Research on Quality in interpreting

Jérôme, one of the 2interpreters, Michelle (Interpreter Diaries) and myself have been involved in a discussion on how to evaluate interpreter exams. A really tricky business as anyone of you who have been on an exam jury will know. Jérôme published a really interesting reflection on final exams and Michelle and I responded, you can read the post here.

We have now arrived at the even trickier subject of quality in interpreting and this is where I felt I needed to write a post, not just continue the comments. Clearly what exam jurors are after is some type of high quality interpreting, this is also supposedly what accreditation jurors or peer-assessors are looking for. But what is it?

Michelle mentions two early studies, one by Hildegund Bühler (questionnaire study with interpreters as respondents) and Ingrid Kurz (questionnaire study with interpreting users as respondents). These two have recently been followed up by Cornelia Zwischenberger with a more recent one with interpreters as respondents. When we are talking about questionnaire studies it should also be mentionned that AIIC commissioned a study made by Peter Moser on user expectations and that SCIC regularly make surveys of their users expectations.  Bühler and Kurz more or less concludes that an interpreting is good when it serves its purposes and that different contexts have different requirements (I’m summing up really heavy here).

As both Michelle and Jérôme points out in their comments there is a flood of articles on quality, and there are many studies made in the area, but I’m not sure we have actually come up with something more conclusive than Bühler and Kurz did. However, I would like to draw you attention to something that I have found most interesting in research on quality – Barbara Moser-Mercer was also mentioned in the comments and she published an article in 2009 when she challenges the use of surveys for determining quality. This seems very inspired by the work that has been done in Spain by Angela Collados-Aís  and her research team ECIS in Granada. Unfortunately, she only publishes in Spanish and German, so I had to go there to understand what she does, but it was worth every bit of it. Extremely interesting research. I also have to complement them on how I was received as a guest, Emilia Iglesias-Fernandez made me feel like a royalty, and all the other researchers in the unit was extremely welcoming and accommodating. But here’s the interesting thing:

For the past 10 years they have been researching how users of interpretation perceive and understand the categories most commonly used in surveys to assess interpreting. These categories have typically been since Bühler; Native accent, pleasant voice, fluency of delivery, logical cohesion, consistency, completeness, correct grammar, correct terminology, appropriate style. If I remember correctly, for instance, Peter Moser’s study showed that experienced users of interpretation reported that they cared more about correct terminology and fluency than pleasant voice or native accent.

In their experiments they have been tweaking interpreted speeches so the exact same speech would be done with or without native accent, with or without intonation, high speed or low speed and so forth. Different user groups first rated how important the different categories were and then they were asked to rate different speeches, tweaked for certain features. When you do that it turns out that the exact same speech with native accent gets higher score for quality (i.e. using more correct terminology or correct grammar) than the speech with non-native accent. And the same goes for intonation, speed and so forth.

So it seems like (very strongly argued) features that are not rated important (such as accent) affect how the user perceive important features (correct terminology).

In interpreting research there is also a lot of error analysis going on of course, and many studies base their evaluation of the interpretings used on error analysis. One problem with that is exactly the one that Jérôme points out – maybe the interpretation actually got better because of something that the researcher/assessor perceived as an error.  Omissions is a typical category where it’s difficult to judge that. I have also just gotten results with my holistic scales where the interpreter that I perceived as “much better” (only guts feeling) got much worse scores. One reason for this when I started analyzing my results could very well be the fact that that interpreter omitted more, and thereby, in comparison with the source text, there are more “holes” or “faults” or whatever you would like to call it.

When it comes to exams, Jérôme claims that not much has been done in terms of research on exam-assessment and exams. I have not checked that, but my impression is that Jérôme is right. I cannot remember reading about quality assessment of examinees. I know that entrance exams are studies and aptitude tests, but final exams… Please enlighten me.

Another thing that Jérôme also points out, and which is really a pet subject to me, but where there seem to be very little consensus, at least in the environments where I have been, is the training of the exam juror or the peer-reviewer. Now, I don’t mean to say that there are no courses in how to be an interpreting exam juror, of course there are. But what I mean (and Jérôme too I think), is that people evaluating interpreting do not get together and discuss what they believe is good interpreting or not. You could for instance organize a training event before an exam where jurors get together and discuss criteria and how they understand them, and also listen to examples and discuss them. I’m sure this happens somewhere, but I have not come across if so far.

