Index: SI squared (first round of conversations with MEPs)

Fall 2008 and Spring 2009

For the most current news, see Recently in Parliamentary Adventures.

Simultaneous Interpretation and Shared Identity
in the European Parliament

The premise of my dissertation research is that the ways we communicate with each other influences everyone’s identity: “mine” and “yours,” and – when you add the relational element together, “ours.”

The technical term from communication theory is constitutes: to constitute is to do an action that leads to something tangible. General definitions from Princeton’s wordnet say that to constitute is to form, establish, or compose. The phrase I am drawn to the most as I write today is “to cause to stand” (from wiktionary). In short, constituting is a kind of making that persists into the future.

Participating in simultaneous interpretation is a basic structural component of working in the European Parliament. Using the professional inter- and cross-cultural language skills of simultaneous interpreters to communicate is a special and unique communication practice with significant implications for culture and identity. But what are these implications? That is what this research aims to discover.

First impressions based on my first conversations with Members of the European Parliament are recorded in the blog category, Parliamentary Adventures. Relevant musings about theory and methodology are recorded in the blog category, Call this Action Learning. (You can also get to these categories via links in the main header, The Dissertation = Parliamentary Adventures and the lifework = Call this Action Learning.)

Parliamentary Adventures

First Conversations:

    Why such negative framing? One of the most stark characteristics of the general discourses about simultaneous interpreting that I consider highly significant. (November 1, 2008)

    another music? Some distinctions emerge concerning listening, speaking, fluencies, and desired uses of interpreters by MEPs. (November 9, 2008)

    What goes unsaid . . . More depth develops as new perspectives and considerations are raised concerning MEPs’ desires for using simultaneous interpretation. (December 1, 2008)


Some seeds prior to arrival:

What goes unsaid…

There is “the problem no one talks about,” one Member of the European Parliament (MEP) explained, referring to the lack of relationship between MEPs and the interpreters. This gap poses a barrier for developing the kind of rapport that makes simultaneous interpretation most effective.
There is also the reason for using simultaneous interpretation which is “so obvious it doesn’t need to be said,” according to another MEP. Everyone, he elaborated, “argues better in their mother tongue.” I remain puzzled, however, at (what seems to be) an unquestioning acceptance of trends minimizing the need for interpretation. If – as so far everyone I have spoken with agrees – people do argue better in their mother tongue, why is there not an argument on behalf of building the capacity of interpretation services in order to facilitate people’s best intellectual engagement?
Of course many MEPs are fluent enough in another language to communicate well, certainly well enough to express disagreement and offer their own ideas. No doubt some MEPs can also negotiate fine points and discern subtleties of inference leading to the identification of commonality and thus the generation of consensus. But, alongside the polyglots are equally smart monolinguals and those with various degrees of language fluencies who are forced to go along with using a second or third language because (as the story goes) there are not enough interpreters to go around. (And, the rest of the story rationalizes, more interpreting would cost too much. Not to mention, dang it all, interpretation takes so much time!)
The negative framing of simultaneous interpretation is perpetuated in another lauded commentary on the European Parliament (EP). Six Battles that Shaped Europe’s Parliament, by former EP President Julian Priestley, describes the requirement of twenty-three working languages as

an objective constraint that “acts as a deadweight imposing on [the European Parliament’s] organization, timetable and finances a number of inescapable consequences” (emphasis added, 2008, p. 80).

Deadweight. The cultural and linguistic inheritance of Council Regulation No. 1 of 1958 is framed not with joy, gratitude, nor celebration; rather the requirement of linguistic diversity is presented as a heavy and cumbersome burden – an obligation, a negative, constraining limit.
Imposing. Priestley contextualizes his comments of Regulation No. 1 as the matter of working languages being an area over which the EP has “little or no discretion” (p. 2). The October 2008 issue of “The EP Staff Magazine” grants a bit more prestige to this bedrock regulation, although in a backhanded way:

Looking back, it is not insignificant that the regulation laying down the official languages was the EU’s first – “Regulation no. 1 of 1958 determining the languages to be used by the European Economic Community” (OJ L 17, 6.10.1958, p. 385). ~ “Speaking each others languages.” Newshound, No. 28, p. 14.

