road bump: asymmetrical patterns of language access

I have been slowed down for the past ten days or so with the research project at the European Parliament (EP) because of institutional policy concerning the provision of interpretation.
There is a rule (or a custom?) that only formal meetings will be interpreted and informal meetings will not. Theoretically, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) can request interpretation for informal meetings (such as, presumably, a conversation with a researcher), but then they (or their national delegation) has to foot the bill. Or something like that. I’ve had to postpone three meetings so far on this account: I’ll get a phone call or email from an MEP’s assistant, and we wade through a conversation sorting out my expectation that if we need a simultaneous interpreter they have access to the resources to get one, while they have assumed that if *I* need an interpreter (!) then I’ll bear the burden of dealing with the logistics and expense.
The structure of this arrangement (framed as resource scarcity or a too-costly expense) appears generally unquestioned by MEPs themselves. Here I am, as a “participant” coming up against (i.e., speaking in and with, perhaps even being spoken by?) one of the precise discursive dynamics I wish to examine. By “participant” I mean to refer to two aspects of role: that of a person engaging multilingually in a multilingual setting, and as a researcher immersed in the environment that I am studying.
The reasons provided as to why I should “assure the interpretation,” involve the cost and/or the time/labor involved to generate the request. I am a bit befuddled, as the hoops I would have to go through are extensive (to say the least) and (I imagine) more costly – if not in sheer euros paid in service fees/wages (although possibly), then certainly in the waste of duplicating a service which is already streamlined to a high degree of sophistication.
Although the burden placed on language minorities in general are not the target of this research project, as I experience my own reactions – cognitive and emotional – and observe the reactions/comments of the EP officials, I am struck by what must be a kind of resonance. Surely I could (somehow?) manage to find and hire and pay appropriately qualified interpreter(s) with the right language combination(s), but only at the sacrifice of many, many other tasks – some of which are also essential.
The normative discourse – by which I mean, the things commonly said in response to questions about extending the provision of simultaneous interpretation beyond the explicitly formal – include

  • drawing a parallel between the resources/costs of me (an individual) with the state (an institution);
  • claiming the cost is prohibitive (e.g., that money should be spent on other more pressing concerns, or the people won’t put up with it, etc.), and/or that
  • it is fair to treat all languages in the same way (via the formal/informal distinction, in this case).

At the moment I am particularly interested in the last point, concerning a perception of fairness if the boundary is “very clear” and all languages are treated “the same.” It is well-established which settings in the EP are formal and will be interpreted and which are not. The rigidity of this structure not only eases the bureaucratic strain of having to treat particular cases, it also precludes discussion of other criteria which may be more salient. My hypotheses of salience involve long-term effectiveness over short-term efficiency, clearer policy framing as to when/why simultaneous interpretation is necessary, and also more reality-based decision-making about when simultaneous interpretation is either unnecessary or purely for symbolic reasons.
My underlying thesis is that the orientations as to when, where, and why to use simultaneous interpretation (SI) are formative of identity:

using or not using SI is a cultural practice – a
practice of communication using multiple languages that
generates a shared identity among the people who are using it.

At the moment, my immediate concern is that the EP officials at the Cabinet level who are charged with making the decision about whether or not to enable SI for this research project will say no. I can imagine many reasons why this might be their answer, all of which are sensible within the current/dominant framework. To say yes, however, would allow me to include the viewpoints of MEPs who need SI the most, and thus have – perhaps – the most significant things to share concerning their experiences and perspectives. Otherwise the information I have to work with will be skewed. ­čÖü
I keep thinking about a critique sociolinguist Jan Blommaert makes of the social scientific field of critical discourse analysis (which is my main methodology). In the following quote, Blommaert summarizes several points in the larger context of globalization; I think they apply equally well to the European Parliament:

“…one of the problems with discourse analysis was its assumption of choice for participants in communication . . . one needs to take into account the significant constraints imposed on people in communication, constraints that found their origins in the structures of their societies and the differences in structure between societies . . .” (2005, p. 234)

My own guilt stares me in the face: the assumption that MEPs have a real choice to provide interpretation for research conversations with me. I don’t think I’m being particularly selfish or self-centered in thinking that they might consider talking with me worthy; rather, I imagine these short conversations as roughly approximate to those informal negotiating sessions with peers in which a crucial compromise on key legislation will get hammered out.
If an MEP has responded to the initial invitation to participate in this research project, they have done so for a reason. I would very much like to learn the substance of these reasons! If I cannot, then the rest of Blommaert’s statement excerpted above becomes relevant:

“. . . all kinds of influences operate at the same time in the same communication event. But they do not operate in the same way. Simultaneity involves stratification, with some influences that are more immediate than others, more visible, and more open to conscious exploration, negotiation, and manipulation. This stratification is a crucial site of inequality, for it is governed by asymmetrical patterns of access. Such patterns operate both within and between societies…” (emphasis added, 2005, p. 234)

That “asymmetrical pattern of access” has my attention. The rigidity of providing SI for formal settings and not informal ones has the appearance of fairness because it applies one yardstick to all situations. The measurement of what qualifies as “formal” and what (by default) is “informal” is unquestioned – perhaps (as I may discover but I hope not), unquestionable.

2 thoughts on “road bump: asymmetrical patterns of language access”

  1. I don’t have a calculation for a sum, if that’s what you mean?
    I’m not an economist, but I have a hard time seeing an infrastructure of interpretation as a one-way, lump sum financing arrangement that never goes anywhere else and has no other value. The provision of jobs, for instance, is a good in-and-of-itself, especially jobs for smart, creative people (of whom there are rather a lot), who then turn around with the incomes they earn and spend it in all kinds of ways. There are loops and circulations involved that stabilize society, which is itself another good.
    I do see, quite clearly, that the discourse surrounding interpretation in the Parliament only “allows” the logic of “cost”, as if it is impossible to imagine spreading the costs – and benefits! – around.
    What supports the assumption that the way things are being done now is the only possible way they can be done?

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