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. ­čÖé

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.

first experiences with simultaneous interpretation


A couple of weeks ago, on the same day, I met two young men, each doing a week-long internship in the office of a Member of the EP. Adam had been in a session where they were discussing human rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Tristan had also witnessed a debate about human rights, in the DROI subcommittee on the situation in Sri Lanka. Each of them talked about their first time experience with the simultaneous interpretation (SI) system.
Both were disoriented. Adam had the worst of it, apparently, because in the meeting he attended most of the discussion was in a language other than English and he had to rely on the SI for everything. At one point in the discussion, an interpreter realized an error had been made and offered a correction. For Adam,

the SI was “not always clear, there were pauses. They said something, then said ‘that was wrong,’ and said something else. It was confusing!” He thought some of the interpreters had pre-printed information and were “just reading it off, that was fine,” but otherwise, “it was annoying. I didn’t understand very much.”

The fieldnote I wrote to myself after we spoke was, “first time experience = bewildering (my word).”
From my vantage point – Adam was not pointing a finger in any particular direction, he was just reflecting on the complexity of the process. His experience gave me a fresh window on the experience of MEPs who’ve told me it can take up to two years to learn how to communicate effectively in this system (with the caveat that some learn fast, and others never do). Also, I want to say kudos to the interpreter! It’s humbling to have to correct a misunderstanding because it never matters to the listeners who or how the original disconnect occurred, they assume you messed up. A variation on kill-the-messenger. (One of the foci of my general critique is this assumption that a mistake or misunderstanding is an individual’s fault, rather than a feature of the communication of the whole group.)
Tristan was also confused, but most of the meeting he observed was in English, which (it seems) gave him enough grounding in the content of the debate to be able to look around when someone spoke in another language. Tristan said he “had to look to the English booth to see who was gesticulating, then I was like, ok, now I know what’s going on.” He elaborated on his experience in an email:

“i tried to look to see who was interpreting at all the committee meetings I attended…it was the first time i had experienced simultaneous interpretation, and it was an instinctive attempt to identify the person whose voice i was hearing.”

One reason (I speculate, on the basis of the smallest sample possible!) that some Members may take longer to adapt to communicating with SI (in twenty-three languages, remember) is what those early experiences are like. If most of the communication is happening in an unknown or less-fluent language, then that forces more reliance on the SI, which could be more disorienting and thus take longer to wade through as far as getting one’s bearings. If one is fortunate enough to understand the language(s) being spoken, then one relies on the SI less, and possibly gains a quicker appreciation for how to use it to individual and political purpose.

random distribution of voluntary participation

To date I’ve had at least one conversation with forty-four Members of the European Parliament, several have spoken with me twice, and a small but growing number are even allowing me a third conversation about simultaneous interpretation (SI) in the EP.
Going into the final month (because this Parliamentary term comes to an end early as Members will turn all their energies toward campaigning), the demographics break out like this:

by country:

Les voix du parlement.jpg

    2 from Austria
    5 from Belgium
    1 from Bulgaria
    2 from Cyprus
    2 from Denmark
    1 from Estonia
    2 from Finland
    2 from France
    6 from Germany
    1 from Greece
    1 from Hungary
    1 from Italy
    1 from Latvia
    0 from Lithuania
    1 from Luxembourg
    0 from Malta
    1 from The Netherlands
    2 from Poland
    1 from Portugal
    5 from Romania
    0 from Slovakia
    0 from Slovenia
    1 from Spain
    4 from the UK (including 1 from Ireland)
    42 total Members (does not include assistants)

by political group:

    EPP-ED: 13
    PSE: 13
    ALDE: 9
    UEN: 2
    Greens: 2
    Confederals: 3
    Independence: 0
    Non-Attached: 0

by committee:
English teacher.jpg

    1 from AGRI
    3 from CONT
    3 from BUDG
    2 from LIBE
    1 from AFCO
    0 from CULT
    0 from DEVE
    3 from ECON
    3 from EMPL
    3 from ENVI
    4 from PECH
    6 from AFET
    1 from DROI
    5 from ITRE
    0 from IMRE
    0 from INTA
    2 from JURI
    1 from PETI
    6 from REGI
    2 from SEDE
    1 from CLIM
    3 from TRAN
    0 from FEMM

from Member’s websites; first listing –
in many cases Members were more invested (at the time we spoke)
in another committee, perhaps even
one in which they are officially listed as a “substitute.”