Inescapable. “Transitional arrangements,” Priestley explains, “have had to be agreed for certain less-used languages out of sheer necessity (there are simply not enough Maltese or Irish linguists to cover all the different activities” (p. 2-3). There are not now enough trained professional interpreters, however this does not need to remain the case – capacity can be built through the deliberate construction of a language-training infrastructure.
Consequences. The rationalization of professional scarcity is a hidden undercurrent of the vast public promotion of “multilingualism” in the European Union. The Newshound team defines multilingualism to mean “the ability to use two or more languages” (p. 14). By circumscribing multilingualism to refer only to the knowledge of more than one language, a discourse trajectory is promoted which silences the other crucial component of maintaining linguistic diversity: the skills of using simultaneous interpretation to communicate within difference. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for language learning! However, an exclusive emphasis on such a narrow form of multilingualism is more a move toward sameness than it is a proactive strategy for retaining linguistic distinction.
In this view, language itself is perceived as a problem: an inert mass imposing inescapable consequences. The discourse engaging the problematic of language poses a restricted definition of “multilingualism” as the solution. The power of the discourse is such that this solution is generally understood as the singular answer. Because of the way the problem has been posed, no other answer is conceivable – at least, not as long as one stays within the boundaries of the discourse. Because of the power of the discourse, the answer conveys a common sense assumption of the nature of the language problem – conversely, then, the answer shapes the question, limiting possibility. This is, I propose, not insignificant.

another music?

A polarization of viewpoints on the value of simultaneous interpretation (SI) was obvious from my first conversations with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). At first glance, MEPs who are fluent in two or three languages seem not to perceive much use for interpreters, while MEPs who are not so fluent beyond their mother tongue recognize and value the immediate gains of SI. A more subtle distinction that arose (which may or may not bear out over time and additional conversation) had to do with relative need: perhaps the interpreter is not desired to speak what an MEP says, but is desired to speak for others in order to guarantee comprehension of what is being said. Tentatively, there may be an implicit dynamic prioritizing listening to interpreters’ work over having one’s own words interpreted. If this is so, an emphasis on listening (to interpretations of other MEPs speech) might very well complement an emphasis on speaking for oneself. Both of these preferences could be construed as efforts to control the communication process.
I posed my identity-construction hypothesis in a nonjudgmental frame. “You may be right,” one MEP acknowledged. “Interesting idea,” said another. Choosing a lingua franca, e.g., going for speed and spontaneity, produces a different kind of shared identity than going for the use of simultaneous interpretation (SI). The question that I am investigating involves the relative effects of these choices as they aggregate over time. Such aggregation – “the collecting of units or particles into a body, mass, or amount: collective” – is the basic process by which culture is constructed. Instances of the same microsocial interaction that are replicated by different agents in a wide array of situations within a particular institutional structure and repeated over a period of time will constitute identities that both enact and represent an element of common culture. Whether or not a particular element of culture has special significance is an additional question.
An element of social interaction becomes significant when it enhances or detracts from a group’s goals. This came up in another context where I was meeting people for the first time and explaining my academic field: Communication (broadly), in the subfield usually called “Language and Social Interaction,” with a particular focus on how we construct meaning together. “So,” I was asked, “you will judge us on how efficiently we communicate?” No, because such an assumption presumes that a group’s goal is clearly focused, transparent, and commonly known. A newly formed group, or a group whose membership constantly changes, rarely has such uniformity of purpose. Rather, I would have to observe, participate, and test my observations in order to discover a group’s trajectory, and then (possibly) assess (through further observing, participation, and testing) the relationships between the actions of individuals and the unfolding motive(s) of the group-as-a-whole.
In certain cases, I might observe and reflect upon the degree of match between what a group purports its goal to be and the behaviors of group members, but even in that case the first task is to determine if the stated goal corresponds with the intended goal. This latter is a better description of what I am attempting at the European Parliament. There is a publicized ambition to unite Europeans with a common basis for identification, but are the daily actions of MEPs contributing to such a construction? If so, what are the lived mechanisms, the everyday operations of interaction that cohere into widespread cultural forms recognizable as common by all European citizens? If not, where are the gaps and opportunities that could be turned to such purpose?
Models of the stages of group development, and group relations theory in particular, suggest that exploring tensions can provide evidence of the match between goal (an ideal) and practice (reality). Language use and simultaneous interpretation in the European Parliament are shot through with references to efficiency. When I try to imagine what language is being asked “to do” in the European Parliament, i.e., what is the function of language, and how does the form of language mediate its functionality, I have to wonder, are MEPs confusing “efficiency” with “expediency“? I also wonder if language is being utilized in fullest capacity to build a common framework for a European identification that exceeds nationality without erasing it.

