communicative convention contains not only links between units in the linguistic system, it also contains links to the language users and to the communicative situation. The communicative convention is something we (all human language beings) master better or worse. But for interpreters it is vital, both that we master it but also that we can recognize it and explore it. Think about how, in principle, a language has means to create a common understanding among the speakers of that language. Yet, one language contains so many different registers, dialects, ideolects and sociolects so you can ask yourself whether there is a real possibility to create a common understanding between all speakers of the language. On a very general basis perhaps but when we move past general statements.

Interpreters master not only one language but it is their job to convey meaning from one language to the other (obviously…). In order to convey that meaning they need to be familiar with the communicative convention of both languages, but also of a multitude of different communicative conventions within the two languages. Nowing the convention is to know where it is valid, in which groups it is actively used and where it is perhaps not known at all.

I teach from a book by Jan Svennevig “Språklig Samhandling” and the post is only my interpretation of his book in particular and of communicative conventions 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.