What’s your take on this? Have I left out any important studies or perspectives? Do you have any other suggestions?

Literature list:

Bühler, H. 1986. “Linguistic (semantic) and extra-linguistic (pragmatic) criteria for the evaluation of conference interpretation and interpreters”. Multilingua 5-4. 231-235.

Collados Aís, Angela. 1998. La evaluación de la calidad en interpretación simultánea: La importancia de la comunicación no verbal. Granada: Editorial Comares.

Kurz, Ingrid. 1993. “Conference interpretation: Expectations of different user groups”. The Interpreters’ Newsletter 5: 13–21. (

Moser, Peter. 1995. “Survey on expectations of users of conference interpretation”. (

Moser-Mercer, Barbara. 2009. “Construct-ing Quality”. In Gyde Hansen, Andrew Chesterman, Heidrun Gerzymisch-Arbogast p. 143-156. Efforts and models in interpreting and translation research: a tribute to Daniel Gile Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Zwischenberger, Cornelia2011. Qualität und Rollenbilder beim simultanen Konferenzdolmetschen. PhD thesis, University of Vienna.

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.

A few things that should be compulsory in PhD training in Translation and Interpreting Studies

Through my PhD studies (four years done, 18 months to go) I have been blessed with very good supervisors, solid training, interesting conferences and great networking opportunities. But I have not followed a PhD training in Translation Studies and many of the great things I’ve been able to do has been thanks to particular people and to my supervisors’ great flexibility. And therefore I would like to list a few things that I think should be compulsory in PhD training in Interpreting (and Translation) Studies.

Supervisors. At least two who are not competitors. I have three, and I consider myself very lucky. They are not competing for funding or project plans so they are all very positive and supporting to my project. I have one extremely devoted main supervisor, the other two act as supporters to her. They cover different fields and can give feedback from different angles. At least one of your supervisors must be working in the same field as your PhD project

Summer school. Possibility to participate in at least one longer summer school in your field. It gives great opportunities to meet peers in your field and hopefully also to meet good and inspiring professors in your own or neighbouring fields.

Methodological training. Whichever field you are in or whatever methodologies you use you need to get hands on training in different theories and methodologies. How are you otherwise supposed to know which approach, analysis or methods you are going to use with your material. The risk if you do not get this training is that you end up either blindly following your supervisor or making it up as you go along and thereby risking a new invention of the wheel or something similar. The program I follow has a great training unit, unfortunately it’s in bilingual studies and not in translation studies.

A conference a year. At least! Start going to conferences as early as possible. Again, great networking. You also get to test your material and your results on a bigger audience than your supervisor, and most researchers in Translation Studies are both kind, interested and curious of what other people are doing.

Publish. If you would like to continue as a researcher, you have everything to gain from publishing early. Make sure you pick good publishing channels though, with good I mean serious. They don’t have to be THE journal in your field, but having published in peer-reviewed, scientific publications usually weighs more heavily in your CV than your local news letter.

Organize a conference. Not the whole conference of course, but being part of an orginizing committee for a bigger conference or workshop or seminar is also extremely good for learning how these things work, how you apply for money, how administration works at your university and so forth. And lastly, again, great networking opportunity.

Edit a book. Provided you get help, e.g. being one of two or several editors, this is probably one of the greatest learning processes there is in academia. You get to read draft papers from other scholars, you get to see feed back from their peers, you have ample possibility to discuss the contributions with your co-editors. You get an understanding of the whole editing process. You work with publishers and proof readers. Takes alot of time of course, but well worth it for your future academic career.

Make a study and write an article with your supervisor. Really work together with your supervisor, not just him or her co-signing something you did. A very good learning process and a hands on exercise in how your supervisor works and thinks. Will most likely develop your own research skills alot.

Teach. The best way to really learn your topic is to teach it. So if you can get teaching hours that are in Translation Studies and not in English linguistics. Take them!