Why such negative framing?

Tensions are inevitably involved with simultaneous interpretation between languages. For instance, interpreters are invested in the management of the communication process so that they can adequately discern and convey interlocutor’s meanings. Interlocutors, meanwhile, are concerned with controlling the meanings being conveyed. These themes are evident in the discourse of professional interpreters talking about the challenges of providing simultaneous interpretation, as well as in the discourse of interlocutors talking about using interpretation services. One might presume that simultaneously interpreted communication is most effective when interpreters and interlocutors participate together to create meaningful interaction, yet the respective priorities of interpreters and interlocutors seem to be posed in opposition – as if there is no way to accommodate both sets of role-based needs.
Few opportunities exist for interpreters and interlocutors to hash out the implications of these differing prioritizations. Public opinion about simultaneous interpretation, therefore, is primarily shaped by expressions of frustration about the limits imposed by necessity. This seems particularly to be the case concerning simultaneous interpretation (SI) at the European Parliament. The actual gains and benefits of simultaneous interpretation as a cultural practice are not specified. Instead of naming and emphasizing the deep values embedded in acts of participation in simultaneous interpretation, justifications are presented in expansive rhetoric.

The right of an elected Member [of Parliament] to speak, read and write in his or her language lies at the heart of [the European Union] Parliament’s democratic legitimacy(1).

European Union (2001)
Preparing for the Parliament of the Enlarged European Union
Report of the Secretary General, document PE 305.269/ BUR/

