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.

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