Homolingualism and the Interaction Taboo: Simultaneous Interpretation in the European Public Sphere

This case study presents conference-style simultaneous interpretation in the European Parliament as a dynamic microcosm for communicating Europe. In the enlarged EP, the regime of controlled multilingualism has been challenged by an emergent pluralingualism in which Members use multiple and mixed languages in addition to the services of simultaneous interpreters. This marks a temporal and paradigmatic shift in the larger game of languages in the European public sphere.

This chapter is included in The European Public Sphere –  From critical thinking to responsible action.


This case study presents conference-style simultaneous interpretation in the European Parliament as a dynamic microcosm for communicating Europe. In the enlarged EP, the regime of controlled multilingualism has been challenged by an emergent pluralingualism in which Members use multiple and mixed languages in addition to the services of simultaneous interpreters. This marks a temporal and paradigmatic shift in the larger game of languages in the European public sphere. First, ritual effects of jockeying for voice through the use of pluralingual communication skills establishes co-identification among the Members while also revealing the power of simultaneous interpretation (SI) to alleviate status inequality by leveling linguistic difference. Second, discourses of and about SI, language policy, and communication policy participate in an interaction taboo by overemphasizing information and technology. This reduces communication to one dimension—the transmission of information in space—by minimizing the relationship and identity effects of communication in the unfolding of time. This artificial separation of information from the social interaction of human beings is also evident in strategic planning about communicating Europe. The findings suggest that institutional inertia in communicating Europe can be altered by making SI a common resource for the pluralingual development of everyone who lives in the European Union.


You can view and download a (large) pdf file of the poster, Beyond Homolingualism, that  I presented at the conference hosted by the Committee of the Regions on this topic in Brussels, February 2012. The original poster abstract is here.

The book is edited by Luciano Morganti and Léonce Bekemans (2012)  in the “Multiple Europes” series from P.I.E Peter Lang S.A. Editions scientifiques internationales, Brussels.

Fulbright Fellowship to the EU

grant proposal (historical)
submitted October 2007
fieldwork conducted Sept 2008-June 2009

Stephanie Jo Kent, USA, Communication
Simultaneous Interpretation and Shared Identity in the European Parliament

Multilingualism is touted as a crucial component of the European Union’s (EU) merger of national/cultural identities into one political democracy, yet the skillful use of interpreters is underemphasized in comparison with language learning. Meanwhile, the European Parliament is conducting the largest simultaneous interpretation experiment in the world. Twenty-seven official languages are interpreted as everyday routine (compared with only six at the United Nations), yet many of the 785 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) prefer to communicate in a language other than their mother tongue. MEPs seem unaware or unconcerned about reductions in clarity and persuasiveness when they use a lingua franca. According to official European Parliament interpreters interviewed in 2004, many Members persist in speaking “bad English,” “crap French” or “bad German” instead of the official language of the member state they represent. Nearly seventy interpreters cumulatively describe uncorrected breakdowns in communication, lamenting the dangers of persistent misunderstanding. Comprehending Spanish-inflected English, for instance, requires balanced bilingualism in Spanish and English, because MEPs are using English words according to Spanish (Greek, Finnish, Swedish, Portuguese, etc.) grammar. Drifting toward a polyglot monolingualism is of concern at the microsocial level of understanding each other and at the macrosocial level of creating culture through specific identifications with languages and language use.

Institutionalizing Procedural Rule 138 at the founding of the European Parliament (EP), which guarantees the right of MEPs to use “the official language of their choice,” was an act of intercultural communication genius. Voluntary participation in the literal co-construction of meaning through simultaneously-interpreted communication requires skillful attention to nuances of misunderstanding. Counterintuitively, my proposed study seeks to investigate attitudes against interpretation that interfere with best practices of creating mutual understanding. Bias supporting “direct” communication and a steady stream of anecdotes regarding errors of interpretation threaten the EU’s dynamic potential to literally “talk” a common European identity into widespread, shared reality.
Choosing between the state’s official language and a lingua franca is an observable behavior with practical consequences. The choice of which language to speak is itself an action that may seem innocuous from the individual point-of-view. Yet such choices aggregate into patterns, and patterns become habits. Habitual actions become customary; customs are how we recognize culture. Shared culture is the basis for identification, and language is the penultimate medium of culture. MEPs are not only making law: MEPs are creating and enacting a unitary European identity. MEPS, in their day-to-day decisions about which language to speak, are forging European Union commonality in the very way that they orient themselves to the desirability of simultaneous interpretation.