2005 Report and Motion on EP Interpretation

on the European Court of Auditors’ Special Report No 5/2005 : Interpretation expenditure incurred by the Parliament, the Commission and the Council (2006/2001(INI))
The European Parliament,
– having regard to the European Court of Auditors’ Special report No 5/2005: Interpretation expenditure incurred by the Parliament, the Commission and the Council, together with the institutions’ replies(1),
– having regard to Article 248(4), second subparagraph, Article 276(3) and Article 280(5) of the EC Treaty,
– having regard to Rule 45 of its Rules of Procedure,
– having regard to the report of the Committee on Budgetary Control (A6-0261/2006),
Respect for multilingualism
1. Considers that multilingualism is one of the key features of the European Union, which highlights cultural and linguistic diversity and ensures equal treatment of EU citizens;
2. Considers that multilingualism guarantees citizens’ right to communicate with the EU institutions in any of its official languages, thus enabling them to exercise their right of democratic control;
3. Considers that the linguistic services of the EU institutions facilitate communication, and that, in so doing, the institutions remain open to the citizens of Europe;
4. Considers that the total cost of all the linguistic services of the EU institutions, translation and interpretation combined, represent merely 1 % of the total EU budget;
5. Considers that its Rules of Procedure stipulate that Members may speak in the official language of their choice and that interpretation into the other languages is provided; considers that, in addition, the use of official languages is governed by its ‘Code of Conduct on Multilingualism’, updated in 2004;
6. Considers that multilingualism is an expression of the EU’s cultural diversity, which must be preserved, and that, therefore, while the increasing number of official languages calls for pragmatic solutions in the preparatory work within the institutions, multilingualism must be guaranteed to ensure the legitimacy and diversity of the European Union;
With regard to all institutions
7. Welcomes with satisfaction the high quality of interpretation in the EU institutions; is furthermore of the opinion that the high quality of interpretation must be continuously evaluated and guaranteed;
8. Notes that the overall cost of interpretation in 2003 was EUR 57 000 000 as regards the European Parliament and EUR 106 000 000 as regards the Council, the Commission, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions and some agencies;
9. Is, however, very concerned that in 2003 approximately 16% (EUR 25 900 000) of the total interpretation costs of EUR 163 000 000 represented costs for services supplied but not used and for stand-by arrangements;
10. Is of the opinion that the Parliament, the Council and the Commission should endeavour to reduce ‘implicit or explicit stand-by duty’, these arrangements accounting for EUR 18 000 000 spent on interpretation services supplied but not used; notes that reserve interpreters should be available for ad hoc meetings with a short request time;
11. Calls on its administration, the Council and the Commission to improve inter-institutional cooperation;
12. Calls on the Parliament and Commission interpretation services, in order to be more efficient, to exchange interpreters and create mixed interpretation teams, and to make possible the use of available interpreters where and when they are requested in order to meet real needs;
13. Calls on the institutions to encourage and facilitate the use of ‘local interpreters’, language combination allowing, and stresses that national administrative provisions must not be an obstacle; notes that a high quality of interpretation must be guaranteed;14. Considers that the Parliament and the Commission should establish an overview on the official/free-lance ratio per language in time for the 2006 discharge;
15. Calls on the Commission to reinforce, in coordination with other institutions, cooperation with Member States in training interpreters from their respective countries;
16. Calls on the EU institutions to renegotiate the agreement with the Auxiliary Conference Interpreters (ACI) with regard to travel arrangements, remuneration, inter-institutional cooperation and administrative simplification;
17. Notes the high share of travel and accommodation costs; urges meeting organisers and interpretation services to reduce travel and accommodation costs; calls for better coordination, planning and organisation of travel and accommodation arrangements;
With regard to the Parliament
18. Expects its administration to provide estimates of the average total daily cost of ACIs and permanent interpreters in time for the 2005 discharge report;
19. Notes that the full cost for an interpretation day is almost 30% higher in Parliament than in the Council or the Commission, one reason being that very few local interpreters can be used during Strasbourg sessions, which increases Parliament’s interpretation costs in Strasbourg by 13 %;
20. Notes its refusal to take part in an evaluation with a view to creating an inter-institutional office providing interpretation service to all EU institutions, this having been considered by the Bureau on 4 September 2005, as incompatible with the interests of Parliament;
21. Calls on its administration to continue to establish meaningful ‘session reports’, i.e. reports from the head of an interpretation team about the active and passive use of languages during group, committee and delegation meetings, and report back on its findings in time for the 2005 discharge procedure;
22. Urges its administration to raise Members’ awareness of interpretation costs; asks if it makes best possible use of the language profiles of Members; stresses that this should not lead to a ranking of official EU languages;
23. Recalls that, pursuant to Article 1 of the Code of Conduct on Multilingualism of 19 April 2004, resources should be allocated taking into consideration the users’ real needs;
24. Calls on its administration to study how the Council’s ‘request system’, the Council of Europe’s internal billing system, or UNESCO’s quota system for interpretation could be used by the Parliament;
25. Notes that in 2003, it spent EUR 4 000 000 on interpretation services made available but not used due to late requests or cancellations; asks that last-minute cancellations and last-minute requests be discouraged; furthermore calls on the interpretation services to be more flexible in their service planning and request system;
26. Calls on its responsible bodies to adapt its calendar of committee, group and plenary session weeks in order to achieve a better balance between needs and resources available;
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27. Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission and the European Court of Auditors.
OJ C 291, 23.11.2005, p. 1.

