I will miss you Miriam!


Candle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I just got one of the saddest messages. The wonderful professor Miriam Shlesinger of Bar-Ilan university has left us.

Dear Miriam,

I’m so extremely grateful that I have known you. You were, and will continue to be, a fantastic role model. I have admired you so much, your scholarly work of course, but also your kind, inclusive personality. I have no idea how you had time and energy for everything and everyone, but I understand you worked hard. I hope you got much good energy back from all of us and that you understood how much you meant.

Thanks to you so many good things exist in Interpreting (and Translation) Studies. I hope that we can continue to carry your torch and that your memory will live strong.

Do continue to keep an eye on us.


Read Miriam’s acceptance speech for the Danica Seleskovitch award. It’s a wonderful account of both her personal story and her life in Interpreting Studies.


History of interpreting

Interpreting is ancient. Maybe as ancient as languages or mankind. Interestingly enough there are references to interpreters in many different historical sources. Like the representation of an interpreter in General Horemhebs grave, Unprofessional translation has an interesting post on ancient Egypt and interpreters there.

Cicero in ancient Rome spoke highly of his interpreter and the services the interpreter did for him. In the Ottoman empire interpreters were called dragoman and their role was not just interpreting but also acting as guides, go-betweens and door-openers to the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman empire also had sworn court interpreters, as can be seen from old court records from the Ottoman empire. Update December 6, 2010: Another interesting post on dragomans and the history of interpreting by Unprofessional Translations

There were also sworn court interpreters in Spain in the 16th Century. And interpreters were also used by the conquistadors to communicate with the indigenous people in the Americas. Although the training those interpreters received were perhaps not to be envied. Natives were brought back to Spain where they worked as slaves and learnt the language. If they were judged good enough they were brought back to their origins to act as interpreters.

But interpreting hit the headlines with the Nüremberg Trials. Although interpreting was used at the international organisations before the Second World War, this was the first time that large scale simultaneous interpreting was used. Technology now allowed interpreters to listen to the original in head phones and interpret into a microphone that broadcasted the interpreting to listeners. Hardly any of the interpreters who interpreted at the Nüremberg Trials had any interpreting training. But most of the interpreters there then went on to a career in interpreting. These interpreters were the founding fathers and mothers of the profession. They were active in the professionalization of interpreters, they helped training new interpreters and they lay the foundations of aiic, the international association for conference interpreters.

Community interpreters are a different case. Community interpreting has not started its professionalization until the past 10 or 15 years. Community interpreters were typically friends and and family of the person needing community interpreting. However, thanks to researchers and very active community interpreters, and in particular thanks to the Critical link conference, community interpreting is slowly gaining professional standards in the same way as its big sister conference interpreting.

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…

Transcribing anyone?

Almost anything you would like to study about interpreting needs to be transcribed. Your are studying the spoken word and if you would like to classify, analyze, maybe do some statistical calculations you need a written copy. Not much difference if you study the interpreting, a retrospection or make interviews. But transcription takes time, 1 minute of interpreting takes at least 10 minutes to transcribe and the more detailed you want to be the longer it takes. Now, I know interpreting researchers are not the only one’s here, we share this problem with speech and interaction researchers for example. But still!!! I am dreaming of money to hire somebody to transcribe and of corpora of interpreted texts being put in great databases, accessible through internet. Maybe I should start with written surveys instead, much easier to sort and no transcribing involved, doesn’t feel as exciting though. I guess I’ll just continue. I bless my typing teacher in high school, my fate would have been even worse had I not been a fairly fast touch typist (I didn’t get 97 % from the Botswana secretarial college though :))