Fulbright Fellowship to the EU

grant proposal (historical)
submitted October 2007
fieldwork conducted Sept 2008-June 2009

Stephanie Jo Kent, USA, Communication
Simultaneous Interpretation and Shared Identity in the European Parliament

Multilingualism is touted as a crucial component of the European Union’s (EU) merger of national/cultural identities into one political democracy, yet the skillful use of interpreters is underemphasized in comparison with language learning. Meanwhile, the European Parliament is conducting the largest simultaneous interpretation experiment in the world. Twenty-seven official languages are interpreted as everyday routine (compared with only six at the United Nations), yet many of the 785 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) prefer to communicate in a language other than their mother tongue. MEPs seem unaware or unconcerned about reductions in clarity and persuasiveness when they use a lingua franca. According to official European Parliament interpreters interviewed in 2004, many Members persist in speaking “bad English,” “crap French” or “bad German” instead of the official language of the member state they represent. Nearly seventy interpreters cumulatively describe uncorrected breakdowns in communication, lamenting the dangers of persistent misunderstanding. Comprehending Spanish-inflected English, for instance, requires balanced bilingualism in Spanish and English, because MEPs are using English words according to Spanish (Greek, Finnish, Swedish, Portuguese, etc.) grammar. Drifting toward a polyglot monolingualism is of concern at the microsocial level of understanding each other and at the macrosocial level of creating culture through specific identifications with languages and language use.

Institutionalizing Procedural Rule 138 at the founding of the European Parliament (EP), which guarantees the right of MEPs to use “the official language of their choice,” was an act of intercultural communication genius. Voluntary participation in the literal co-construction of meaning through simultaneously-interpreted communication requires skillful attention to nuances of misunderstanding. Counterintuitively, my proposed study seeks to investigate attitudes against interpretation that interfere with best practices of creating mutual understanding. Bias supporting “direct” communication and a steady stream of anecdotes regarding errors of interpretation threaten the EU’s dynamic potential to literally “talk” a common European identity into widespread, shared reality.
Choosing between the state’s official language and a lingua franca is an observable behavior with practical consequences. The choice of which language to speak is itself an action that may seem innocuous from the individual point-of-view. Yet such choices aggregate into patterns, and patterns become habits. Habitual actions become customary; customs are how we recognize culture. Shared culture is the basis for identification, and language is the penultimate medium of culture. MEPs are not only making law: MEPs are creating and enacting a unitary European identity. MEPS, in their day-to-day decisions about which language to speak, are forging European Union commonality in the very way that they orient themselves to the desirability of simultaneous interpretation.

This research will investigate MEPs experiences and perspectives concerning interpretation within the European Parliament (Belgium and France). How do MEPs (of all member states) make sense of the interpreting process? What do MEPs consider when deciding which language to speak? Do MEPs conceptualize “good interpreting”? What attitudes and reasons incline MEPs to avoid the use of interpretation? My methodology will include observations of select on-going meetings for the duration of the legislative season (authorization is underway). In particular, I will observe one working group (as they develop the language for a particular law), and one political group (as they chart strategy concerning their platform). When events arise that draw attention to the processes of interpretation, I will interview as many participants as possible (MEPs, interpreters, and other staff) regarding what they think happened, why they think it happened, and what options they imagined as possible and appropriate communicative response or intervention.

Additionally, I will conduct individual interviews with MEPs from each member state. MEPs will have the choice to hold the interview in English or their preferred official language. Interpretation will be provided through their offices within the normal structure of Rule 138. Should MEPs elect to be interviewed in English, I will request a second, interpreted interview in order to provide a grounded experience for both of us to compare-and-contrast the quality and meaningfulness of our communication with each other “directly” and through interpretation. I will audiotape all interviews (with permission), and, if possible, debrief with interpreters afterwards.

In sum, I will obtain information concerning both what MEPs say they do (think, and feel) about interpretation and what they actually do in practice. What MEPs say about interpretation, interpreters, and interpreting constitutes a uniquely-situated discourse. Theoretically, MEPs’ talk about language choice is a special kind of “talk about talk” which is recognized by ethnographers of communication, linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists as decidedly cultural. Any cultural discourse can be analyzed for discrete constituent elements and features that create and maintain communal identifications. These component parts of cultural identity can be discerned from themes and patterns in the given discourse. Careful, detailed description of the relationships among discursive components (such as a recurring pattern of criticism – e.g., “interpreters should not ask me to repeat what I just said”) enables critical analysis of the attitudes and perceptions which form cores of “identity.”

After observing and talking with MEPs for ten months, the critical discourse findings from MEPs talk about interpreting will be compared with findings from my previous critical discourse analysis of nearly seventy European Parliament interpreters (referenced in the first paragraph). The areas of conflict and consensus between interpreters’ discourse about interpreting and MEPs discourse about using interpretation will enable the identification of key features of the common, shared, European identity being produced and performed in actual multilingual democratic practice at the European Parliament.

The results of this study will suggest how particular orientations to the use of interpretation work for and against the overt goals of European multilingual democracy: economic prosperity and the preservation of peace. Articulating contemporary European identity as a function of language choice – located specifically in the use of interpretation – will demonstrate that people do not need to speak the same language in order to share an identity. This information will be useful to diplomats, language policymakers, interpreters and scholars/trainers in the field of interpretation, and those interested in effective democratic governance founded on assumed difference (cultural and linguistic heterogeneity), rather than on presumed similarity.

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