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May 27, 2005

"the language is faster and more superficial"

In my quest for themes among interpreters for the European Parliament, one I hope to pursue some more is the perspective of the longer-term interpreters of changes in the way MEPs talk. Thirty years ago, Parliament was solely a political body, designed for debate. Now, with the accrual of legislative power, it’s become “a technocratic body”. It seems to me that this, in and of itself, doesn’t have to necessarily lead to changes in the presentation or style of discourse, but according to a few people it has. They’ve noticed a certain amount of homogeneity emerging over the past years. On the one hand, this is attributed to a reduction in MEPs speaking extemporaneously; almost everyone speaks from prepared statements (which they read very fast, the bane of simultaneous interpretation). This homogeneity is described as a social process, of people becoming more “americanized” and seeking some amount of conformity to the structure – perhaps it is a parallel process with that of the structure of interpreters as the number of languages has increased?

For instance, the historical experience of the interpreters here was characterized as being rather like “a family.” Everyone pretty much had the chance to get to know everyone else, and there was a sense of trust in people’s individual judgments about (for instance) how to put teams together in the booth for particular meetings/topics/speakers. This was enabled because there was enough time to consider who would be the best match for primary speakers not just in terms of the required language profile, but in terms of content knowledge and experience in the setting (e.g., with that particular group or committee). Now, with the large jump in number of languages and consequently, number of interpreters (almost doubled!), there is much less space for careful decision-making of this kind and more reliance on “rules.” So if an individual interpreter fits the language profile needed they are assigned, period.

The effects of this ‘rule-induced efficiency’ are worrisome: reduced quality of interpretation is at the top of the list. And this isn’t just a simple equation of language source – language output as if in a dyad: what is becoming more frequent is the use of pivot. A pivot is what I’m used to calling (in sign language interpretation) a relay interpreter. We use this most frequently working with Certified Deaf Interpreters – Deaf individuals who take the non-deaf interpreters’ interpretation of a spoken text as “source” and rework it into a target language that is accessible to Deaf individuals whose language use is not standard (of which there are a number of varieties).

What is happening with the pivot in the EP is that a speaker’s original text is in a language that few interpreters know. (Most interpreters here know at least three languages, most know more and are learning more.) For instance, if a Czech speaker makes a statement, and there are only three booths with someone who has Czech has a passive language (meaning a language that they understand well enough to interpret into their working language), then every other booth (I counted 19 in the Brussels hemicycle on Wednesday) has to “tune in” to one of these three interpretations as their “source”. If it so happens that the three interpreters (in this hypothetical example) who know Czech are unfamiliar with the topic, or the particular MEP, or the context/history of the issue and personalities involved, or perhaps is a “medium” or relatively inexperienced interpreter instead of a “topnotch” interpreter – then any unfortunate reduction in quality of their interpretation sets the limit on what the rest of the interpreters can produce. This ripple effect can permeate not just the particular meeting, but, a) as the pivot continues to be used and b) discretion in job placements is discouraged by strict adherence to “rules” and c) the institution attempts to streamline working conditions to bring interpreters’ role into more alignment with other roles of EP employees…the entire capacity of the institution to serve as a venue for genuine debate on issues of political import declines.

Not everyone is pessimistic about this change, to some it seems inevitable and simply a reflection of the times. Some don’t see it as a cause for concern – as in a fear for individual job security, or for the persistence of the full language regime. In general, there seems to be a high degree of personal satisfaction in the job itself – which arguably ‘hasn’t changed at all” over the years. It is still about providing a service, of transmitting meaning, of occasionally “contributing to communication by giving people something that they would not otherwise have.” An example of this was a story about a Japanese-French interpreter who “changed the register” from their culturally appropriate flowery and elaborate greeting of respect (“On this day we bow before you….”) to the simple yet culturally appropriate and respect-equivalent target form of “Mr. Chairman…” The interpreter here doesn’t change the sense, but does change the register, “because the output matters so much.”

At any rate, where these musings began was with a sense that MEPs "vocabulary is getting smaller," that passion is reduced, what people are going to say is becoming "more and more predictable," and overall a diminishment of difference to fuel quality debate. This "impoverishment" is seen not just as a loss of interest in the task of interpreting per se, however there are times when the interpreter can [mentally] "go to sleep" and rely on "stock phrases" until something is said that is unpredictable and out-of-the-norm, causing one to "prick up one´s ears." That level of attention used to be the norm; it´s decrease in frequency is being noted with a mix of nostalgia and regret.

Posted by Steph at May 27, 2005 8:16 AM

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It occurs to me there may be some risk of insult or injury with any hypothetical example. As it stands, I have not yet met anyone from the Czech booth (I would like to!!) nor has anyone made ANY comment about ANY booth in particular or in general as being of any lesser quality than any others. In fact, one of the things I have been struck by is the high regard with which everyone seems to view their peers. I think distinctions drawn about different levels of work quality are just that - fine tuned distinctions evident to professionals who care pasionately about their work. Being professionals, there is also a critical sense of always wanting the best person possible for each and every situation - which seems quite regularly to be accompanied by a humble recognition that the "best" person may well be somebody else. (Which is not to imply there are no egos or competition, only that it is well-managed, at least from the view I have so far.)

Posted by: steph at May 28, 2005 10:44 AM

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