Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

“the biggest professional community in the world”

June 3rd, 2005

“Even if language forms are similar or identical, the way in which they get inserted in social actions may differ significantly and, consequently, there may be huge differences in what these (similar or identical) forms do in real societies” (italics in original, Blommaert, 71).
I think interpreters know this. It may be intuitive knowledge, esoteric rather than empirical. Occasionally there is a story told as a heuristic, but more often it is something interpreters describe as a feeling: when they know they’ve done a good job for instance, because they’ve elicited the same response in the receivers of the interpreted message as those who received in the same language as the speaker. In other words, the function of the message has been delivered, as measured by its effect…?…or by the internal (subjective) self-assessment of equivalence? (And would the latter be necessarily “less” than the former?)
The rest is a melange –

All of the critiques of “globish,” “broken English,” and even “crap French,” refer to the reduced vocabulary and limited range of forms that people reproduce because it’s what they know how to say (the form), rather than necessarily what they mean to say or intend to convey. The interpreters who have worked here for 20 or 30 years notice a difference in the kind of speech produced and delivered by the MEPs (Members of Parliament). Most obviously, many of the speeches are now read rather than delivered spontaneously. This creates logistical problems, as the human mind can only process meaning, decode, recode, and redeliver it, within the constraints of consciousness. Speeches in plenary are often delivered to national audiences instead of to each other, so there may or may not be people present who are actually listening &emdash; although interpreters serve the press as well as the interlocutors and these sessions are televised and recorded: the interpreted word is no longer ephemeral. However, there is another, deeper change to language production that they were lamenting – a deadening, narrowing, flattening…this will be quite fascinating to parse out. (Note: I have a contradictory post on the relevance of form.)
There seems to be a general sense of surprise at how well the integration of the ten new languages has gone. There are critiques and concerns, of course, but few have expressed dismay, disappointment, or discouragement with how it’s working. Indeed, almost everyone says it is working, recognizing this as quite an achievement. Many attribute this directly to the skill of the new interpreters working with the new languages. It doesn’t mean that the system is “fuss free”, or that every interpreter is without fault, but that overall &emdash; with latitude for the inevitable “bad day” and relative inexperience (whether younger in age/experience or new to the Parliament setting) &emdash; simultaneous interpreting into twenty-plus languages is occurring on a near daily basis!
Language combinations matter a great deal. Typically, one needs five languages to be considered seriously for work here. The criteria are less strict for the new languages because not so many people know them yet; these are an active (and competitive) area of recruitment. Language combinations are “usual” or “cool”; French terms regularly are used in otherwise English discourse (for instance, with me), and occasionally phrases in other languages arise as exemplars of a particular point or simply the best way to express a desired meaning.
I have noticed, several times, how focused and ‘on task’ the “interviewees” have been &emdash; very often after an illustration or tangent they will recall the original question and refer back to it, wrapping up the point of their story with an explicit reference to the question or comment that initiated the story. It is a rather amazing demonstration of conscious concentration, of mental discipline and the honed ability to concentrate on meaning and intention. Talk about phenomenology!
Other patterns: at least half the interpreters I’ve spoken with describe themselves as atypical.
Many are visibly puzzled by the phrase “community interpreting”; some admit they’ve never even thought about it &emdash; usually due to lack of exposure.
Almost everyone I’ve spoken with finds genuine pleasure in the job itself, despite its stresses and the difficulties of the system. There is a great deal of consistency in the descriptions of the work as “a service”, accompanied by expansions on how it is to be done &emdash; such as unobtrusively with the goal of invisibility.
Trust comes up quite often: among colleagues, and from the clients in terms of their perception of the quality of work provided.
Contrasts are drawn between missions and work in the institutional buildings proper, with varying preferences and identified pros/cons of each type.
Political views vary considerably, although I have yet to speak with anyone who seems very far right. Many express some level of disapproval or distaste for forms of xenophobia. (Although these speakers may be fun to interpret because they articulate well and powerfully; or something to be endured as an inevitable part of the job.)
Being curious is the top generalized interpreter characteristic, followed closely by being talkative and having a love for/interest in languages.
The freelance:functionairre preference seems to boil down to one’s personal desire for freedom or security.
There is are two oppositional patterns in perceptions of the kind of work done in the Parliament compared with that done other places. I’ll need to pore over the data carefully to discern any ‘sense’ of this. Some regard Parliament as the hardest and most challenging venue because of the range of topics and issues that are addressed; others see that these conversations happen within certain confines, hence simplifying the job in comparison with work in the private market.
The ‘technical/political’ distinction between the work at the European Commission compared to Parliament continues to hold up, with people preferring one type over the other for reasons that appear similar and different on the surface.
One surprising area of agreement has to do with relative importance of the job of interpreting in which particular contexts. Most have stated outright that interpreting is probably more important in the community than in the EU institutions! The reason is fairly consistent &emdash; community interpreting touches peoples’ lives directly, it “has to do with survival.” In the Parliament, it is largely symbolic (which most have argued has tremendous meaning in and of itself), and most obviously contributes efficiency: interpreting aids communication and decision-making by being quicker than direct second or third language interactions and by reducing misunderstanding.
It will take some time to organize the list of intrinsic values identified regarding mother tongue usage, but it is extensive. So too is the list of criteria distinguishing when interpreting is preferable to direct communication via a lingua franca.
Pragmatically, many perceive a trend toward language loss over time (as in the reduction of mother tongue use in various arenas of human endeavor and subsequent reductions in vocabularies and distinct worldviews). Almost everyone expresses sadness about this. “It’s a pity,” and “It would be a pity,” are common reactions. At the same time, few admit to concern regarding the continuation of their own mother tongue, regardless of whether it is a “smaller” or “larger” language (determined by number of native speakers).
A last tidbit: older members of the EU refer to “enlargement”, and newer members refer to “ascension.”

1 Comment

Categories: Interpreting

One Response to ““the biggest professional community in the world””

  1. confidential says:

    Possible Freudian (ethnocentric?) mis-hearing:
    “Are you sure they didn’t say ‘accession’, as in ‘a new member state has acceded to the EU'”?

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