Continue reading “2005 Report and Motion on EP Interpretation”

surrealistic Belgium

Phillipe, our tour guide, said “Belgium is surrealistic” in reference to the language alliance of the German-speaking population in the east with the French-speakers of the south. Belgium, he explained, is “a small country with complicated problems.” The majority language speakers of Dutch are the Flemish in the north. I will need to devote a single blog entry concerning what I have learned about these language dynamics to date – I think I have enough to sketch an outline of the main discourses. (We’ll see!)
Meanwhile, I put most of my energy towards my new colleagues. What a fascinating lot! You may guess I gravitated toward Colin (“metaheuristics”) and Jared (“neurogenesis”) immediately. 🙂 Colin’s description of metaheuristics as a huge simplified abstraction of simple rules applied to a population which then generates complex interactions put me immediately in mind of Asimov’s “human conglomerate.” Jared’s work on bird brains led to a comment that there are now two known areas of the brain that produce new cells throughout life: the subverticular zone (responsible for smell) and a region above the hippocampus engaged with memory. What better start to this research project than optimization forces and new cells in the brain?
Bill, who is here to teach about the color line in American literature, said there is no other approach for addressing matters of race/ism than “to start with the present and proceed to the past.” (I want to take his class!) He really got me excited later, inquiring about this blog (!), when he described the inevitability of a diurnal narrative structure emerging with and without the writer’s conscious intentions. Yes! Indeed this is what I have grasped (over five long years and a lot of nudging from friends to present my thinking in a more organized fashion) and – hopefully – put into deliberate motion with the three new categories linkable from the cutesy flash animation (above). How much force/creation can be generated is a function of participation/response (so it seems to me). I am in agreement with Bill that one can only begin with the present. I am hopeful the past can help us learn how to make choices toward more preferred futures (presuming some agreement can be forged on a vision).
Vanja and I compared notes concerning our respective “Institutional Review Boards” processes in order to receive authorization for “human subjects research.” I received varying advice on approaching the Members of the European Parliament. One person is convinced response rates will be low. :-/ Jen suggested I follow ‘chains’ of connections by developing each contact slowly and deliberately. Meanwhile, I’m still hoping to find people to translate a few more of the initial invitations so that I can approach MEPs in their official national language. It’s just a hunch (as is most of this action research project), but I’m thinking I might up the percentage of interest just a nib by making this gesture. We’ll see!
Zac “The Architect”, Cathleen, and Kathy “The Medievalist” had an interesting conversation about the differences between studying the work of live persons (or those who lived recently enough that people who knew them in person are still alive) and studying those long dead. Is it really true that one can define clearer boundaries about a past subject than about a more current one? I’m not sure. I do know that I’m grappling with the liveliness of my own subject , its “superfluidity” to use Zac’s term, and have struggled to impose a boundary of location and membership (the European Parliament and its current Members), as well as to define the locus of study on MEPs discourses concerning the choices they make in terms of which language to speak, when and why, and how the attitudes revealed or exposed by these discourses establish a certain frame of reference in relation to interpretation. What is/are those frames, and how do they establish behavioral rituals that instruct (by example), thus limiting and enabling potentials of communication across cultural/linguistic differences?
Cathy’s artist of study, Marcel Broodthaers, kinda seems like a guy right up my alley (not necessarily an ally – so many people read my business card mistakenly! I guess ally is either not much in favor or largely unused.) He is famous among Belgians for his mussel pottery. Cathy described how some of his work “pretends to teach” and that he interspersed text in his work in an anti-modernist way . . . there was something she said about his use of space that I’d like to understand better. Later, on the tour, Phillipe explained that symmetry in buildings was a feature to emerge during the Renaissance in the 16th century. It had never occurred to me before that symmetry was not always a desirable geometry, or at least a frame of reference anchoring artistic deviations!
We’re all waiting to witness Alyssa in action, meanwhile I was reminded of the incredible cello performance I saw in Northampton some years ago – dang, can’t find a blogpost about it! – when they surrounded us with forty or more cellos and played deep and low like whale song. Still gives me shivers! Finally, Caitlin has also carved out a language-related project. I may even have a lead for her! 🙂
When I got home yesterday evening, my host and I had a long conversation about the day and all its learnings, ending with a bit of collaborative poetry:

You like to fiddle in the margins,” she said.
It’s about the language,” said I.
And framing,” she replied, “is the other melody.”

my new best friend is . . .

. . . dental floss!

Emiko was rough, I’m telling you – give someone a little bit of insight into a weakness and whoosh a professional dental staff (see last paragraph) goes for it all!

