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June 10, 2005

discursive density: how many directions can I follow?!!

What am I going to say about Strasbourg Week 2? I may be too earnest for my own good! Interpreters use humor in many ways – to discharge stress, express cynicism, and enact intimacy. I’m not sure of the extent to which interpreters from each nationality do this – it is a characteristic of co-interpreter banter (from the same booth, especially) more than the one-on-one interviews with me, but most interpreters have used humor during the interviews to varying degrees.

The plenaries are a whirlwind (it wasn’t just my precipitous arrival from the U.S. last month). I rode the train to/from Brussels, so I’ve added that aspect of the scene to my short-term immersion in the swirl of EU organizational life. Perhaps someone has already done some work on the geographic terrain of “the organization” of the EU? I now imagine Brussels as the hub, with spokes extending to Luxembourg and Strasbourg. Then there is the distribution of tasks to the various extant organizations – the European Council, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Court of Justice, and no doubt others which haven’t emerged yet in the discourse. I’m still sorting out which are fully autonomous, which contributed directly to the emergence of the European Union, and which are spin-offs of the EU process. The sense I have now is of a few distinct endeavors initiated under separate and disconnected conditions and aims, which over time discovered (or constructed?) convergence in motivation and overall vision.

As frustrated as many Parliament interpreters are with a variety of aspects of the job (e.g., working conditions, bad English, the stress – mental and physical, the lack of comprehension among other EU staff - especially administration and accounting – concerning the actual work of interpreting, etc.), there is an incredible amount of passion for the job. The challenge of interpreting meaning in one language/culture to another language/culture, of contributing to “understanding” generates an on-going “kick.” This sensation compensates for (?), or, better (?) – is the reward for developing the strenuous levels of concentration necessary to operate “on the edge of consciousness just before schizophrenia.” Imagine taking on two (or more) roles, which must be acted spontaneously, in immediate succession, alternating and changing, following their particular thought and enunciation rhythms - not your own! – for extended periods of time on topics which you may or may not be prepared for (no documents, for instance, or not all of them), which are discussed in depth with reference to technicalities and/or presented against a political backdrop which one may or may not be aware of (such as an emerging salient national issue, a hot debate in a recent committee meeting or the enactment of a political group’s strategy concocted elsewhere than in your presence).

The theme of acting arose often – the notion of needing “to become” another person, to “get inside their head,” to understand and anticipate their thought process. When this happens, there is a ‘click’, the brain just ‘switches’ into a particular mode. This happens most readily when speakers use their mother tongue. The known linguistic structure of the language allows interpreters to comprehend and even anticipate the rhetorical moves a speaker may make. How one uses their mother tongue embodies clues as to their own logical processes. Interpreters use all these cues to read the intended meaning and repackage it for delivery in another language. The complaints against “globish,” “bad English,” “bad French” and (more rarely) “bad German,” are consistent across the board: speakers using “the English they think they know” structure their sentences in the grammar of their own mother tongue range> Unless one also knows the speaker’s mother tongue extremely well, it ranges from the difficult to the impossible to understand. Without combing through the @40 interviews to date for confirmation, I think every interpreter I’ve spoken with identified “globish” as a problem at one point or another.

I also began to learn about some historical moments in the history of conference interpreting. The profession counts its birth from the trials at Nuremberg, where interpreters’ were moved from immediate, face-to- face contact in the room “behind the glass” - into “the booth.” Of course there are all the moments of adding new languages, but many also note the impact of technology on the types and range of social interaction among interpreters and between Members of Parliament. I’ll have to pay attention when I do the transcriptions later, but I realized today that many interpreters describe themselves as “linguists”. This suggests that their intellectual identity revolves around languages - specifically their knowledge of languages, and interpreting is just (?) the material or tangible job that manifests the “intellectual achievement” of learning and working with multiple languages.

Something I definitely want to pursue is an evolution (some might say devolution) in the way “confidentiality” is understood. Historically, in the early days when the Parliament was smaller and new, people who worked there were able to exist and interact (at appropriate times) in both the specialized professional identity of “the interpreter” and the general and shared identity of being “a European citizen.” This wasn’t done irresponsibly – one only talked about the content of a meeting with 1) others who had been there and 2) after it was public (by being broadcast or otherwise made available to the press and the public). These days it’s hard to imagine an interpreter engaging directly with a politician about political views, strategy, language use, and/or any other kind of critical dialogue about the issue(s) of the day (except perhaps in private with a colleague or MEP who happened to be an intimate).

A crucial point that someone raised which I hadn’t considered yet is the personality typing of what I’ll roughly gloss as ‘extrovert’ and ‘introvert,’ He said interpreters are really shy people (others have said this as well), and that those I see socializing at The Swan Bar or otherwise hanging around the Parliament building are only part of the overall working team. I realize this division lends itself to a potential skewing of the discourse and hence the overall findings, because the interview pool has been almost exclusively drawn from those who do hang around Parliament. Those interpreters who leave the Parliament environs when they are between assignments may or may not generate the same general discursive shape in their musings about the work.

Posted by Steph at June 10, 2005 7:45 AM

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"I don't call myself a linguist. To me that is something else...We all have studied some linguistics but are more practical in our approach of language. At least I need to taste and feel the language. The languages I acquired are my tools just as for an acrobat flexible joints would be a tool. Strange metaphor, I guess you get my drift."

Posted by: confidential at June 12, 2005 2:42 PM

"I am not a linguist. I think linguists worry too much about the words, and not about the concepts."

Posted by: anon at June 13, 2005 2:22 PM

The categorization between introverts and extroverts may be too simple, "people are often both" and demonstrate these traits in different ways in varying situations.

Posted by: anon at June 13, 2005 3:16 PM

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