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.

on trust and systemic issues

I woke up this morning freaking out that I’ve shared my current work with someone who may actually “steal” my ideas. I’ve sent the paper I wrote for Critical Link 5 to four people (one academic, two interpreters from the European Parliament, and a fellow graduate student). It is the academic I’m worried about – only because weeks have passed, and a few emails from me, and no acknowledgement (yet).
My first wave of concern occurred within a few days of sending my article (per request of this academic) on July 25. I had just officially submitted it by the CL5 deadline of July 20, 2007.
Much has been happening in certain areas of my personal life that may incline me toward more suspiciousness than usual: I actually hope this is a case of paranoid transference! Then, this morning’s headline story from The New York Times gave me more reason to consider external influences:

“Trust was shaken today,” said Thomas Mayer, the chief European economist at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt. “Credit depends on trust. If trust disappears, then credit disappears, and you have a systemic issue.”

I know it seems like quite a stretch, but I can imagine my whiff of fearfulness as an example of social metonymy. Here I am in my own private little bubble of “steph-ness”, dealing with the current challenges and changes washing through my life, and sensing amorphous “things”…. am I picking up on a general gestalt (such as the worldwide grief – that I was surprised to share so intensely – when Princess Di was killed) and importing it into the particular performance of my own being?
I witnessed a clear instance of social metonymy the other day, observing a group during a staff meeting. The newest member of the business happened to be the last person to have a turn during the warm-up/check-in activity. I was amazed at how leisurely the group was at filling each other in on their family lives, personal successes, and rewarding experiences from the office. No one seemed bored! There was a palpable sense of caring and acceptance, indicated mostly through humor and teasing, but also through thoughtful follow-up questions and visible signs of affirmation (the nonverbals of eye contact, body posture, and nodding). The last person spoke of the warm welcome and supportive environment, sharing their decision to use this workplace as a site where (my paraphrase) “I can be me.” The accumulation of individual performances of “self” in this workgroup have created a collective culture that this newcomer was able not only to say (as in describe) but to actually embody, to enact with heartfelt sentiment. The clarity of integration between intention, action, and language about the intentions and actions shows how well this person will fit into the group (a confirmation of the interview/hiring process).
Dang neat stuff, if you ask me. ๐Ÿ™‚

Paddy Bedford

I was lucky enough to catch the last day of this Aboriginal artist’s exhibit at the Contemporary Museum of Art in Sydney, Australia (because I skipped the closing ceremony at the Critical Link conference, oops). But what I saw instead!

paddy bedford.jpg
My favorite works: Merrewoon County (waterhole), Janterrji (Dolly Hole 2003), and Lightening Creek (2004). Just enough time has passed (since I was physically there, on 15 April) that I’m not sure of all the cryptic arrows in my notes, but it seems that Merrewoon Country is about the spearing of the crocodile. My favorite is Boonoonggoowirrin, (lower left image), “which invites us to think about how we perceive the world.” I sat a long time absorbing the play of perspective in this piece.
There were paintings about the Emu Dreaming Cycle (how day and night were created), and a few of Mt. King, depicting a “complex web of relations.” I was especially intrigued by the fact that Aboriginals conceive of time in spatial terms:
“The interrelationship between painting, country, and dreamings…is complex. Time is not conceived in a linear way, as in Western culture, but spatially, incorporating memory, tradition, history, and contemporary activities and events with the rhythms of the land, through changing seasons and conditions, providing an underlying structure. Ancestral beings formed the features of the land and are embodied in them, continuing to effect the present. The stories of these traveling beings and t heir relations to particular sties are evoked in painting, which renews and regenerates the connection of artist to country.” (From the audiopresentation accompanying Paddy Bedford’s exhibit.)
More paintings are on exhibit at Mora Galleries, Raft Artspace, Artdaily.org, Art Right Now2, and there is an exhibition catalogue. (I can wander among these for a long time!
Waloorrji (Big Wind Dreaming)
Winterrji (Police Rock Hole)
There are some stunning black-and-white photos of the artist and others at Monsoon Australia.
This color photo shows a man upon whom the world has etched itself deeply.
(I sent a bunch of these gorgeous giftcards around.)