    I do have the best dentist in the world. “Nice haircut,” Tom says, “What’s it called?” “Forty-five.” Then we cut him loose with the drill. Oh my. Yes yes we had targeted three of the front teeth with ancient fillings, all yellowing out and icky. He expanded to five just cuz he got on a roll. Rebecca was a great help. “We’ve got to reduce the signs of aging!”

    Honest? I am not sure anything I do is going to fool the folks I’m going to meet during upcoming parliamentary adventures: they’ll peg me soon enough as from some other social class. (Which one could be an open question!)

visual perceptions

Work on optical illusions show how the distance from which one views a face alters the expression you think you’re seeing. Some constructions are creepy!
I’m intrigued with the function of distance. Part of what me and my committee need to sketch out is the scope of the lens I’ll use in exploring the practice of simultaneous interpretation at the European Parliament. Since each of our relative distances from the object of study differ, establishing a reasonable range might be a challenge.

Grip of the Committee

They did give me exactly what I needed during my prospectus defense, even though a hazing frenzy seemed to build as we spoke. Perhaps I still give off the vibe that being clubbed with a two-by-four is the only way to get my attention.
I had meant to mention my science fiction mind at the beginning of the presentation – not that they aren’t already aware (!), but to highlight the challenge of fitting my perceptions into academic boxes. Science fiction was the first wholistic knowledge system that I encountered, followed by fantasy. The frame of a person being randomly at a juncture in time and space from which things unfold seems, as near as I can tell, to be the deepest level of neuronic organization in my brain: cognition overlays the rhizomic net.
They want me to fix the time/space of the study in accordance with pre-established knowledge. This is the tricky one. The other feedback about clarifying and expanding the details of methodology is useful and productive: although I have confidence that I will successfully navigate whatever happens during the fieldwork process, anticipating the possibilities (a series of “if-then” imaginings) can only help. Most of this nitty-gritty I have intended to do in August anyway; now I just need to organize it sensibly for them as well.
The crux of the matter seems to be a concern that I won’t deliver something that they expect, emphasis on lack of surprise. We are entering into a contract, and my conformity to the terms of the deal is demanded. The conservative bent of academia weighs heavily here, and the question of whose authority is in play is, in fact, the very point of the entire exercise. What else is voice if not the ability to put words into action? I clamber through my own extraordinarily limited exposure to this world, (this lifeworld?), taking in so much: not “feeling” as in mere emotion, but sensory perception. English lacks common vocabulary to distinguish among types of “feeling,” hence I am often in trouble/at risk of conflation.
Not only that, I’m not so keen on reifying institutionalized authority of any kind. So, for instance, in this moment of spacetime, I do a Google search (gasp!) to see if there’s anything out there right now that complements the notions I have in mind. Nice! So what that I can’t translate the text of Blommaert’s rejoinder; or that the “lifeworld” reference I found has to do with computer science – these two references say what I intend:

“The concept of a lifeworld will not appear as a specific mathematical entity in our formalism. The intuition, however, is this: while there is an objective material environment, the agent does not directly deal with all of this environment’s complexity. Instead it deals with a functional environment that is projected from the material environment. That projection is possible because of various conventions and invariants that are stably present in the environment or actively maintained by the agent.”

Such an eclectic, synergistic mode of knowledge construction is anathema to the stable march of paradigmatic knowledge sanctioned by universities. How, why can I trust the authority of these authors? What if they “got it wrong” and I, foolish and naive that I am, perpetuate the error?
Now we’re into morality.
Granted, I have not always understood the nuances or sophistication of certain ideas at particular times. So what? I have understood others. Yes, I am not always as clear as seems desirable – not only to others, to me, too – and (!) clarity is also an interactive accomplishment. The challenges presented by my committee carve edges into the frame of what this study will actually become.
What environment is being actively maintained by discourses about simultaneous interpreting in the European Parliament? What stable conventions and invariants are currently present? Which functional environments are being projected? My role in the projections of Members of Parliament and EP Interpreters matters just as much as their role in mine: this is what makes the proposed research action and process-based. Nonetheless, all that swirl does have a center: a contractually fixed point-of-reference in the practice of simultaneous interpretation.