This research will investigate MEPs experiences and perspectives concerning interpretation within the European Parliament (Belgium and France). How do MEPs (of all member states) make sense of the interpreting process? What do MEPs consider when deciding which language to speak? Do MEPs conceptualize “good interpreting”? What attitudes and reasons incline MEPs to avoid the use of interpretation? My methodology will include observations of select on-going meetings for the duration of the legislative season (authorization is underway). In particular, I will observe one working group (as they develop the language for a particular law), and one political group (as they chart strategy concerning their platform). When events arise that draw attention to the processes of interpretation, I will interview as many participants as possible (MEPs, interpreters, and other staff) regarding what they think happened, why they think it happened, and what options they imagined as possible and appropriate communicative response or intervention.

Additionally, I will conduct individual interviews with MEPs from each member state. MEPs will have the choice to hold the interview in English or their preferred official language. Interpretation will be provided through their offices within the normal structure of Rule 138. Should MEPs elect to be interviewed in English, I will request a second, interpreted interview in order to provide a grounded experience for both of us to compare-and-contrast the quality and meaningfulness of our communication with each other “directly” and through interpretation. I will audiotape all interviews (with permission), and, if possible, debrief with interpreters afterwards.

In sum, I will obtain information concerning both what MEPs say they do (think, and feel) about interpretation and what they actually do in practice. What MEPs say about interpretation, interpreters, and interpreting constitutes a uniquely-situated discourse. Theoretically, MEPs’ talk about language choice is a special kind of “talk about talk” which is recognized by ethnographers of communication, linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists as decidedly cultural. Any cultural discourse can be analyzed for discrete constituent elements and features that create and maintain communal identifications. These component parts of cultural identity can be discerned from themes and patterns in the given discourse. Careful, detailed description of the relationships among discursive components (such as a recurring pattern of criticism – e.g., “interpreters should not ask me to repeat what I just said”) enables critical analysis of the attitudes and perceptions which form cores of “identity.”

After observing and talking with MEPs for ten months, the critical discourse findings from MEPs talk about interpreting will be compared with findings from my previous critical discourse analysis of nearly seventy European Parliament interpreters (referenced in the first paragraph). The areas of conflict and consensus between interpreters’ discourse about interpreting and MEPs discourse about using interpretation will enable the identification of key features of the common, shared, European identity being produced and performed in actual multilingual democratic practice at the European Parliament.

The results of this study will suggest how particular orientations to the use of interpretation work for and against the overt goals of European multilingual democracy: economic prosperity and the preservation of peace. Articulating contemporary European identity as a function of language choice – located specifically in the use of interpretation – will demonstrate that people do not need to speak the same language in order to share an identity. This information will be useful to diplomats, language policymakers, interpreters and scholars/trainers in the field of interpretation, and those interested in effective democratic governance founded on assumed difference (cultural and linguistic heterogeneity), rather than on presumed similarity.

riding on butterfly wings (transitioning)


Sven's first :-).jpg

The miracle of the Fulbright grant fieldwork period comes to a close. I shared a last lunch & coffee with friends in the Parliament’s canteen, after spending the last two days securing support from Members for the next action research step. Then I dashed across town to the Flemish Parliament to meet Deaf member Helga Stevens and a couple of her signed language interpreters. We had a great talk. 🙂
The transition from the twenty-three spoken language interpreting environment of the European Parliament to the trilingual spoken/signed language environment of the Flemish Parliament has the potential to presage things to come. It seems unlikely that coming projects will be as complicated (on the surface) as the complex intercultural communication system being practiced by Members of the European Parliament. But whatever is to come will inevitably intertwine….
collaborative rock balancing.jpg

I’ve been feeling ‘the ending’ for days. Weeks actually, since the last session of the Sixth Term in Strasbourg, before the elections. All results are not confirmed yet, so I’m still unsure how many of the Members who spoke with me were re-elected. At least twenty, it seems.
Meanwhile, The Beginning continues to unfold. To be fair, it is only “a” beginning, not the one and only, but a beginning that rides on other starts in progress and will proceed in – or out – of phase.

what I am trying to do

Conference: Perspectives and Limits
of Dialogism in Mikhail Bakhtin

I had to invent the presentation proposal many months ago . . . I’ve highlighted the phrases in bold that speak most directly to the shaping of the actual presentation.

