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«On Babies, Bathwater and Approaches to Interpreting Kyra Pollitt 2000 This article has been downloaded from A version of it was ...»

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On Babies, Bathwater and Approaches to Interpreting

Kyra Pollitt 2000

This article has been downloaded from www.kyrapollitt.com. A version of it was originally published

in Deaf Worlds (International Journal of Deaf Studies), Vol. 16, Issue 2, pp.60-64.

Throughout my twelve or so years as an interpreter, the field has been dominated by two

approaches to practice. Whilst both focus on the role of the interpreter, they each have broader

implications and have, therefore, affected the field in different ways. As we enter the 21st century, many of us are recognising that our practices are changing. This is partly in response to increased consumer awareness of interpreters and interpreting, and partly in response to advances in understanding language and communication that are only now trickling through to us from the linguistic academy. This paper traces the development and application of theory to the practices of sign/spoken language interpreters in Britain. It discusses the latest developments, highlights where further development is necessary, and tries to position these advances within a historical framework.

When I first entered the world of deafness, it was undergoing a transition. On the one hand were the traditionalists; social workers, heads of deaf centres, ‘missioners’ and deaf people who believed that interpreting was an intimate activity to be undertaken by someone who facilitated access to what was going on, but was also ‘on your team’. On the other hand were the ‘young Turks’ who sneered at the traditionalists, advocating instead a thoroughly ‘professional’ approach.

We are, by now, all familiar with the notion of the interpreter as the ‘invisible’ third person in an interaction. The idea is that the interpreter should be emotionally detached and neutral, allowing communication to ‘flow through them’, and placing responsibility for the success or failure of the communication firmly on the shoulders of the ‘users’. People talk about this approach as being ‘professional’, a ‘robot’, or a ‘conduit’ (originally cited in McIntire and Sanderson, 1995). Those of us who have been around for some time will remember this as the approach that we were taught. In some places it is still being taught today.

During the nineties, though, this approach came under scrutiny as people in the field began to question the effect it was having. Many in the deaf communities voted with their feet, and continued to favour using social workers and family members to interpret. These people did not strive to be ‘professional’ in quite the same way, allowing themselves to be more human, and more involved in the communication. In 1994, the late Marie Jean Philip gave a keynote address to the Issues in interpreting conference at Durham. She pleaded for interpreters to adjust their hard, cold (largely Thatcherite) notion of ‘professionalism’ to one more in tune with the core vlues of the deaf communities they served (Philip, 1994). Liz Scott Gibson echoed the call in her paper (1994). My own contribution (Issues in Interpreting (2), 1995) documented the paradoxical state of the field one year on, characterising the two different approaches to interpreting through Annabel (a fictional ‘traditional’ interpreter) and Betty (her ‘professional’ counterpart). That paper was later published in Deaf Worlds (3:13:1997), and I am still receiving responses from interpreters in other corners of the world who see parallels in their own communities.

Over in Sweden new research was emerging that seriously challenged the ‘conduit’ approach to interpreting. Cecilia Wadensjö’s now seminal works (1992, 1998) examined real interpreters in real situations, carefully documenting how each decision the interpreter made affected the communication. The conclusion was clear: it is not possible for an interpreter to ever be ‘invisible’ or ‘neutral’. It just doesn’t happen that way, regardless of how ‘professional’ the interpreter is trying to be. Melanie Metzger’s work for her PhD (1995) questioned whether it was desirable for the interpreter to even try to be ‘invisible’. Her research found that, during a communication, when a speaker made small talk directly to the interpreter, it caused far less disruption to all concerned if the interpreter simply replied.

These ground-breaking studies were, in turn, based on work which had been ongoing in the field of linguistics for many years. Here there had been a steady shift away from concentrating on what was happening in words and verb endings to look at what was happening in whole chunks of talk (see for example Austin 1962, Bakhtin 1986, and Habermas 1987). In studying whole communications, linguists became interested in how the same word can have different meanings (semantics), how we can say one thing yet everyone understands that it means something else (pragmatics), and how we talk about different things in different ways to different people to achieve different purposes (discourse).

As Wadensjö and Metzger realised, all this affects the interpreter’s role. If we were to be invisible robots who take no responsibility, but simply allow communication to flow through us, then we must be working at the level of one word followed by another (and we are missing out the semantic and pragmatic considerations of the discourse). If we are recognising that, for example, people might be saying one thing in order to mean something else then we are de facto making decisions (we are deciding that it is happening, for example). We cannot, then, be neutral robots. Good interpreters know this, and find that the art of interpreting lies in refining judgements, and being able to consciously examine and justify decisions. This is very difficult, but it is also liberating. Jemina Napier’s popular article “Free you mind, the rest will follow” (1998) hints at this, but the seminal works are by Wadensjö (1992, 1998) and Roy (1989, 2000).





Cynthia Roy provides perhaps the most succinct explanation of the theory and its effect on our

understanding of the interpreter’s role:

When people engage in interpreter-mediated interaction, they see themselves as doing things, such as asking for information, explaining, making a request, arguing and so on. As participants talk back and forth, the meaning they assign to various words and phrases becomes something they compose together, and all participants work and make sense of the talk. Words and utterances have meanings and functions within layers of context, layers that are particular to the individual situation and to generalizable (sic), recurring situations. What participants say and mean can be understood only when considered as part of a reciprocal process among the individuals present.

