Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

“We usually talk about food and sex.”

May 13th, 2005

It may have been quite the sacrifice &emdash; not to mention my loss! &emdash; for my informants to agree to converse with me during their down time about their experiences as interpreters at the European Parliament. I am grateful, and have I ever learned a lot! It feels a bit odd to use that phrase, “my informants”, as there is certainly no possessive component except for the individual willingness to join an investigation of interpreter’s worldviews: “to get inside interpreters’ heads”, as one participant put it. 🙂 And “informants” is so technical (down with technicality!) . . . in social scientific terms it is accurate (for this initial stage), but it isn’t the kind of research model I wish to invoke. I hope several of the interpreters who spoke with me over the past three days (and any who choose to join this conversation, publicly here, or by private email to me) will become participating researchers and engage proactively with me/us in not only interpreting (!) the discursive data but also in formulating questions and desirable outcomes of this particularly situated study. In other words, to deliberately and dialogically co-construct knowledge regarding the role, values, paradoxes, pleasures, ambitions, frustrations, etcetera of the job (it IS a job).
I hope no one is “put off” by the informality here. Of course some of my academic-ese comes through, but ideally this is just another venue for chat. 🙂

Since I’ve been in school the past several years I haven’t been able to attend as many sign language interpreter’s professional development seminars and workshops, but I find myself immersed in a similar environment here &emdash; that kind of collegial comfort which emerges under the “fire” of this profession. Many basic elements are exactly the same &emdash; inarticulate speakers (those who mumble, tangentialize incessantly, choose to use their typically inadequate second or third language rather than their mother tongue, read from previously written text at extraordinarily rapid rates, etc); periodic lack of proper preparatory materials and adequate working conditions (“I craved a chair!”); in-house jargon such as “in the booth”, “on this side of the glass”, “on the other side of the glass”; and the personal satisfactions of a job well-done.
The broadest categories that became immediately apprehendable to me as an outsider, (“We don’t get many Americans around here”), are three types of interpreting: conference, community, and whispering. Whispering? It may be literal “whispering into the ear” of a delegate or MEP (Member of Parliament), but it encompasses any interpreting done without augmentive equipment &emdash; in other words, the kind of interpreting sign language interpreters utilize most often. This type of interpreting is usually done “on missions” &emdash; when delegates (MEPs) travel for various purposes.
Conference interpreters are either functionnaires – staff interpreters, or freelancers who also work on the private (free, open) market. Hardly anyone who works at the European Parliament works in the community proper &emdash; not for social service/welfare agencies or hospitals/medical settings. (Note: “the community” is a phrase which is locally used to denote the (political) “European community” &emdash; the institutionalized and imagined entity more so than a neighborhood or group of people who interact during everyday living.) A few have worked for the legal system, but not many. There are historical in-house divisions among the European institutions (some of this is now changing, albeit slowly). Functionnaires are employed specifically by one institution; freelancers are more likely to work in multiple venues. Of course, some interpreters were previously freelancers and are now staff, and vice-versa.
The term community interpreting was used spontaneously by some, and understood by others when I used it, but most commonly the primary distinction was between conference interpreters and those who work in the free market. The free market has its pros and cons, and it is here that the “grey market” exists. The grey market is a form of competitive provision of interpreting services that undercuts the professional ranks by charging lower fees and working in sub-optimal conditions. Interpreters are pushed into the grey market primarily by the need to gain experience. Clients include NGOs, corporations, academic (?) and political conferences … potentially anyone who needs to provide interpreting services on a very tight budget.

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