Novelizing Social Interaction:
Language and Simultaneous Interpretation

This presentation conjectures an extension of Bakhtin’s exposition of language via the novel to cultural practices of simultaneous interpretation. Interpreters deal in real time with features of language and characteristics of authorship apparent in novelization – such as heteroglossia, polyphony, alterity, interpenetration of different languages, and double voicing – all intersecting in conglomerations of meaning/meaningfulness. The task of the interpreter is to minimize authorial interference with the mix of discourses in speaker’s utterances in order to include, as fully as possible, the original interlocutor’s voice within their own utterance. While endeavoring to re-present another person’s use of (centripetalizing and centrifugalizing) language, interpreters deliberately try to root in an authorial position without force.
Meanwhile, general discourses in popular culture and by participants in simultaneous interpretation about interpreting indicate that most people think about language in non-dialogic terms: as homogenous, unifying formal structures with fixed meanings, i.e., with monolingual logic. Interpreters’ intimate familiarity, however, with the presence and use of different languages in actual interactions yields experiential knowledge that monolingual logic cannot accommodate. Nonetheless, discourses among professional interpreters display features Bakhtin describes as characteristic of the epic. This paper investigates a triangulation among images of language presented by Bakhtin and those in interpreter and interlocutor discourses about interpreting. While creative use of language brings us novels, novels show us the incredible spectrum of what language can do.

The motivation for this intellectual exercise is to explore whether the epistemological capacity indicated by novelness can be used to better conceive how to use language to generate interventions in the centripetalizing and centrifugalizing discourses of our era.

This is not only an academic endeavor for the purpose of theory, although the theoretical foundation must be strong. Nor is comprehending the peculiar situatedness of the interpreter a task only for interpreters; this is a collaborative endeavor requiring the active participation of interlocutors as well. If all language is dialogical (i.e., polyphonic with multiple meanings), and all language is also discursive (representative of and subject to discourses, e.g. Foucault, Fairclough, Blommaert), then interlocutors and interpreters must recognize their (our) mutual participation in generating meaningfulness. For instance, which choices of language use reinforce established dialectical formations (such as, for instance, the perpetuation of discrimination), and which choices unsettle them? Is the speaker’s goal in making utterances to contribute to reification, or does the utterer seek to resolve that (or some other) problem, unaware that their use of language guarantees failure because of what it invokes?
The presenter is currently engaged in dissertation fieldwork into discourses about simultaneous interpretation at the European Parliament. An experienced American Sign Language/English interpreter, she wants to develop and test the intellectual limits of borrowing from Bakhtin’s theoretical framework to elucidate the practical problems of generating simultaneous interpretations in various linguistic combinations among twenty-three languages at the same time. Concurrently, she is trying to act into the system of interpretation at the European Parliament through an action learning/action research methodology that presumes the presence of dialogical capacity even in the presence of a strictly formalized institutional regime. The strategic goal is to cultivate a bed of curiosity about the potentials of simultaneous interpretation. Ideally, spinoff from the project might contribute to public debates concerning language (particularly policies and practices), and specifically in simultaneous interpretation as both end and means for creating and maintaining deep infrastructures that reinforce the capacity of democratic institutions to manage the tensionalities of difference in increasingly equitable ways.
A critical discourse analysis of talk generated in conversation with individual Members of the European Parliament (MEP) is currently being constructed. This analysis will be put into conversation with a similar analysis conducted four years ago in interviews with individual interpreters for the European Parliament. The juxtapositions of viewpoints (opinion, critique, complaint, praise, etc) will compose a more-or-less wholistic image of the conceptual and functional status of language in the workings of the European Parliament. Early findings suggest some intriguing areas of alignment between professional interpreters and the MEPs as users of simultaneous interpretation. These perspectives from participants situated in different roles within a coherent practice of cultural communication indicate some shared identifications.
The conceptualization of participating over time in a shared, cultural communication event can be used to highlight residues of monolingualistic logic in a society overtly seeking to increase multilinguality. Mapping discourses about simultaneous interpretation may illuminate the workings of centripetal and centrifugal forces in a particular case, a bounded ‘location’ involving a specific set of ‘users.’ The results may tell us something interesting about language in society today, and point (I hope) to exciting possibilities for developing conscious and conscientious uses of language in ways that further language policy development and education in accord with democratic political goals. Can we, novelistically, speak the societies in which we want to live into institutional reality?

