Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Communication dynamics in a political group at the European Parliament

February 5th, 2009


“We are European! We have patience.”

My sense of urgency about coming to grips with transformations within the field of possibilities for professional interpretation is promoted by various factors, some of which I hope are transient while others are reaffirmed on nearly a daily basis.
One of these days a chapter will be published concerning a dominant theme of interpreter discourse four years ago at the European Parliament, “A Discourse of Danger and Loss: Interpreters on Interpreting for the European Parliament.” This year, Members of the European Parliament also refer to “bad English,” but few of the Members seem actually upset by it. The neutral label is “Brussels English.” The growth of a new argot arising from the interaction of various “Englishes” is inevitable; arguing against it is an outlet for frustration that does little to stop the erosive effect on conference interpreting in this exceptional house.
An announcement about interpretation was included in the “buro telegram” distributed within political group meetings last night:

In order not to prolong the chaos surrounding the 23 different official languages (largely underused) at ACP/EU meetings, a compromise has been reached between the General Secretariat and members of the assembly: translation will be carried out in 6 languages – English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese (+ where necessary, the language of the Council presidency). Interpreting into a particular language will only be carried out if at least 3 of the MPs in question confirm their attendance at the latest 2 weeks before the meeting.

My attention is drawn to two features of the language used in making this announcement: negative framing and conflation. “The chaos surrounding . . . largely underused [languages]” continues the negative framing of simultaneous interpretation services in the Parliament (and, by extension, within the European Union as a whole). The conflation caused by using the generic term “translation” to refer specifically to the provision of simultaneous interpreters is a lapse in diction at best, a foreshadowing of the extension of this limited regime to the actual provision of translated documents at worst.
Meanwhile many of the Members that I’ve spoken with describe constraints on the provision of interpretation services to working groups and delegations, and most are unaware of an experimental initiative piloted last year aimed at providing “personalized interpretation” to rapporteurs. I wonder how many Members may have asked their respective rapporteurs to use this service in order to develop understandings, negotiations, and compromises on matters relevant to their Committee work? I am also curious where the interpreters are in promoting assignments to these smaller-scale venues? The absence of interpreters in the “compromise” statement above may not indicate their literal absence from those negotiations (via appropriate representation), but it certainly reflects the low regard given institutionally to their professional expertise: if they did participate in the decision-making process, this is not transparent.
Please note that I specify institutional regard in the preceding statement! Members are generally satisfied with the high quality of service that is provided by interpreters at the European Parliament and appreciate the incredible task of coordination organized by the Interpreting Directorate. As far as being a tool, the system of simultaneous interpretation in its formal deployment seems to function as well as anyone expects it to. My questions and concerns have more to do with the dynamics surrounding talk about interpretation, and how these dynamics reflect societal trends concerning languages and multilingualism in general.
For instance, I was struck by two behaviors of language use that I observed in the political group meeting that I was allowed to attend. Overall, three languages were primary – French, English, and Italian. I would estimate that each language was used for roughly the same amount of time. Turn-taking was orderly; every now and then interjections were made into a Member’s speech, and on a few occasions there was a low-level background murmur as Members dis-attended the designated speaker to conduct private conversations with colleagues. The language of interjections did not always match the language of the designated speaker, nor was there any obvious pattern in the ways languages changed between speaker turns: sometimes Members used a language different than the speaker just before them and sometimes they used the same language as the speaker they followed. With more observation and attention to these details there may be patterns with significant implications. For now I will just mention the possibility of a relation between the two particular aspects that leapt into awareness as I listened.
First was the use of English to assert control. The meeting was called to order in English, and once most Members were paying attention the chairperson then switched to speaking in French. Later, when there was a spurt of quick interjections and repartee, the chair shifted back to English and continued in English, as did Members speaking from the floor, until the burst of energy was contained. English was used a third time in the group to overcome a rising tide of murmurs that swelled into the background during a Member’s somewhat lengthy turn (compared with the average time spent speaking up until that point, again estimated rather than timed).
This last occurrence caught my attention, because it was the first time I heard this particular speaker use English instead of Italian. The vice-chairperson had already spoken several times. I had at first assumed she was speaking French (and perhaps some of her turns at the very beginning while calling the meeting to order were in French), but as I watched the working interpreters (behind glass in their booths overlooking the room) I realized she was speaking Italian. It was a bit of a departure then, when she took up her turn following the colleague’s long statement and used a combination of the choice of English and a slight increase in volume to quiet the group and draw everyone back to the central, shared task.
Prior to the collective re-focusing of the group, I had noticed that the murmuring – which became louder and more pervasive than any which had preceded it – occurred while the language being spoken was English. As the side conversations increased I wondered – is there more permission and/or ability to be distracted during colleague’s use of English than during the use of other languages that may require Members to use the interpretation services? I noticed that very few of those present had their headphones on during this particular turn, and of those that were wearing them it is difficult to confirm whether they were actually listening to the interpretation or not, as the headphones were worn half-cocked (one ear on, one ear off) and/or their attention was directed to a laptop.
I will need to observe more frequently to confirm the following intuition, as there are competing possibilities for the significant drift of concentrated focus, such as disinterest in the particular topic being spoken about or a disaffection for the particular Member speaking, to name the two most obvious possibilities. Perhaps my assumption that the side conversations were deviations from the official topic is completely mistaken and the murmuring constituted serious consultation with colleagues concerning the nuances of the issue as Members thought through their own stances in relation to it?
I think the matter is worth much closer examination, because if the Members were talking about other issues than the one officially on the floor, and the reasons were not explicitly due to the nature of the topic or the speaker, then something peculiar may come into view concerning English as a language of control:

  • English is used authoritatively to command attention and
  • English is most readily escaped as the locus of attention.

I speculate: is it possible that the widespread familiarity with English – which allows one to avoid the headphones (and therefore any/all interpretation) – also enables the drifting of focused attention? If so, then one of the reasons for choosing interpretation over un-interpreted listening is to enhance individual commitment to the group task.

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