statue by the canteen.jpg

by gender:

men: 33
women: 9
as of 2007, women composed 31.53%
of the Members
(print source)
here’s an online source (2004)

by age:

    3 aged 31-40
    7 aged 41-50
    15 aged 51-60
    16 aged 61-70
    1 aged 71-80

by years of experience in the European Parliament:

304 total of 41 MEPs for whom this is currently known
ranges from 1 year to more than twenty (22)
median = 10
average = 7 years
mode = 5 (14x)
2nd most frequent = 10 (6x)

Continue reading “random distribution of voluntary participation”

EU promotions for interpretation

online public relations
youtube videos

Someone tipped me off that the European Parliament has hired someone to make a film on the process of simultaneous interpretation (SI) from an elected Member’s point-of-view. I imagine they were carefully vetted in order to give the perspective that the Parliament wishes people to have regarding the purposes, uses, and effectiveness of interpretation. I agree that more people need to understand the value of SI, although I’m skeptical of the vision promoted by the official public relations and policy organs of the European Union. I think their view is unfortunately limited by an inherited and ingrained one-dimensional conception of what SI can do, as well as what it actually does do.
Nonetheless, all of their previous efforts do a nice job of creating desire to become a professional interpreter working at this highest of the high, most elite level of SI.

Interpreting for Europe – Into English.

Interpreting is “all about listening to ideas…”
“English native speaker interpreters . . .
needed for an exciting career at the very heart of European decision-making.”
(17 Feb 2009)

“…conclusions of the ministerial meeting by Commissioner Leonard Orban.”

(18 Feb 2008)

“A 10-minute history of interpretation at the European Institutions
since 1957 by the interpreters who work at
the biggest interpreting service in the world –
the European Commission’s Directorate General.”
(9 June 2007)

And from a different (still officially sanctioned) angle:

Member of Parliament Henrik Lax on Multilingualism
Speech by Henrik Lax MEP on:
Promoting multilingualism and language learning in the EU
[on behalf of the ALDE Group]
[Language SV original]
7 July 2007)
“Multilingual practical information and online government services
for companies looking for business in another EU country.
Provided jointly by the European Commission and national authorities.

And some critiques:

27 Member States
700 000 000 people
23 official languages

Is EU ready for multilinguism?
(1 Sept 2007)

a youthparliament view
“overcome the problem” and “how it affects the politics”
3 July 2007)

Rules of Procedure, simultaneous interpretation in the European Parliament

The original Rule 138 was updated on the Europarl website on 9 March, with no changes.
A text was renewed concerning multilingualism in the upcoming, seventh term of the European Parliament (2009-2014). I’ll want to take some time to read through all the explanations of vote.
GrahnLaw posted a summary (scroll down) of the transitional language rules covered by the renewal. He includes a list of earlier (2007) provisions too.
There’s a nice section in the 2006 book by Barbara Pozzo and Valentina Jacometti, Multilingualism and the harmonization of European Law , explaining how Rule 139 was created to give the Parliament flexibility in dealing with the new languages added in 2004.

a Deaf Hungarian in the European Parliament?!

machine translation (?)
political announcement
8 February 2009

The national committee of FIDESZ, Hungarian Civic Union, approved its list of candidate members for the European Parliament on January 17, 2009. Dit is een belangrijk historisch moment omdat een Hongaarse dove persoon, Ádám Kosa, op de lijst staat en dus kandidaat is om zijn landgenoten te vertegenwoordigen. This is an important historic moment because a Hungarian deaf person, Adam Kosa, on the list and therefore a candidate for his countrymen to represent.

Doordat dhr. By mr. Ádám Kosa de nationale voorzitter is van de Hongaarse dovenorganisatie zal hij de belangen van doven en slechthorenden rechtstreeks kunnen vertegenwoordigen in het Europese Parlement. Ádám Kosa national chairman of the Hungarian organization will extinguish the interests of deaf and hard of hearing directly represented in the European Parliament. En hij kan ook een belangrijke vooruitgang te realiseren voor de hele groep van personen met een beperking in Hongarije en in gans Europa. And he may be an important step forward to realize the whole group of people with disabilities in Hungary and throughout Europe.

