The interpreter’s role in the participation framework

Erving Goffman was an anthropologist 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 symmetric or assymmetric 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 situation 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 else’s) 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 recapitulates 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 further). 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. 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.

Language and thought, Sapir-Whorf and Everett (again)

There an interesting article in New York Times right know. It asks the question if language affects the way you think. The author, Guy Deuthscher, takes his starting point in theSapir Whorf hypothesis (or rather the Whorf, since this is one of the early articles by Whorf he’s referring to). Deutscher claims that time and common sense has proved the concept wrong. He quotes Roman Jakobson who pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages. Jakobson claimed that:

Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.

And on this quote Deutscher reflects further on whether you languages shapes you brain or not. And to me he seems convinced that this is not the case. You CAN describe anything in another language, even if the other language lacks that terminology, Deutscher says. And in most cases this is true of course.

But I’m curious that he not once, discusses the findings of Dan Everett, the linguist who mapped Pirahã, a language in the Amazonian jungle. Everett says that since he got to know Pirahã he has started to doubt that languages do not shape the way you think. Since the Pirahã language is so fundamentally different from other languages and certain concepts are very difficult to explain to a Pirahã. One feature is that Pirahã do not tag past as other languages do and things in the past is therefore very hard to grasp. If you don’t know for instance a historical person or know somebody who knows that person, then there is no proof that that person actually existed for a Pirahã and therefore no reason to believe such a person ever existed.
So maybe Sapir and Whorf weren’t entirely wrong after all, or…

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.

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. Knowing 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.

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 metafunctions 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 Guideon Toury and became a revolutionary change in direction in translation studes, 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.

Communicative competence, generative grammar and Dan Everett

I would say that an interpreter has a very well developed communicative competence. The definition of communicative competence being that we create meaning in utterances in many different communication situations. Dell Hymes was the first one to coin communicative competence in 1966 with the meaning that a person knows how words and structures works in different communicative situations. Communicative competence was a sort of counter balance to Chomsky‘s theory of generative grammar. Chomsky is indeed interested in the competence of the language user, but only as a formal competence not how it is used in a communicative situation. The (in)famous theory of generative grammar defined as something all human beings are born with and without which we would not be able to produce language. The generative grammar would also be the reason for language universals. Features that are common to all or most of the world’s languages. The most interesting dispute of generative grammar, I believe, comes from Dan Everett in his book “Don’t sleep there are snakes”. In his book he gives an account of his life as a linguist and missionary (at first at least) in the Amazonian jungle. He lived with the Pirahã people and gradually learns their language and culture. He claims that there are no language universals to be found in the Pirahã language. Their language is quite simply totally different.

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 competence 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 educated 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.

Interpreters’ responsibility

On May 12, 2008 Eric Camayd-Freixas interpreted at hearings of almost 400 illegal immigrants who were arrested in a raid at a meat plant in Potsville. After the hearings he decided to breach his professional secrecy and circulated a 14-page long account of the hearings in which he points out all the irregularities that were committed by the authorities. You can read more about this here. I have always admired so called whistle blowers. It is a very delicate and difficult task to stand up and point out irregularities if you are part of an organisation or system which the interpreter in this case definitely was. However, an interpreter’s professional secrecy is absolutely crucial to the profession. In an ideal world we would have debriefing sessions for interpreters. That would create a possibility for interpreters to share their experiences without breaking the professional secrecy and in extreme cases like the one of Mr. Camayd-Freixas he would not be left alone with the very important decision he had to take, i.e. denouncing authorities. Sometimes we end up in difficult situation due to agencies, I have for instance interpreted a pedophilia case eight-months-pregnant, sometimes missions that seemed totally straight forward end up in a very complicated situation, like when the defense lawyer decided to make the interpreter look like an ignorant in order to make the witness less credible (the defense lawyer actually apologized at the end of the day). We carry all sorts of similar experiences that we cannot share in order not to breach our professional secrecy.

In South Africa after apartheid a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established. The aim of the TRC was that everyone who had committed a crime during apartheid was free to witness in front of the TRC and ask for pardon. The witness was recorded and the person then granted pardon. People who were directly or indirectly victims were often present at the hearings and everything was interpreted simultaneously into the 13 official South African languages. This process was very fruitful for the restarting of South Africa, but the ones who suffered very much during this process were the interpreters. It became so difficult for them to bear all these dreadful stories that a special debriefing program had to be organized. “I am the filter that all pain is sifted through” said one of the interpreters in for the TRC. Their work has become a theatre performance that has been touring world wide. Should you come across it I strongly recommend that you see it.