What meanings are we making?

two talks at Heriot Watt
by Stephanie Jo Kent

In addition to the transmission of information, the larger and deepest purpose of simultaneous interpretation is to generate and maintain common culture among people from different cultures.

As hoped, the opportunity to present on my dissertation fieldwork in-progress forced my brain to synthesize the trends and patterns that I have been noticing during this year of research at the European Parliament, as well as find words to express what I think these trends and patterns suggest about mono- and multilingualism. The effort to explain my perceptions moved me far along the analytical path; since returning to fieldwork many of the findings have crystallized further.
A few weeks ago, after more backbrain simmering, I finally uttered the statement highlighted above, distilling the years of talking with interested colleagues (and anyone else who would listen, thanks Arne!) into a single, comprehensible idea.
Purposes are human creations, not physical facts, so there is plenty of room to disagree. I am anticipating a conversation that will take place in Philadelphia in August (“Interpreting as Culture“), and other conversations that I hope grow from there and link from/with other sources (such as Ryan Commerson’s brilliant master’s thesis applying the work of Stuart Hall).
The feedback provided by participants at my presentations at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh is affirming (thanks!) and helpful. For this post, I am only including the comments that relate specifically to my thesis.
1) “Why,” wrote one participant, “do people want [simultaneous interpretation] to be like a mono-lingual exchange? Why are they so uncomfortable with interpreted interaction…[?]”

I am not sure that interlocutors (or interpreters, for that matter) are consciously aware of comparing the process of interpreted interaction to what it is like to talk with someone in the same language. We are so accustomed to the ease of monolingual communication – it is like the fish not being aware of water or the bird, air. It is, for most of us, our typical environment, the way we get along with nearly everybody, practically all of the time. So when the exceptional circumstance of an interpreted interaction occurs . . . on what other basis could we imagine to evaluate it?

Not only that, but we also have the collusion of academic discourse reinforcing the unquestioned common sense. One professional sign language interpreter wrote,

“…reflecting [on] how my practice is so heavily influenced . . . it’s shocking to reflect on how thoroughly ‘old’ theories of interpreter (‘translator’?) role of ‘heard and not seen’ (invisible conduit) have become/are becoming so entrenched, particularly in a place where multi-lingual, multi-cultural awareness should be richest.”

2) That “place” is the European Parliament, about which another participant mused, “Do politicians really want to understand each other?”

Based on the interviews with European Parliament interpreters four years ago, I can say that some interpreters think not! Or at least, not all the time, or not within the constraints of particular structures – such as the plenary sessions (which get the most publicity and thus seem to represent SI at the EP, even though I am inclined to argue more real interpreting gets done in every other setting than that one).

3) “Don’t we get ‘third cultures,’ ‘communities of practice,’ all the time, everytime?” asks another researcher?

Of course we do, but the question is whether that “third culture” is substantively different than what we get without interpretation! The discourses about simultaneous interpretation that I’ve been learning privilege the same kind of characteristics that are prominent in monolingual communication. This was reflected in questions from another participant:

4) “How is this speed in communication (even though passive) … effecting our expectations of it? Our response? Interaction between cultures? Dealing with relationships?”

There’s no definitive answer – we are all co-creating the ways we engage the imperative of speed in collaborative/complementary fashion, consciously or not. Which leads directly into another question posed by another researcher:

5) “Will there be a paradigm shift? Would I like it?” And a participant’s observation: “Despite of promotion of language diversity/equality, for practical/political/power reasons, lingua franca will still be the fate.”

In response, I would distinguish, here, between communities of practice and third cultures. Perhaps this is a naive distinction, but culture is a more-or-less passive development of aggregated relational actions into coherent systemic wholes. (At some point there are leaders, religious figures, etc., who justify the parts and defend the whole.) A community of practice is intentional from the outset. While, as one participant/researcher wrote, “The language produced by interpreters – the form – is indeed a message,” I would say this language constitutes discourse but does not necessarily represent a community of practice until we take hold of the form in order to wield it for specific purpose.

I submit that a purpose which could bind simultaneous interpreters into a community of practice across the gamut of “interpreters in triadic interactions and ‘stream-of-language’ events like the European Parliament” (quoting from a participant) is the co-construction of intercultural community premised on language difference.

In addition to the transmission of information, the larger and deepest purpose of simultaneous interpretation is to generate and maintain common culture among people from different cultures.

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