Kidnapped by Kiwis

I was talking with Rachel just before the final panel on primary participant’s views on quality in interpreting. I asked if she was going in and she said, “No, we’re going to the ballet. Want to come?”
At the Sydney Opera House? What was I supposed to say?
“We’re leaving now,” she added.
Done. ๐Ÿ™‚
And what a show it was! Don Quixote: a romantic comedy as perfect prelude to my presentation on Saturday in which I dream of planting seeds to change the world. (shhhhhhhhhhh!)
Henry is as hilarious in person as he was during his spiel on opening professional membership to those least skilled and least qualified individuals whose job performance as interpreters brings down the public perception of the lot of us. (This is the only way to entice them into line, on the principle that “they have to be into you before they’re going to change,” with the caveat that “even then it might not work.”) Hannah is a firebrand: she told me about the Russian grandmothers who buy the least expensive tickets for classical shows, enter early, and watch like hawks for open seats, dashing for the front row just as the curtain rises.
Rachel, lo-and-behold, was a participant in the online conference where Anne Potter and I presented on American Deaf consumers’ perceptions of interpreters’ interrupting or even, unculturally-incorrect, “TAKING OVER.”
En route to the grand venue (which appears alive from up close under the stars), we stopped for a meat pie; a “very Down Under experience.” A bit greasy but rather tasty, similar to fast-food everywhere.
I grinned through most of the entire show by The Australian Ballet. The dancers were talented, the choreography fun, and the music delightful. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra is conducted by Nicolette Fraillon &emdash; the first female conductor I’ve witnessed in action! Post-show, we avoided what looked like a gathering sting operation by Australian paramilitary at the train station by exercising the “get out on time (or early)” principle, which is somewhat in contrast to my mode of living “in tomorrow, here.”

“All my mothers were born here.”

We were welcomed to the country by a member of an Aboriginal group native to the Parramatta area, the Darug. She shared some of her story, sang a song and then was joined by a cousin she called brother for a duet (guitar and didgeridoo). He finished with a solo called “The Hitchhiker,” leaving us in the cab of a tractor-trailer truck driving into the sunset.
The speakers were all passionate about the need for quality and high standards in community interpreting, as well as the need for adequate funding and training. Sandra Hale, Chair of this Critical Link Congress (which has drawn more than 500 delegates, the largest in history) made a nice parallel between the Critical Link and Parramatta. This is the first time the conference has been held in the southern hemisphere, and Parramatta is where the landmark first reconciliation conference the Darug and European settlers was held in 1805.
Professor John Ingleson provided a stellar local idiom: “teaching my grandmother to suck eggs.” This morning I met Catherine, a New Zealand Sign Language interpreter, who explained the phrase means teaching someone something obvious, that they already well know how to do. Who would have guessed! (By the way, New Zealand Sign Language became an official national language of the country nearly one year ago: historic!)
The keynote given by Stepan Kerkyasharian was informative and compelling, particularly on the themes of quality of interpretation, adequate funding, and concerns of ethics. In particular, he spoke passionately about interpreter neutrality: that we are “not the guardians of the interests of one party or the other.” This is in some contrast to Christopher’s talk yesterday about minority language users desire to know that interpreters are working “on behalf of the community” instead of merely in the service of interpreting.
I was interested that both Australian speakers’ first comments were in honor of the indigenous people of the land. I’ve not experienced such recognition in the US unless at an event of, by, and for American Indians or at certain progressive lesbian events. Neat!
I walked to the Opening Ceremony at The Roxy with (Spanish-English interpreters) Nancy, Carmen, Elizabeth and Ron (the token husband). After snarfing down an orange juice and some canapes, I turned in: an early evening.

ITPs: “giving interpreter trainees a fish or teaching them HOW to fish?”

