background to foreground

Bringing attention to the action of simultaneous interpretation draws notice to the fact that people are always and forever engaged with interpreting. Whether our languages are the same or different, similar or unfamiliar, we must interpret the meaning of what is conveyed. We assume a certain ease of understanding for many reasons, such as habit, agreement, perception, and tradition. These background reasons presume certain conditions, such as use of the same language, or familiarity with a common culture. If these conditions are not in place, our attention becomes more attuned to the presence of potential difference. If these conditions are present, however, we proceed normally, as if there will be no problems with understanding. Most often this is the case, and we communicate without conscious awareness of the amount of interpretation occurring in the background. Nonetheless, it is not going too far to say that without interpretation there is no communication.
The presence of simultaneous interpretation between two languages, then, merely accentuates processes that are already occurring. Once we decide to keep the fact of constant, continual interpretation in mind, what matters is not the matter of interpretation itself, but the frames of reference that inform the interpretation. Remove the actual interpreter, and this remains the case: what any one of us aims to communicate is sensible – as we intend it – only within the terms of our particular frame of reference; likewise, what is understood by others is only sensible as they receive it – which may or may not be within the same frame as our own.
Rocio pressed me hard the other night, wonderfully so, on the matter of my own frame of reference. I often find it quite difficult to recognize the assumptions of my own logic; so I appreciate questions that make me wonder. According to Stor Gendibal, one of the protagonists in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge (1982, p. 128):

“Wondering meant exploring his own mind.”

I must admit to Rocio’s observation that I am trying to make sense of Europe’s multilingualism from a basis of experience in a monolingual culture. I am from the U.S., with its fanatic emphasis on English. It is true I am impressed with the fluidity of Flemish-speakers (in particular, as most of my interactions this past month have been in Antwerp) to switch from Dutch to English with nary a blink. This includes, by the way, not only indigenous Flemings but also Moroccan immigrants and German transplants. Rocio’s questions are important: am I overreacting because of my own distaste with monolingualism in general, or the spread of English in particular?
Yet, I also know a different America because of my work as an American Sign Language/English Interpreter. My thinking is rooted in a bilingualism that matches European multilingualism, and perhaps goes farther, as translations between spoken and signed language involve not only a shift in grammar (linguistics) but also a shift in modality (sensory perception).
Last week, Tumbleweed questioned another element of my frame of reference. My work as a signed language interpreter suggests that the critique I suggest is possible regarding the system of spoken language interpretation at the European Parliament is based upon comparing different types of interpreting – a logic that may or may not be valid. Just as I need to be reminded how much my thought has been shaped by the dominant monolingual culture, I need to continue to explore the divisions created between “conference interpreting” and “community interpreting.” There are historical, professional, and economic distinctions between these types that are, in my view, indicators of class and power rather than of literal difference. In either venue, the action of simultaneous interpreting is the same: difference is maintained.
These questions go deep. They touch upon the danger of my biases being too much in the way. Rocio gave some great examples of how the perceived differences are huge between, say, a Spaniard from Valencia and a Spaniard from Catalonia – until one travels to France; or, say, the differences between an American from Texas and an American from New York, until one travels to Indonesia. If the settings are culturally close but not identical, one is aware of the distinctions, only. But when the context is broadened and the basis of comparison is shifted, then those distinctions of a close-close type vanish in the larger contrasts with people who are even more different.
As we observe a globalizing economy (try to) turn culturally distinct places into uniform amalgamations of everywhere and nowhere, and worldwide media establishes norms of ambition for peoples of all kinds, it may be that languages are the best preserve of substantive difference. The action of simultaneous interpretation is to resist a totalitarian logic of similarity – a logic that assumes we communicate better if we use the same language: a monolingualist logic. By virtue of its presence and use, simultaneous interpretation enables a medium of communication that can generate a field of social equality built interaction-by-interaction upon the constant recognition and continual presence of difference.

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