Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

How does interpreting make the European Parliament special?

January 29th, 2009


There has never been as much peaceful cooperation among the governments and peoples of Europe as occurs within the structure of the European Union. “It is not so long ago,” I have been reminded regularly, “that we were killing each other.” Professional, simultaneous interpreters enact a cornerstone of the EU project innumerous times every single day, but the tangible outcomes of using interpreters are lost in rhetoric about multilingualism and the political nature of language use. The basic truth that everyone communicates best in his or her mother tongue is suppressed by extensive promotion of language learning and various regimes of “controlled multilingualism” administered by the European Institutions. The human desire for direct communication enables critique of interpreter errors, diluting focus on the long-term positive effects of sustaining linguistic diversity through the consistent, proactive use of simultaneous interpretation.
I spend a lot of time with professional interpreters, working as one myself between American Sign Language and English for communication among deaf and non-deaf people in the U.S., as well as attending international conferences and mingling with interpreters while conducting research. Much of my worldview has been shaped by my academic interpreter training program and professional continuing education. Most particularly, however, I have learned about interpreting from formal and informal conversations with Deaf people about their experiences of using interpreters in the communities where they live, work, pursue education and civic participation, raise children, and sometimes have to deal with medical and legal issues. Europeans seem not to know very much about the extensive professional training or widespread infrastructure of providing interpretation for Deaf persons that has been developed in the US, the UK, and Australia. This is a small point as far as my current research project goes, but it is relevant to the extent that there are viable other models “out there” for how to do professional simultaneous interpretation.
Having a point of contrast is useful. Be forewarned that I state the differences between “conference interpreting” at the European Parliament and “community interpreting” for deaf and non-deaf people in the U.S. in stark extremes in order to make certain that the distinctions are clear.
First and foremost, conference interpreting at the European Parliament is exclusively concerned with information. Community interpreting for the Deaf is also concerned with the exchange of facts, ideas, and opinions, but is equally – and sometimes more so – concerned with the social relations between participants. The use of professional community interpretation is a linguistic accommodation for institutional inequalities, and the interpreter is understood as a powerbroker not only of meaning, and also of present and future opportunities. By contrast, in the European Parliament interpreters are understood as necessary cogs in a bureaucratic machine: everyone hopes they don’t break down.
The “controlled multilingualism” of the European Parliament is a service provided to “bodies” – plenary sessions, political groups, and some working committees – not an accommodation for individual human beings. The language(s) are divorced from the people who speak them; one could go so far as to say that conference interpreting makes people irrelevant. For instance, this interpreter or that interpreter in the booth doesn’t matter (despite the fact that expertise in the area of discussion facilitates flow, and continuity over several meetings is the best guarantor of accuracy). Or suppose a Polish MEP and an Estonian MEP wish to jointly develop some particular agenda? No interpreter will be provided: perhaps one of them knows the other’s language enough to get by, or both know English to varying degrees, but neither equation enables their best persuasion or negotiation skills. Probably they must rely on the ability of their own assistants to translate written correspondence. Where is the dialogue and debate?
I offer these examples because they will be familiar, but the point I am most interested in is this separation of language from its speakers. Discourse analysts from various social scientific backgrounds debate the relative hierarchy of what language does to us (e.g., Blommaert, a sociolinguist), and what we do with language (e.g., Billig, a discursive psychologist). I am interested in a middle ground between these two extremes: developing ideas and applications concerning what we can ask language to do for us. One reason that interpreting at the European Parliament is special is the way it pigeonholes live human language into a tight modern technological box.
Yes, the preceding is a critique: there are problems with the systemic removal of the human from language-based communication. Offering this critique, however, is not to argue that the system should be done away with or even radically revised. Rather, what is needed is clarity concerning the circumstances when dis-embodied conference interpreting is effective for the purposes it is intended to serve, clear definitions of the other capabilities and possibilities created by using simultaneous interpretation, and guidelines for determining the circumstances when a community model is necessary to accomplish the important other things that language can do in multilingual, transnational societies and both domestic and international commerce. This leads to the more important reason why interpreting at the European Parliament is special: the Members of the European Parliament who depend upon conference interpretation to do their political work are the premiere experts on its use.

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