Acknowledging that interpreting is a discourse process in which interpreters are active participants who need to know about and understand interactional behaviour as well as explicit ways in which languages and cultures use language changes our perception of what interpreters do. That is, interpreters make intentional, informed choices from a range of possibilities.

(Roy, 2000:10) That is, we can no longer pretend to be invisible and blame everyone else for communication failures. Instead, we must share in the task of making the communication happen, recognise and take responsibility for our decisions and the ways those decisions might affect communication. This should not allow the interpreter to control the interaction of others, but it does enable the interpreter to intervene, explain and interact to the extent necessary to successfully facilitate communication.

This work is now beginning to filter into interpreter training courses. Students on the UCLAN/SLI courses, for example, will be familiar with discussions of “the grey zone” and the moral responsibilities of the interpreter. Roy’s most recent book (cited above) is a collection of innovative classroom practices designed to educate and train interpreters in what is becoming known as the interactive model of interpreting.

Whilst I wholeheartedly embrace the interactive model (as is witnessed by my contribution to Roy’s volume), I would like to proffer a word of warning. Too often in our field we embrace the new so enthusiastically that we utterly discard the traditional. In short, we throw the baby out with the bathwater. When the first conduit theories reached our shores, we immediately began to turn our noses up at those who favoured a more traditional approach, arrogantly declaring that deaf consumers who preferred the latter were ‘uneducated’ in matters of interpreting. The interactive approach is not a return to the old ally/ helper (the ‘Annabel’ still favoured by some members of the deaf communities). It is a synthesis of the best of the traditionalist practices and values bound by a sound theoretical framework that acknowledges the importance of regulation. Thus the interactive approach should be seen as a refinement; an evolution rather than a revolution.

Moreover, we should guard against decommissioning the old conduit robot. Instead we should be moving towards recognising that there are different interpreting situations to which different approaches might apply. Indeed, one might wish to employ a range of interpreting strategies within a single interpreted event/ assignment.

Allow me to elaborate. It should be immediately apparent to anyone familiar with interpreting that the interactive model is eminently applicable to one- to- one and small group interpreted events.

The focus on discourse (i.e. whole chunks of ‘talk’, their purpose and meaning) and mediation (between two parties using two languages each encoding a different culture) allows the interpreter the freedom to manoeuvre. The following extract, from a GP consultation would constitute an

example of good interactive interpretation:

–  –  –

This approach has obvious ethical implications, which I have discussed elsewhere (Pollitt 1998). Yet this degree of flexibility may not always be appropriate or desirable. In some contexts it may be more appropriate to focus on text rather than discourse, and here a more literal (conduit) approach to interpretation may be required. Educational settings are an obvious case in point. The student studying for ‘A’ Level English Literature will not benefit from a free, discourse (interactive) interpretation of a Shakespeare text if the purpose is to memorise it verbatim for the forthcoming exam.

Of course, amny ‘A’ Level English Literature classroom discussions focus on understanding the purpose and meaning of whole chunks of Shakespeare and here the interpreter will be required to tread carefully, choosing interactive or literal interpreting strategies as appropriate. Lectures, documentaries and factual broadcasts, legal and religious settings and even theatrical performances are all contexts in which the interpreter might need to be adept at switching between strategies. The interpreter’s ability to recognise and adapt affects the success of the interpretation, and ultimately

the interaction. The following example shows an unsuccessful interpretation:

–  –  –

Here the interpreter has failed to recognise that some interactive and some literal interpretation is required. In providing a very free rendition of the text, the interpreter has indicated that the story is a classic one, has illustrated the story very clearly, yet has omitted the crucial terms Newton and gravity. So how do we deal with such terms? Omit them, as in the above example? Fingerspell them?

If so, which form of fingerspelling should we use, and which language is that?

It may seem obvious that this type of literal interpretation is far more limited in application than interactive interpretation. It will, at best, likely be used only in limited situations and perhaps only for some words or phrases within an utterance. Yet it is in dire need of attention. To be able to provide a balanced interpretation in a situation where a mixed approach is required, the interpreter must be cognisant of the options available. Only then can they make “intentional informed choices from a range of possibilities” (Roy, 2000:10). My concern is that, whilst the traditionalist approach to interpreting has, mingled with elements from the conduit approach, become refined and evolved into an interactive model, the same cannot be said for literal interpretation. Despite our many years of (attempts at) functioning as conduits, we are no nearer a clearer understanding of literal interpretation than we were at the beginning. Let’s just explore that a little further.

I imagine that many readers who are now considering the notion of literal interpretation are immediately thinking of SSE (Sign Supported English) transliterations. Some might advocate Signed English, or Sign Supported English with clear English lip patterns. Whilst these are readily available means of rendering English into signed form, they have received little attention from academic analysts. In my years of practice I have seen many versions of SSE. Some of these make poor use of signed vocabulary, often replacing an English word with a superficial BSL sign (gloss) that carries none of the connotations of the original English word. So what exactly is SSE, and how is it best rendered as an effective tool in literal interpretation? Lawson (1981) wrote of a BSL/English continuum. Perhaps it is apposite to revisit that notion in an attempt to inform our choices as interpreters.

In the meantime, let us return to the example of the ‘A’ Level English Literature student. Whilst we might realise that a literal approach to interpreting the Shakespeare text might be required in some circumstances, exactly what does that look like? Furthermore, we should question whether the obvious solutions are the only forms of literal interpretation available to us. It is rare to hear a Franglais version of Shakespeare provided for a French audience- so how exactly do French translators deal with such a text? How do they retain the ’feel’ of the original?



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