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.

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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.

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.