A Defence of Interp’laining

In a recent post on Adrian Dreshel, sorry Alexander Drechsel’s blog, a guest writer called Daniel, sorry David introduces us to a new term. He uses the term “interp’laining” to describe the annoying habit that interpreters have of correcting errant journalists who dare to call them “translators”. The argument against it is all the more persuasive for being presented in the first person.

Faced with a swarm of irate interpreters pointing out the rather picky difference between them and their translator brethren and sistren, hard-working busy journalists are likely to dismiss it as a fit of pique. Since hardly anyone cares about that stuff anyway, such nagging is likely to get us no more than a commitment to wind us up more in future.

It certainly is convincing stuff. But in the interests of balanced reporting and also because I feel like playing translator’s advocate, I would like to make a case for the defence. So, with your leave, your honours, I shall begin.

The most basic defence of the act of interp’laining is that, contrary to the belief of some, getting the details right still matters in journalism. While I might be forgiven for writing “Adrian” instead of “Alexander” and “Daniel” instead of “David”, there is no doubt that doing weakens my argument and decreases my credibility. What sort of two-bit hack would say that the UK Prime Minister is Tessa Mao?

At a time when trust in journalism is being eroded due to fake news and scandal, getting the details right is something that astute readers should expect of journalists and their sub-editors. Would people still trust the Financial Times if the paper started using “accountant” and “auditor” interchangeably?

The second line of argument in defence of interp’laining is that it is all about recognition. Imagine that David had worked for weeks on a juicy scoop, trading family time for interviews. How would he feel if, instead of appearing under his byline, the story was credited to his desk-based data journalist colleague who spent those weeks in the office, drinking warm coffee?

Translating and interpreting are both incredibly demanding professions. But they are different professions and attributing the work of one to the other is the same as a misattributed byline. It credits the work to the wrong person or the wrong profession. It’s little wonder that some interpreters get irked about it.

Just how annoying it is will likely depend on the status of the interpreter concerned. As a conference interpreter with the privilege of negotiating rates for each assignment and having semi-protected conditions, it may be no more annoying to me than a pesky fly in a Michelin-starred restaurant. For interpreters already fighting battles for recognition, humane treatment and decent pay, the same terminological slip could easily be read as yet another slap in the face.

Let us not forget that even in the age of blogging, journalists do have power. The discussion over how to name ISIL/ISIS/IS reminds us that what journalists call a thing affects its perceived legitimacy. Guardian readers will no doubt view Remain-leaning MPs differently from readers of the Daily Express, who are confronted with Remoaners. The label used for those who work between spoken and signed languages can either help to legitimise their work as professionals or further marginalise it.

No good defence case and no good press story would be complete without emotional appeal. Journalists and interpreters have a long history together. Modern international journalism would not even be possible without the work of interpreters. Award-winning war correspondants have lived and died next to the interpreters who enabled them to get those heart-rending stories. Given the sacrifices made by interpreters in the name of journalism, for stories that will never mention them, are they not owed the human courtesy of journalists taking the three seconds necessary to write the right job title for them? Is it really too much bother?

Of course, the case for journalists getting it right is stronger than the case for interp’laining itself. Does any of this justify interpreters invading the Letters page or swamping poor journalist’s twitter feeds?

I really don’t have an answer to that but I do know that we would be a lot better off having journalists as allies and not enemies. Perhaps that is what interp’laining is really about. In a world where interpreting and good journalism are both under threat, perhaps what we really yearn for is understanding on both sides.


2 thoughts on “A Defence of Interp’laining

  1. Early in the profession, in my homeland, all we did was call those services written translation or oral translation. It worked. When I came to the US, I learned about “interpreting” and “interpreter”. “Interpreter” is just another string of letters with an arbitrary meaning, for people who are not in the profession; for those in the profession, it is a very important defining word. Who wins? They want the service. I want the experience and the money. I understand both sides, but I am not sure the fight is really worth it. Thank you for the good reading.

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