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.