Now you probably understand why my PhD studies take a little longer than usual. The other reason for this is that I started without funding and worked parallell to my PhD project. Finally, two things that I have not been able to do, but that I also find important.

Get pedagogical training for teaching at University. Different from teaching at secondary school. Good for future job seeking, and also makes you see your own learning process from a different perspective.

Learn how to apply for funding. Yep, that’s the sad current state of at least humanities today. You have to be very good at looking for funding, and make your projects look sexy for funders…

Read the posts tagged “Sorcerer’s apprentice” at the Cogtrans blog for more tips on PhD in Translation Studies.

Thanks to Maria Cristina de la Vega’s good comment I have to add one more thing:

Teaching interpreting workshops in conjunction with local language/interpreting associations. They are likely to be more accessible and probably thrilled to have you. That could also serve as a training ground for the conferences you might submit your papers to, and help you to refine your focus.

As you can se it’s a verbatim of her comment I can only agree. It is a very good experience, more easily accessible and usually a very positive audience, but with tricky and intelligent questions.

What’s my contribution to the GDP?

Monday and Tuesday I participated in the compulsory Theory of Science course. All PhD students at my university have to take the course and produce a paper on a topic related to Theory of Science and their own topic. I like the course and I like Theory of Science. We were discussing the book the “The New Production of Knowledge” by Helga Nowotny, Camille Limoges, Simon Schwartzman, Martin Trow and Peter Scott. The authors claim that there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, the first one is the one going on in the traditional institutions among academics not interdisciplinary and only achievable for a few. The second mode is the one that has moved out of universities with research teams that are interdisciplinary and that also consists of people both with and without academic background. These teams are loosely set together to answer specific questions under a limited period of time.
Personally, I did not like the division into two modes (first of all because the authors made it sound as the OLD used-out mode and the NEW fresh appropriate mode), I would prefer to see it as a continuum, there are research going on at the university, and that research can be both within a single discipline and interdisciplinary, it can have a time limit or it can be very long term. And then there is research going on outside the university in different constellations.
But the most problematic issue for me here is what this tells us about funding. A lot of the important basic research goes on at universities, and most of that research may not be so very “salable” when it comes to getting funding. It’s more attractive to fund a a mode 2 team where you can commission the team to research a particular issue you are interested in (which may be a highly important issue of course such as climate change nowadays) for a set period of time.
I once interpreted Linda Buck (Nobel prize laureate for medicine in 2004), it was a public lecture so I’m not breaking any secrecy here. Her work on the olfactory system was very much unsexy basic research that was hard to get funding for and that didn’t interest many people. She spent many years looking into mouse brains to see how the odors are detected in the nose and interpreted in the brain. She did not say it, but I guess she more than once got the question: “And what’s the good use of that?”. And then something happened and her research has allowed for the DNA-mapping of the olfactory system and she has discovered how the odor travels into the brain and apparently this can open all sorts of doors for the medicine industry. But what if she had been in a mode 2 team? And after four years of studying mouse brain nothing interesting had come up, no answers ready. Of course I do believe that we need both mode 1 and mode 2 research, my problem is that I do not want research to be done only in mode 2.
I mean honestly, what’s my contribution to the GDP? I do not find cures to diseases, I do not stop the climate change, I do not invent new renewable energy sources, I do not even come up with new economic models to make more money. So where is my right to existence in a research world dominated by market economy? I’m not alone in this dilemma, many researchers within Humanities struggle with the same questions. But nevertheless our science is important science too. We all contribute to a better understanding of the world around us, an understanding of those who came before us and documentation to those who will follow. Our community needs us, so we need to be part of the funding too, even if we are not producing immediate results in short term projects. Rome was not built in a day.

Update Jan 21st: I just noticed that the Overworked Translator had a blog post touching this topic, I like to believe that I’m more of a winner than a whiner, although I admit that this post touches upon whining.

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.

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.

Tips for speakers

One of my research colleagues Anna-Riita Vuorikoski says that the responsibility for understanding a message does not only lie with the interpreter. It is a mutual responsibility between the speaker and the interpreter. Hence we need to educate our speakers as well. The blog Translating and Interpreting has a very good post on Tips for working with interpreters. I cannot say it better myself.

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 :))

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.