De Europese parlementaire verkiezingen hebben plaats op 7 juni 2009. European parliamentary elections held on June 7, 2009. De beslissing ligt in handen van de burgers van Hongarije! The decision rests in the hands of the citizens of Hungary! Fevlado en de EUD ondersteunen volledig de kandidatuur van dhr. Fevlado and EUD fully support the candidacy of Mr.. Kosa en hopen dat er een eerste Doof Europees parlementslid komt in 2009! Kosa and hope that a first Deaf MEP in 2009!

dimensions of listening

a Political Group
European Parliament

Tension was evident in the persistent background murmur while Members vigorously debated the merits of a collective stance versus individual prerogative. I was surprised that the intensity of debate over political group strategy did not draw everyone’s undivided attention: at no time during the meeting did it seem that everyone was listening. At first, I thought the side conversations were preliminary to the meeting. When I realized that the meeting was fully underway, I still thought the noise would ease as more Members arrived, greeted each other, and settled in. By the time I was seated, it was a quarter-hour past the meeting’s start time. Members continued to drift in over the next half-hour. Thirty-five minutes after the meeting’s scheduled start (twenty minutes after my arrival), the Chair sounded the gavel decisively – with only brief effect on the chatter.
Was the insistence at pursuing other conversations instead of focusing on the debate a form of competition with the ‘noise’ of the issue? I muse over the possibilities . . . could the refusal to give undivided attention have been a protest against the fact of disagreement, or . . . maybe it was a signal to specific disputants? Perhaps the collective distraction was made more possible because of the heightened requirements for listening to interpretation or hearing the range of languages in use on the floor? With only one exception, it seemed that each Member spoke their national language:

    36 minutes of Spanish = 34%
    31 minutes of German = 29%
    19 minutes of English = 18%<
    7 minutes of Dutch = 7%
    4 minutes of French = 4%
    3 minutes of Italian = 3%
    and possibly*
    3 minutes of Greek = 3%
    2 minutes of Romanian = 2%**
Percentages based on 105 minutes, the
total observation time until the
conclusion of the meeting.

My first visual scan about five minutes after I settled in discerned roughly one third of the MEPs present wearing their headphones. There is no way to know the MEPs language profiles, so it isn’t possible to assume that the two-thirds without headphones were either fluent in all the languages used, or disinterested, or satisfied to understand some colleagues and not others. Some time later, as more Members arrived and the debate heated up, approximately half of the MEPs present were using headphones.
How – and to what – they listen is complex:

  • For the language – i.e., do I comprehend this language or do I need SI?
  • For content of the speaker’s message
  • For evidence of loss or misrepresentation of the speaker’s message

Do they also listen for other activity on the floor that is not piped through the technology? This illusion of monolingualism fascinates me – if one wears the headphones fully (both ears), then someone could be essentially unaware of the fact of so much continuous background noise: a literal tuning in to the formal task of the group at that time and a tuning out of distraction. If one wears the headphones half-on, half-off (as many do), then one has to concentrate much harder to attend to the speaker currently holding the floor. Rather than relying on the technology to filter out the noise, one has to do it oneself. In this instance, is the listener also comparing the source and target languages? Here is yet another demand on concentration.
No wonder Members say it takes one to two years for first-time colleagues to become accustomed to the system: the sensory inputs are overwhelming! Time, practice, and experience are necessary to develop the cognitive skills of deciphering the demands and charting a course through the channels competing for attention. Hence some Members describe the accommodations they must make in their own speaking style in order to be understood, and acknowledge that not everyone is able to adapt.
At the end of this day, the system of simultaneous interpretation worked marvelously. A serious battle was engaged vigorously and aggressively by several Members in two opposed camps. A longtime Member told me later, “it was the worst I’ve ever seen.” Nearly every single speaker’s turn was done in a different language and no one seemed to miss a beat. Dutch (NL, for Nederlands) was the first language I recorded and the turns went like this:

NL, DE (German, for Deutsch), NL, DE, FR (French), EN (English), FR, DE, EN, DE, EN, DE, EN, DE, ES (Spanish, for Espanol), DE, FR, EN, IT (Italian), DE, IT, FR, DE, ES, FR, DE, RO (Romanian), ES, DE, ES, FR, EN, ES, EN, DE, ES, NL, EN, FR, DE, FR, EN, FR, EN, FR, EN, FR, ES, FR, ES, FR, EN, FR, DE, FR, DE, FR, EL (Greek, a translation of their script), EN, FR, DE, ES, DE, ES, FR, EN, FR, NL, EN, FR.

