Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

What are we trying to close?

June 3rd, 2009

Aptitude for Interpreting

“That’s a cheap shot!” The ethical and fine Prince of Significant Findings, was not completely flattered that I followed his choice of beer. He continued, “Follow my paradigm!” Oy, I thought to myself, wincing just a bit even though I knew full well that he was teasing, we’re in it now. Not long before I had told Brooke that I’m anti-cognition. She almost blinked. Almost. 😉 I was not scoring points for subtlety! Then there was Claudia (?), who laughed at me so hard she had tears in her eyes. At least I am able to be a source of amusement (although perhaps only to the sleep-deprived?)
I do respect history, but sometimes “my” history (the history I know combined with my own biography) overwhelms the awareness that other people’s history (what they know and have lived) may be premised upon other foundations. This skews the processing in my prefrontal cortex. (That’s the part that makes us really different from animals – its where we can forecast the ways things may play out in the future, i.e., “an experience simulator.”) Yet, it is always so, yes? You see parts of me that I cannot perceive, and somehow we manage to stumble on regardless.
Unfortunately I had to miss the first two sessions of the second day of the Aptitude for Interpreting conference, so this blogpost is incomplete. My apologies to everyone, although if there was very much math involved then I know at least a few people who entertained themselves by doing basic addition. Do the percentages add up? Yep, you’re right; I also did not stay for the hardcore methodological session. I understand (sortof) the compulsion to measure, but I am leery of a world in which we don’t question the invention of the language used to quantify it. (Someone has said that you can only deconstruct that which you love: see “footnote” below.)
I like Franz’ one-man operation to devise an aptitude test on the ‘what if’ assumption that one of these days the European Union is going to ask for one. And, in general, I agree that there is merit in trying to reduce curricular chaos, but (then again) only so much. Everything in nature operates within zones of uncertainty; why are interpreter trainer/researchers so intent upon its elimination? Yes, I know – there is the market and jobs and demands of the global economy, but what is the valued added of simultaneous interpretation? Can we name it in any kind of compelling way? It seems to me that the contested definition of the role of an interpreter during the performance of interpretation mirrors the contested value of interpretation for society writ large.
Dirk, who was such a good sport in providing a live demonstration of Franz’s test for us, also tossed out a challenge. What if someone provides a grammatically correct but contextually wrong solution that closes the sentence? (The test is a spoken narrative, read at a moderate pace, in which periodic sentences are incomplete. A pause ensues in which the test-taker has 5-7 seconds to generate as many possible endings as fits the grammar and content.) Franz agreed that the unexpected is a limitation; then got us all to laugh: “You would not believe what people will come up with, or how wrong they can be!” Dirk also asked how nonsense responses would be scored, and Franz (winning humor points again) replied, “Our subjects were very cooperative. I don’t know how to deal with people like you.”
Basically, “if you say something to complete the sentence then that’s an achievement.”
Let me draw out and rephrase a possible meaning in order to make it strange: one of the things that interpreters do is change the oral or gestural utterances of human speakers into the (spoken or signed) form of literary text, i.e., “complete the sentence.” Hmmmm. Why are we using written codes for language as a basis for measuring interpretational quality of spontaneous social interaction? I am not suggesting there is a ready alternative (which can only come about through a coordinated, collaborative effort), but is anyone else curious about the ramifications of celebrating the achievement of imposing form?
Another question I have is about the belief that, as someone stated during the Q&A, “a conference interpreter is one who can produce both simultaneous and consecutive interpretation.” Why? They are different skills; why must any given interpreter be held to a performance standard in both? Or, asked another way, if we are going to require that dual ability, why are we not equally requiring skill in the interpersonal (“whispering”-type) situations common to community interpreting as well as those apparently necessary in conference interpreting?
All of these divisions are arbitrary: one can explain the historical developments that seem to have caused them, but simply because they happened is no guarantee of social integrity. Chris and Jemina’s exchange about interpreters being “all things to all people” suggests that we haven’t adequately negotiated the boundaries about what it is we can, should, and/or are capable of doing. (Claudia’s upcoming book on self-protection may be informative in this regard; she was surprised by the finding that interpreters consistently use distancing techniques with interlocutors even when the conditions don’t obviously indicate the need.)
Generally, as we plunge along the p path to aptitude, is there room for critique of the end product?

Here’s what I’m trying to get at:

Much of the discourse during this first conference on Aptitude in Interpreting turns on value assumptions that, for instance, fast processing and the ability to complete thoughts logically based upon prior exposure to content are premier skills of the quality interpreter. First, it should be noted that closure has been described uncomplimentarily by interlocutors as “fill in the blank” interpreting, i.e., as what interpreters do when they don’t have a clue what the interlocutor just said. Second, the premises of familiarity and logic deny the possibility of creative dialogue: they keep the interpreter’s gaze upon the past rather than toward the future. When we practice closure, what we’re generally doing is providing the most common sentiment in relation to the topic or viewpoint or context. In other words, we’re perpetuating an already-established discourse – a completed conception of knowledge or way of orienting – rather than enabling the co-creation of anything new.
Another comment Dirk shared with me is that the way the test is designed, emphasizing completing sentences whose end is missing, works best with languages like German and Dutch – where the most meaningful action comes at the end. In other languages, such as English, where the action can occur anywhere, he mused that the test may not work as well. Franz gave a satisfying answer as to why gaps in the middle are not feasible, but Dirk’s observation reminds me that one of the puzzles I would like help with are differences of duration in uttering complete expressions in various languages. I heard an anecdote that it consistently takes longer to express the same thought in Dutch as in English. Does anyone know that reference? And is there similar information on any other languages or language combinations?
This may or may not be able to be cross-correlated with the time it takes people of different nationalities to clear security at US airports. Carmen shared a dame blanche with me and I’ll be happy to share dessert with her in the future but only if she continues to give the answers allowing immigration officials to prove that they asked the silly questions.
Prescribing closure as one of the basic interpreter performance skills has a range of effects. These effects are experienced and complimented by interlocutors. The cooperation of interpreters and interlocutors in authorizing closure contributes to the images and expectations of what interpretation can accomplish as a medium of intercultural communication.
Maybe this is the best we can do? But I am not convinced….


“In giving an account of his use of the word deconstruction Derrida gives the following explanation: “The undoing, decomposing, and desedimenting of structures, in a certain sense more historical than the structuralist movement it called into question, was not a negative operation. Rather than destroying it was also necessary to understand how an ‘ensemble’ was constituted and to reconstruct it to this end.” So deconstruction names something rather more powerful than simply undoing.”

from “Derrida and Deconstruction
scroll way down
retrieved 31 May 2009

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