in the end…

Brussels and Strasbourg

Seventy-five Members of the European Parliament (or, in a few instances, their Assistants) expressed interest in talking with me, and I managed to arrange conversations with fifty-five of them. Nearly half of the MEPs spoke with me twice (23/55), and a handful spoke with me three times (5). If I had been able to get off my duff more consistently last fall then the rates of second and third conversations would have been higher. I also was able to talk with a range of administrators and staff – including assistants, political advisers to various secretariats, and functionnaires in other permanent departments of the European Parliament.
Two-thirds of the Members I spoke with are up for re-election. Voting is on the 7th of June.

Interpreter for a Day

webstreaming from Brussels
European Commission

The music track for the promovideo compiled from last year’s event makes me feel like I’m missing a real party!

“I tried to do it from Spanish, and
what I understood I said then in Italian.”

“I didn’t know the difference between interpretation and translation, and
I didn’t know that one is for writing and one is for listening.”

“It’s interesting that everyone can speak his own language, or
at least that there is a large choice of languages.”

“This is the advantage:
that everyone speaks his own language and
is understood by all the others.
And that is really wonderful!”

Interpreter for a Day at the Commission Open Day, 9 May – live streaming from 11:00 till 17:00 CET

Open Day is a great party and a great chance for the staff of the European Commission to tell the general public about what we do – to give the Commission a human face and to reach out to citizens. SCIC staff, and freelance interpreters explain what it is we do behind the walls of the European headquarters and members of the public can try themselves to be Interpreter for a Day (or a few minutes).

I listened to a bunch of kids giving it a go, very cute! 🙂

This webcast is interpreted in German, English, French and Dutch by volunteer interpreters from the European Commission. A fifth language will also be available on a rotating basis. 9 May is a fun day. If the language of your choice is not available , please switch to another Channel.

The Directorate-General on Interpretation is pitching their call for interpreters working into English, which is the first video linked in a short list of webcasts I compiled in April.

the other end of language rights: asylum seekers


The mood this week is surprisingly calm compared with the frenzy of previous sessions building up to this final session of the Sixth Term of the European Parliament. There are many contentious issues and a huge amount of work – as always – but the hustle and buzz seems subdued.

I’ve been following a particular dossier for the past few months which comes up for debate today and will be voted tomorrow, along with four other policies that are being recast – modified after a period of implementation. Together they are referred to as the asylum package.

A package of measures to improve the way the EU asylum system works and strengthening asylum seekers’ rights is being put forward by the European Parliament’s Civil Liberties Committee. MEPs propose amendments to enhance solidarity between Member States when managing asylum applications. The five co-decision reports that make up the package will be debated on Wednesday (6 May).

