What if Interpreting Studies had started without Conference Interpreting?

It’s the 1950s and much of the world is recovering from the pain of the Second World War. In a desperate attempt to rebuild and stop future conflict, international organisations are springing up. The United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Coal and Steel Community, and other all get their start in the late 1940s and early 1950s. All of them had to deal with the reality of a world without a single international language of diplomacy. All of them needed interpreters.

Fresh from the success of the Nuremberg War Trials, simultaneous conference interpreting became the chosen instrument of large-scale international diplomacy. Sure, it had debuted much earlier, at a meeting of the International Labour Organisation but the sudden surge in international co-operation cemented its place on the world stage.

With the growth of this new mode came the concomitant need to train interpreters. And with the need to train interpreters came the need to think about and research interpreting. While it wouldn’t get its name for decades to come, work that now recognisably belongs to the field of Interpreting Studies can be traced back to the pragmatic need to train interpreters for these international organisations.

Interpreting Studies was born in the halls of diplomacy and international politics and for many years, it stayed there. Faced with the need to build trust with highly important political clients, interpreters built codes of conduct that would look to casual readers like a civil servant’s playbook. Neutrality, confidentiality (or professional secrecy), and professional preparation became watchwords for professionalism. Not until the 1990s would there be any serious criticism of these three tents and when it did come, the criticism would come from work far away from the conference halls.

So what would Interpreting Studies look like without Conference Interpreting?

While conference interpreters where firmly ensconced in their elite positions as allies of international diplomacy, the majority of interpreting had to go without professionalisation and without recognition. In families, schools, hospitals, courts and medical centres, interpreters without training and often without pay, would work hard to give people access to justice, healthcare and education. Eventually, professionalisation of a sort would come and in many countries, conference interpreting would be the model but these new professional interpreters would eventually come to a very different view about foundations of their profession.

Conference interpreting gave us neutrality and a heavily (psycho-)linguistic view of the work of interpreters. Community interpreting and legal interpreting taught us about situational ethics, conversational dynamics, rotating roles and gatekeeping. Conference interpreters took refuge in professional invisibility. Community interpreters mused over what to do with inherent interpreter visibility.

Take sign language interpreting – a form of interpreting involving signed languages which crosses over all of the traditional barriers of setting and mode that Interpreting Studies ever tried to erect, rendering them practically moot. In sign language interpreting power imbalances, interpreter responsibility, the need for register shifts and ethical decision-making are baked in. When the work of Cynthia Roy (among others) met spoken Interpreting Studies, suddenly new vistas opened up. Interpreters became people more than language cognition machines or content relay circuits.

Interpreting Studies without conference interpreting may have started with the realisation that interpreted events are qualitatively different to monolingual ones. It may have begun with the view of interpreters as active participants rather than concentrating on how they relay content as accurately as possible through deverbalisation.

Or it may never have started at all.

Did Interpreting Studies need Conference Interpreting?

Just as I wrote yesterday about Translation Studies, it is important to realise that the existence of a field can often be reliant upon it managing to grab early power and prestige from somewhere. Early Translation Studies did that by growing within (Comparative) Literature departments. It is possible that Interpreting Studies owes its existence precisely to the prestige conference interpreting managed to win and the ongoing training need.

Conference interpreting gave Interpreting Studies its existence and its first conceptual map. In doing so, it passed down an inheritance to other forms of interpreting looking to professionalise.

The New Generation Moves Away from Home

Until it all broke down.

Compare the ethical writings of the National Council for Interpreters in Health Care in the USA with those of AIIC (the International Association of Conference Interpreters) and you will see much more fluidity in the role ascribed to interpreters. Whereas AIIC asks interpreters to “make the audience forget they are listening to the interpreter”, the NCIHC over a panoply of potential roles for the interpreter, some more visible than others.

Healthcare interpreters, community interpreters and even legal interpreters would find that they needed much more nuanced and complex statements of their work than conference interpreting had given them. Both professional practice and research saw much more complexity in the work of interpreters than could be dealt with in the structures created by conference interpreting.

Rethinking Interpreting

While eventually these changes would filter back into examinations of conference interpreting to the point where it is now questionable whether the traditional division of interpreting according to setting actually makes theoretical sense, the process would not be quick or painless. Even while I was doing my PhD, academic conferences would often be split along conference/community lines and the words “well, that only applies to community interpreting and doesn’t really apply to conference work” would oft be heard in lecture theatres.

Since the mid-2000s with the work of Ebru Diriker, Morven Beaton-Thome, and Claudia Monacelli the dam has finally burst, even if some researchers I met during my PhD liked to still pretend they were high and dry.

Had Interpreting Studies been born in the white heat of the doctor’s office or court, we might have gotten to the social role of the interpreter much quicker. We might also still be struggling for prestige and independent existence. Interpreting Studies has struggled to find its own theories; begging, borrowing and stealing from elsewhere as necessary. Perhaps it might have found longer-lasting ones in schools or psychologists’ offices. We will never know but we do know that, from the moment we realised that interpreting was interpreting, wherever it takes place and whoever does it, our research suddenly became more practical and powerful.

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2 thoughts on “What if Interpreting Studies had started without Conference Interpreting?

  1. Dear Jonathan,

    There’s a lot of truth in what you say, and it was partly as a reaction to the dominance of conference interpreting (CI) that I co-founded the Critical Link conferences with Diana Abrahams in the 90s. Yet it’s not the whole story. With community interpreting came dialogue interpreting, as opposed to conference interpreting, which is largely one-way. Also the eternal argument between strict adherence to the source speech and cultural explanation and expansion. With dialogue interpreting came short consecutive as opposed to the simultaneous and long consecutive that typify CI, though this has been under-represented. And more recently ‘natural’ versus ‘professional’, leading to the four NPIT conferences. That CI dominated was largely due to one man, Paul Mantoux, the centennial of whose brilliant performance at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 we should be celebrating next year.

    1. Thank you for your kind and insightful comments. I do find it fascinating that it was only with the growth of research into Community and then Non-Professional interpreting that conference interpreting discovered ethical decision making and the participatory role of the interpreter. If Critical Link, rather than say, the Paris School had led the lines, who knows what the difference might have been.

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