There were two Chairs (or a Chair and Vice-Chair) whose voices are interspersed between turns of Members from the floor. One consistently spoke German and the other French. Most of their contributions were logistical, simply rote thank you‘s at the conclusion of a speaker’s turn and introduction of the next speaker. These quick and habitual exchanges must be absorbed by interpreters and hardly noticed by Members – they occur much too quickly for interpreters to follow the dictates of protocol concerning working only from “B” languages into one’s “A” language. They may, however, give interpreters just enough time to be signaled as to the next speaker, identify their language, and turn the microphone over to the colleague in the booth who can best work from that language. Or – alternatively – find a suitable retour language. Some of the silences I occasionally encounter while channel surfing are probably the result of switching among teammembers in the booth (who’s now “on”), or seeking the colleague from another booth whose interpretation of the speaker can be used as “source.”
Explaining the process of simultaneous interpretation is itself a challenge, can you imagine being in it?!

Continue reading “dimensions of listening”

emphasis on choice

Press Release
EU Institutions

Vice-President Alejo Vidal-Quadras (EPP-ED, ES) said: “The single message of the campaign is about choice. It is not designed to appeal to citizens’ civic duty, but to highlight that there are major policy choices confronting the EU which will impact on people’s lives, that these choices are decided at European level with the Parliament playing the leading role as to which policy choice is selected and that citizens can influence the selection of these policy choices by voting in the European elections for candidates who reflect their political preferences.”

“inside the soul of European citizens”

European Parliament

A Member was warning his colleagues to be sensitive about budgetary issues for next year’s Parliament during one of the political parties’ Working Group meeting today, because of the backdrop of the global financial crisis.
Earlier today I had asked another Member if there is any relationship between simultaneous interpretation and the European heart. He asked what I meant: “the European heart, do you mean the feelings you have as a European?” I explained that I don’t know what it means but I’ve heard people use it when I brought up certain topics.
This meeting provided interpretation in 19 of the official twenty-three languages; no Bulgarian, Danish, Gaelic or Maltese. Estonian was provided but not used during the the 55 minutes that I was present. The Chair used English. On the floor was heard

    Romanian 1 minute = 2%
    Italian 4 minutes = 7%
    Spanish 11 minutes = 20%
    German 11 minutes = 20%
    English 28 minutes = 51%

Not heard: Czech, Dutch, Finnish, French, Greek, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Slovene, and Swedish.
I had the good fortune to also talk today with a Member who was in this meeting, who clarified some of the dynamics for me. There was a great deal of political maneuvering in this meeting, some “brinkmanship” that got a particular compromise through. The Member who got it through “was playing fast and loose with all of us,” according to the Member I spoke with. I noted only one instance of codeswitching into English, which happened during the presentation and debate on this bill. After a rather heated exchange involving more faux “points of order” (see yesterday’s entry), the Member presenting the compromise suddenly asserted, “She agrees with that!”
Categorization is always a challenge. I’ve been speculating about English as the language of control, but I’m also thinking of what another Member said today:

Sometimes you can’t make a point in any language without using a word from another language!

We were discussing the creation and maintenance of a shared, common culture premised upon the use of different languages. This Member named several instances of “artificial invention” – when a word (often in English but not always) has no equivalent in other official languages. Several language communities actively create equivalents in their own language, such as the Greeks who came up with an artificial word for “subsidiarity.” Subsidiarity might seem like an English word (originally Latin), but it became an instrumental term in the European Union jargon from a German context. Likewise, “ombudsman” came originally from Scandinavian languages, particularly Swedish.
This kind of inter-language borrowing and intra-language coinage of new vocabulary is indeed an outgrowth of the multilingual environment, but both phenomena are still premised in a logic of monolinguistic distinction. What I’m trying to do is shift attention away from the language(s) per se, to the social interaction and cultural effects of using multiple languages in the same place and time.