Claudia Angelelli asked this during the workshop “Program quality in interpreter education.” I like it. ๐Ÿ™‚
According to the list of participants, there are people here from more than thirty countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, England/UK, Finland, France, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, and the US. Who knows how many languages!
Sydney reminds me of two places, in different ways: first, Hawai’i &emdash; the feel of the air, perhaps a faint olfactory recognition, and the presence of palm trees; second, Istanbul &emdash; riding the train and looking out on blue sky and the curve of coast along the bay. Walking along a broad pedestrian way toward the conference hotel this morning, I recalled Brussels, even Madrid. Of course there are distinctions, but my American sensibilities take in the similarity of pace and priorities in contrast with the hurry-burry hustle-bustle never-slow-down-and-take-a-break rush of typical days in the States.
I went to the wrong room for the pre-conference (!) but it was fortuitous in one regard: a discursive theme around shifting from linguistic (information-based) transmission-type interpreting to more something else appears to be underway. For instance, Angelelli discussed how interpreting training programs tend to do well in three areas: information-processing, linguistics, and professional conduct; while not yet doing well in the areas of interpersonal communication, setting-specific features, and socio-cultural factors in the intercultural communication process. This was also a theme of the pre-conference (I caught the last half): “Beyond the linguistic conduit” by Izabel Arocha, one of whose final recommendations is that interpreter training programs need to implement “a practice framework instead of a linguist framework.”
After lunch (where Helena instigated a last-minute move from the Rockabilly to the Quake, she’s also responsible for hooking me up with “the young man” in Marsden), I caught the last ten minutes of Christopher Stone‘s presentation on “Collective notions of quality of Interpreting: Insights from the British deaf community.” As usual he was crisp in delivery and sharp with time management, not to mention being a strong ally. Chris fielded some complicated questions very well, discussing how much more of a “global identity” deaf persons have with deaf people from other parts of the world, and how the UK is fortunate to have so many well-traveled deaf people who can generally establish some level of communication with deaf refugees with unfamiliar signing.
The main point of Christopher’s talk was on consumer choice in selecting interpreters (and how this has been diminished by processes of institutionalization – governmental legislation). Jemina Napier (who presented in the first workshop with Angelelli and others), noted the frequency of this emphasis on consumer perception of interpreting services through the conference program. ๐Ÿ™‚
Hanneke Bot in her presentation, “Quality in interpreting as a shared responsibility,” presented a fascinating comparison of three interpreters with different styles in a mental health setting. Her point is to illustrate how necessary it is for the users of interpreting services to participate in repair and be knowledgeable of and responsive to the characteristics of an interpreted situation. She listed four things all USERS need to be aware of and act upon:
1. management of turn-taking
2. the equivalency problem (she quotes Pollard, 2005:265 – a great quote I’ve seen before about consumers responding to the choices (judgment) of the interpreter, not to any “original” utterance)
3. encourage the interpreter to ask questions (!!!)
4. ask questions and use repair
The main source of communication breakdown was lack of repair – an element that is common to all language-based interaction: even without an interpreter we misspeak, repeat ourselves, add, clarify, and alter things we’ve said. This should be an integral part of the interpreting process that everyone present, users and interpreters, need to exercise. (Good stuff, Maynard!)
Meanwhile, I’ve seen some LSF (French Sign Language) which seemed almost comprehensible (!) and met a few deaf women and interpreters from Canada (some using ASL as well). I’ve watched some BSL and Auslan from a distance &emdash; that two-handed alphabet really throws me off. ๐Ÿ™‚

Details matter

For instance, carefully looking at the travel zones to be sure that the week pass I bought (for all trains, ferries, and buses) actually goes all the way out to my hotel! (Not quite, argh! Seems the only way to upgrade it is to go all the way back to the airport!???!) So, my six a.m. decision-making after a twenty-two hour journey is not so hot. :-/
Going on the SBS tour, however, was an excellent idea. ๐Ÿ™‚ They broadcast in sixty-eight languages, which puts them in a class by themselves. They use the phrase “mini-UN”: perhaps this is true in terms of written translation? Yet, it seemed to me that the daily production of so many different language group voices is much closer to the language regime of the European Parliament. SBS does television and radio, with radio described as “the mother of the organization” and subtitling as “the key” to delivering the organization’s charter, which is to “bring the world to Australia.”
Two aspects of the visit captured me: the parallels between subtitling and sign language interpretation, and meeting with Francis Lee, Head of the Cantonese Program for SBS Radio (Sydney).
I have never thought deeply about subtitling as a craft. What struck me today is the challenge of coordinating the written text with the rest of the visual imagery. For instance, coordinating chunks of text with the matching scene is similar to what sign language interpreters do by minimizing visual noise and identifying speakers. Additionally, there are huge challenges in timing and the need to manage – even weed out – various sound inputs: such as overlaps in speaking (turn-taking dynamics), recomposition to work within differential time constraints (it takes longer to read text than to hear speech; just as simultaneous interpreting requires processing time), and having to create sense (meaning) even when speakers utter something extemporaneously that actually doesn’t make sense (all interpreters must do this, not just sign language interpreters).
The SBS also does closed-captioning &emdash; only in English &emdash; for the Australian Deaf Community. I wanted to ask if they combine closed-captioning with subtitling but the moment did not arise. The presentation was educational concerning the intent to be verbatim and neither give more information than the average non-deaf television watcher would receive nor less; to be cautious of condescension but aware of cues that would be obvious to a hearing (non-deaf) person but not accessible at the same time to a deaf person, such as recognizing George W. Bush’s voice before an image of him appeared visually.
After tea, I tagged along with a few folk who work into Arabic, including Arda (English, Armenian, and Arabic), to check out the Arabic language group’s desk for radio. As luck would have it, there was no one there. ๐Ÿ™ Most of the group went downstairs to subtitling but, on a whim, I joined Diana to visit the Cantonese and Mandarin desk. What a happy turn of events! Francis has been fulltime at SBS for fourteen years, prior to that he was an engineer. He entertained my attempt to link homomorphisms to repeating dynamics in social interaction, “That is very abstract!” he said, smiling. Guilty as charged! I picked up a copy of his bilingual (Chinese/English) book on “English Idioms: under the lucky stars”, which I am eager to read and share with a few friends (yes, George, I’m talking about you!)
Diana (who doesn’t need business cards because she already has so much work with Mandarin!) spent most of the time talking with Martin (?), after awhile Francis introduced me to Jennifer, a part-timer. I learned from her that access to spoken language as well as signed language interpretation appears to be a widespread practice in Australia, although underused either because people do not realize the service is available or “trust their friends more.” Seems that the law is much more progressive here than in the US or even most European countries, as she said interpreters are not only available for court proceedings, but also medical (“even private doctors”) and educational (if parents want to find out how their children are doing in school, for instance). Anyway, Jennifer said of Francis, “Life comes your way,” while talking about how he manages to pull in subs when he needs them. I like that saying. ๐Ÿ™‚ The Cantonese desk runs nine, hour-long television show per week. They draw most of their material from English sources and create the shows themselves. The shows are done live with some pre-recorded segments.
I met some nice “Critical Link” people during and just after, including Emmanuelle (researching pragmatics in court interpreting), Gaëlle (an administrative type, hmmmm!), and Helena (who I’ll have to tease next time). Arda introduced me to Micaela (?) over tea; we had an interesting talk about Sign Languages). By the way and talk about serendipity! &emdash; the folks at SBS had placed stacks of two volumes near the cakes and cookies for our perusal: their annual report and (go figure!) a report, Connecting Diversity, by Ien Ang and Greg Noble (who was also at the Crossroads conference)! (There are two more co-authors, Jeff Brand and Jason Sternberg.) I glanced through it already and it looks sharp &emdash; high production value (not surprising) and fascinating information on media use across language groups and generations in Australia.
I like when these things happen!