In particular, I’ve been observing the progress of COD/2009/0027, Establishing a European Asylum Support Office, which – this morning – is at the stage of “Awaiting EP decision, 1st reading or one reading only.” Over the past two months, I have been able to watch debate unfold among most of the political groups in the Parliament and also between the Parliament, Council, and European Commission. There are some definite points of tension reflective of different ideological stances, as well as large areas of agreement. The process of negotiating compromise is what the intra- and interinstitutional structure of meetings, with reports and amendments and – eventually – voting, is designed to accomplish.
Each act of legislation is designed to stand on its own, but must also complement related procedures and relevant law. Thus my interest has been drawn to the extended asylum recast, which includes the European Refugee Fund, Minimum Reception Standards for Asylum Seekers, Member State Responsibility for Application and Protection of Asylum Seekers (known as “Dublin”), and the EURODAC fingerprinting system.
There are two Amendment (#15 and 19) to the Minimum Reception Standards concerning language that I have been watching closely. Bold marks changes. The original text from the European Commission (#15) reads,

Detained asylum seekers shall immediately be informed of the reasons for detention, the maximum duration of the detention and the procedures laid down in national law for challenging the detention order, in a language they are reasonably supposed to understand.

and the proposed text reads:

Detained asylum seekers shall immediately be informed of the reasons for detention, the maximum duration of the detention and the procedures laid down in national law for challenging the detention order, in a language they understand or may reasonably be presumed to understand.

Amendment 19 makes the same proposal concerning information being provided in a language that the seeker may be presumed to understand. While Amendment 15 refers specifically to the written notification that they will receive regarding the outcome of their request for asylum, Amendment 19 regards the provision of information about the rules, rights, and obligations of applying for asylum.
While the amendments above refer to written texts, Amendment 3 in the Member State Responsibility for Application and Protection bill refers to the provision of oral information.
Amendment 25 refers again to language, although the amendment aims to replace “person” with “applicant,” leaving the original text: “Such notification shall be made in writing, in a language which the applicant is reasonably supposed to understand…” (my emphasis). A later Amendment brings this language into conformity with the formulation proposed in the other bills.
Amendment 35 to the EURODAC proposes the same language as that in the Minimum Standards amendments, but mentions both written and oral modes:

“A person covered by this Regulation shall be informed by the Member State of origin in writing, and where appropriate, orally, in a language which he or she understands or may reasonably be presumed to understand…”

At the end of all of these Amendments is a further Amendment which would change the language to state openly and without equivocation that information/communication needs to occur with asylum seekers in a language they understand, full stop.
We’ll see what happens.

Redux: found by AIIC


A post I wrote in February was discovered by l’AIIC (Professional Conference Interpreters Worldwide) and linked to from their Language in the News section:

Observing communication dynamics at the EP

“The technical orchestration of twenty-three languages performed by Members of the European Parliament and the cadre of Simultaneous Interpreters assigned to generate spontaneous comprehension is nearly seamless.” Read the whole piece at Reflexivity.

Now, a few months and several observations later, my initial impressions still ring true. The technology enables parallel monolingualisms, the illusion of using the same, shared language. When Members codeswitch among different languages, this is also experienced and understood as a common, shared form of communication. The differences are blended into a new homogenous social construction.

from SI-squared to SI-cubed


“Simultaneous Interpretation and Shared Identity in the European Parliament:
A Look at Language and Organizational Creativity”

“How to make a shared identity in Europe?” Patterns of cultural interaction and, especially, the range of interpretations of these patterns, have profound effects on culture being maintained and co-created by Members of the European Parliament. For instance, are differences of language a problem or a benefit? Do the homogenizing effects of using a lingua franca outweigh the constant adaptation required by working multilingually? Discourses about simultaneous interpretation (SI) at the European Parliament (with its 23 working languages) pit danger and loss against loss and risk. “Loss” of fluency and clarity worries professional interpreters at the European Parliament (EP) and “loss” of direct contact between interlocutors (users of interpreting services, in this case Members of the EP) seem to express anxieties about multilingualism and possibilities for control. Understood as a practice of intercultural communication, the tensions made evident when simultaneous interpretation is used are a vital source of creativity typically overlooked because of conditioned (monolingual) preferences for using a shared language.

FYI, there is an official announcement (only in Dutch!) in the VUB’s agenda online. The talk this Wednesday, 18:00, will be in English. 🙂

What meanings are we making?

two talks at Heriot Watt
by Stephanie Jo Kent

In addition to the transmission of information, the larger and deepest purpose of simultaneous interpretation is to generate and maintain common culture among people from different cultures.

