Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Self-authorization and expectations of role

June 18th, 2005

It’s taken me this long to see it, but I do think there is a generational difference that is identifiable roughly along lines of experience as an interpreter. It’s more clear between those who’ve maintained a long career at the Parliament and those who are near the beginning, but there’s also overlap between the more experienced interpreters who worked for many years within their own countries before coming to Parliament and those who are EP veterans. The most basic way it’s shown up is in their explanations about getting here, to work at the Parliament. Older interpreters tend to describe a happenstance series of events, while younger interpreters describe academic and career trajectories. I’ll have to revisit the transcripts to see if this holds, but I think that few of the younger/newer interpreters describe their relationship to language, whereas almost all of the older/experienced interpreters bring it up spontaneously. At the least, my cumulative impression is that the language element receives varying degrees of emphasis. This orientation to/relationship with language might be a condition of possibility for certain kinds of subjectivity…hmm, it also may be an effect of globalization trends &emdash; particularly the spread of capitalism. In the cyclical way institutionalization works, these may be two sides of the same coin, and that “coin” may be a particular process of professionalization.
The challenge, then, is to identify the nodes of autonomy in these positions: where they overlap and diverge from each other as coherent perceptions (if not actually worldviews).

Obviously another readily drawn distinction is between the nine “new language countries” and the eleven “old languages.” Interpreters for both the so-called ‘old’ and ‘new’ languages generally regard each other’s work with respect, allowing for individual levels of expertise (some interpreters are excellent, some are good, and some are not). Every interpreter I’ve talked with expresses their own ambitions toward perfectionism and they all find inadequate source material to be the primary difficulty of the job &emdash; whether it’s the original produced by the speaker or a pivot interpretation produced by a colleague. They seem to all recognize limits placed upon the pivot interpreter if the original source material is badly organized, spoken with a heavy accent, or with a non-native language (unless the speaker is exceptionally fluent &emdash; a not completely uncommon possibility and yet definitely not the norm among MEPs). Of course, if one doesn’t know the language of the original message then one can’t always determine whether it’s the source or the interpretation that is inadequate. However, many interpreters are able to identify when their colleagues are struggling&emdash;the struggle itself often being indicative of difficulties within the source material (most frequently cited is the use of ‘bad English’).
When an interpreter is struggling, it seems the first thing to go is any kind of nuance, particularly implicit content that indicates irony, humor, or subtle hints of changes in stance or indicators of openings for negotiation. (These things are also usually &emdash; even originally – lost when an MEP chooses not to use their mother tongue.) A generational difference may be the relative importance assigned to the implicit elements of a message: newer/younger interpreters who’ve been officially trained might indicate a preference to focus exclusively upon the overt and explicit elements of a message. This is a very tentative hypothesis as I’ve only just become aware of the clues that may point toward this kind of orientation. Older/experienced interpreters seem more highly attuned to the necessity of the implicit as an integral component of the message &emdash; and may perhaps be willing to take more intellectual and linguistic risks to convey it. Again &emdash; don’t quote me on this!! But the evidence may be there in the 50+ hours of recorded talk. 🙂 We’ll see.
That kind of risk-taking, of being creative (a term variously defined, not to mention rejected by some and embraced by others as a characteristic of the work itself), of utilizing (stretching, expanding) the full range of language capacity is sometimes questioned by those who do it. Some older/experienced interpreters express some (not much, smile) self-doubt: speculating (via comparison to their younger colleagues) that perhaps their interpretations are somehow “less,” “not,” or otherwise “unprofessional”. Here is where I see the self-authorizing elements of the job (regarding language choice &emdash; diction, register, structure, use of analogy, adaptive strategies and techniques, etc.) being challenged by a definition of role that may be becoming more and more restricted and contained. By this I mean not only physically, as in “behind the glass” or in the talk of trying to establish remote interpreting through videoconferencing (horrors!), but also conceptually in terms of what interpreters are ‘allowed’ or ‘enabled’ to do with the languages (and – lest we forget – the interlocutors!) they are working between. In other words, what can be witnessed in the discourse of Parliament interpreters are ways that the possibilities of/for communication are being pre-shaped and pre-configured by changes in the way interpreters conceptualize and therefore approach the work.
Younger/newer interpreters are potentially more pragmatic about interpreting as a job, that is, as a specific role in an economic and political system which dictates the job’s limits and capacities. Some older/experienced interpreters also describe themselves as pragmatic &emdash; certainly in political terms but also in professional work-role terms. The qualitative difference, I suspect, comes down to orientations toward the use of language and interpreting as a means of communication rather than as a predominately symbolic service function in a large, essentially anonymous organization. I don’t mean to imply that younger/newer interpreters disbelieve in interpreting as a mode of actual communication, but it could be that their lack of experience (simply by virtue of age and historicity), and the conditions of their training within the present EU/world-system, prepares them to accept limits which older/experienced interpreters recognize as restricted, curtailed, and reduced.

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