Down Under

Soon I will go to the Special Broadcasting Service for an special pre-conference activity. I learned about this organization last summer at the Crossroads Cultural Studies Conference in Istanbul. The presentation by Ien Ang, “Is a Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism Possible? The Australian Context,” was given on the first day.
I’m curious about the langauge situation on the ground, here in Sydney. Alex and Dan pointed me toward some folk who know about Australian Indigenous languages, we’ll see if I get a chance to meet up with them or not. Meanwhile, I’ll do a bit of touristing. ๐Ÿ™‚

A day of firsts

First flight (all the way) across the Pacific. First trip to the southern hemisphere. First time to take a twenty-two hour trip and arrive two days later, because I crossed the international date line. According to Betty, the time shift works out to “only three hours of Easter.” ๐Ÿ™‚ Australian currency is pretty: bright and colorful. As far as I know, my car arrived in Amherst on time and in one piece. (I cannot say the same for the drivers.) There is no mail drop anywhere in the LA airport. Hello?! I refuse to take this personally.
Betty’s on her way to China. We talked about languages and translation. She mentioned Steven Pinker (who I suppose I really must read someday. I have even already bought The Language Instinct.) Later, in preparing for my presentation, I re-read this datum from my interviews with interpreters at the European Parliament:
“[Mentalese is] a level of communication that doesn’t necessarily have to be expressed in words. It’s the kind of gray area, the ‘you know what I mean’ area. He [Steven Pinker] talks literally about mental ease and almost refers to it as a language in its own right that we all possess, and some use it more effectively than others. I don’t think he expressly refers to interpreting per se, but with the background it automatically occurred to me that it’s something that is very relevant to any kind of interpreting, inference, that can be expressed through gesture, facial expression, obviously words as well, but not necessarily any of those. Even just the tone of voice. It’s a mode of translation, if you like, that is probably one of the most powerful tools that an interpreter possesses.”
Hmm. ๐Ÿ™‚ Not exactly what I will present on this time around, but it might work it’s way into future analysis!
On the second, longer leg of the journey I had a brief, also pleasant conversation with a woman on her way to surprise her family with a visit for the first time in eight years. Reminded my of my trip west a year and a half ago. She grew up in Mombasa, married a military man, now lives in Florida; her family is in New Zealand. I asked her about colonialism and race relations; she responded about the beauty of nature and that the natives were always all around. I thought we might not see as eye-to-eye as Betty and I had, but the connection was still warm.
I took my time departing the airport and finding my hotel in the western suburbs of Sydney. It was nice wandering the city pre-rush: quiet, mildly humid, only barely chill. I hope to make my way to Newtown tonight.
By the way, it is 9:45 on Monday morning here, some fourteen hours ahead of my friends in New England, who are still enjoying Sunday evening.