As hoped, the opportunity to present on my dissertation fieldwork in-progress forced my brain to synthesize the trends and patterns that I have been noticing during this year of research at the European Parliament, as well as find words to express what I think these trends and patterns suggest about mono- and multilingualism. The effort to explain my perceptions moved me far along the analytical path; since returning to fieldwork many of the findings have crystallized further.
A few weeks ago, after more backbrain simmering, I finally uttered the statement highlighted above, distilling the years of talking with interested colleagues (and anyone else who would listen, thanks Arne!) into a single, comprehensible idea.
Purposes are human creations, not physical facts, so there is plenty of room to disagree. I am anticipating a conversation that will take place in Philadelphia in August (“Interpreting as Culture“), and other conversations that I hope grow from there and link from/with other sources (such as Ryan Commerson’s brilliant master’s thesis applying the work of Stuart Hall).
The feedback provided by participants at my presentations at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh is affirming (thanks!) and helpful. For this post, I am only including the comments that relate specifically to my thesis.
1) “Why,” wrote one participant, “do people want [simultaneous interpretation] to be like a mono-lingual exchange? Why are they so uncomfortable with interpreted interaction…[?]”

I am not sure that interlocutors (or interpreters, for that matter) are consciously aware of comparing the process of interpreted interaction to what it is like to talk with someone in the same language. We are so accustomed to the ease of monolingual communication – it is like the fish not being aware of water or the bird, air. It is, for most of us, our typical environment, the way we get along with nearly everybody, practically all of the time. So when the exceptional circumstance of an interpreted interaction occurs . . . on what other basis could we imagine to evaluate it?

Not only that, but we also have the collusion of academic discourse reinforcing the unquestioned common sense. One professional sign language interpreter wrote,

“…reflecting [on] how my practice is so heavily influenced . . . it’s shocking to reflect on how thoroughly ‘old’ theories of interpreter (‘translator’?) role of ‘heard and not seen’ (invisible conduit) have become/are becoming so entrenched, particularly in a place where multi-lingual, multi-cultural awareness should be richest.”

2) That “place” is the European Parliament, about which another participant mused, “Do politicians really want to understand each other?”

Based on the interviews with European Parliament interpreters four years ago, I can say that some interpreters think not! Or at least, not all the time, or not within the constraints of particular structures – such as the plenary sessions (which get the most publicity and thus seem to represent SI at the EP, even though I am inclined to argue more real interpreting gets done in every other setting than that one).

3) “Don’t we get ‘third cultures,’ ‘communities of practice,’ all the time, everytime?” asks another researcher?

Of course we do, but the question is whether that “third culture” is substantively different than what we get without interpretation! The discourses about simultaneous interpretation that I’ve been learning privilege the same kind of characteristics that are prominent in monolingual communication. This was reflected in questions from another participant:

4) “How is this speed in communication (even though passive) … effecting our expectations of it? Our response? Interaction between cultures? Dealing with relationships?”

There’s no definitive answer – we are all co-creating the ways we engage the imperative of speed in collaborative/complementary fashion, consciously or not. Which leads directly into another question posed by another researcher:

5) “Will there be a paradigm shift? Would I like it?” And a participant’s observation: “Despite of promotion of language diversity/equality, for practical/political/power reasons, lingua franca will still be the fate.”

In response, I would distinguish, here, between communities of practice and third cultures. Perhaps this is a naive distinction, but culture is a more-or-less passive development of aggregated relational actions into coherent systemic wholes. (At some point there are leaders, religious figures, etc., who justify the parts and defend the whole.) A community of practice is intentional from the outset. While, as one participant/researcher wrote, “The language produced by interpreters – the form – is indeed a message,” I would say this language constitutes discourse but does not necessarily represent a community of practice until we take hold of the form in order to wield it for specific purpose.

I submit that a purpose which could bind simultaneous interpreters into a community of practice across the gamut of “interpreters in triadic interactions and ‘stream-of-language’ events like the European Parliament” (quoting from a participant) is the co-construction of intercultural community premised on language difference.

In addition to the transmission of information, the larger and deepest purpose of simultaneous interpretation is to generate and maintain common culture among people from different cultures.