In Interpreting, the simplest questions are the hardest to answer

There are some thoughts and musings that just don’t fit either on my business blog or in a magazine or book. At least, not for now. Here’s one that doesn’t belong in those places but is still worth thinking about.

Pick any simple question about interpreting, like “What is good interpreting?” or “Which is better: simultaneous or consecutive?” or even, “can a conference interpreter jump into any conference on any subject?” and you will see a very sharp divide in responses.

On the one side, the dyed-in-the-wool practitioners will straightaway shoot back a response and get back on with their work. Case in point, I was recently in a Facebook discussion over whether translators should only work into their native languages (spoiler alert: researchers don’t know and would want to add all sorts of qualifiers before even attempting to answer the question) and one particular respondent berated me for even daring to question the standards and beg for exceptions.

We have standards and they are the ones we follow, was her response. We shouldn’t question them or we will weaken the profession.

It’s the same thing with most of the simple questions people might ask. The profession often has answers, of a sort, and will fight to preserve them from questioning, or else ignore any research that looks to be suspicious of those answers.

Fair enough. There are some discussions that are much better off happening behind closed doors and there is a lot of good to be had from staying with established ideas for as long as they seem to have real-world validity and use, at least until we know for sure that a new answer is better.

But the problem is that we are discovering, to our cost, that some simple answers might be damaging our profession.

Take the question about “what is good interpreting?”

Ask most professionals, especially those who have gained a lot of experience and their answer will mostly come down to “good interpreting is accurate interpreting and, when it counts, interpreting that sounds nice too.”

I have written far too much about the issues with that answer to go into detail here but, suffice to say, researchers have noticed that the simple answer to that simple questions creates as many new questions as it answers: not least of which is the question of what “accurate interpreting” is or could be, but I digress.

Most researchers in “interpreting quality” would first laugh slightly uncomfortably at the question and then go on to respond with lots of questions themselves. Or else, if they are in a hurry, they might say something about “good interpreting” being interpreting that does the job it is supposed to do for the people it is supposed to do it, following the norms under which it is expected be delivered.

A mouthful, I know but that longer answer actually covers a lot more ground than the standard answer and creates far more space for interpreters to think about and improve their work. In one (albeit long) sentence, interpreters can suddenly see that they are not just linguistic beasts but social and intentional animals. And once they realise that, whole new vistas open up for them to improve their skills.

Even still, being a researcher in interpreting means living with a huge amount of “I don’t know”s, especially in the areas that seem simple. We don’t actually know if you are better off interpreting into or out of your A language, despite lots of trying. We are still exploring exactly what changes when an interpreter is in a meeting or at a conference. We are still trying to figure out how interpreters do what they do and how they can improve. And as for specialisation: well, we haven’t really attempted to pin down the economics of that, let alone the process of getting there.

When I first started in research, I thought I would become some kind of expert, with lots of things to teach people. And, yes, I have learned a lot. But a lot of what I have learned is just how much we don’t know and how many things are actually really difficult to find out. I have figured out, however, that when it comes to interpreting, Occam’s razor turns out to be pretty blunt. The standard, quick answers that float around the profession simply mask the sheer complexity of what we do and how we do it. Some of them are great for starters but there is a whole lot more to discover.



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