What are we measuring and why?

The more time I spend in this weird double-world of being a researcher and practitioner, the more I find myself asking questions of both. Such as, does it make sense to have an officially-sanctioned way into the profession that requires no socialisation? And should practitioners really care about wider trends that won’t affect them directly but might affect the profession as a whole? 

But by far my biggest question at the moment is this one: are researchers really measuring the things that matter? How would they even know? 

Of course, to answer that, you first have to define your terms. As a good research philosophical pragmatist (I’ll explain what that is one day), I would rewrite that question as: is the Translation and Interpreting research community creating and sharing knowledge that will have a positive effect on translation and interpreting practice or outcomes at some point in the near future? 

Now, I don’t want this post to wander into the wastelands of another theory vs. applied discussion, especially since the boundaries are fuzzy in our field. It’s easier, for example, to show someone how to apply skopos theory than to explain the implications of the latest results on relative clauses in translated legal corpora or on footing in medical interpreting. 

What I think is more interesting is to ask whether we might have missed vital variables in our analyses. For the most part, Interpreting Studies has borrowed it’s terms, theories and variables from other fields. Linguistics, psychology, sociology and Translation Studies have all shaped what we analyse and how but have we forgotten to ask why we should bother with research?

A Series of Unacademic Events

Since shortly before I graduated with my PhD in 2016, the events I attend have changed. Mostly gone are the deep theoretical seas of academic conferences. Initially, they were replaced with the jolly camaraderie of translation & interpreting conferences and now, increasingly, those conferences are in turn being overshadowed by the rolled-up sleeves of business networking, tradeshows and meetings on exporting.

Since I first dipped my toe in the world of business events, I have been surprised by the completely different attitude to interpreting “out there” in the big wide world of commerce. Not a single person has debated the meaning of “fidelity” or mused on interpreters’ “footing” or spoken on the nuts and bolts of working memory and central executive function. Why would they?

The actual questions and discussions have been far more pragmatic. “Interpreting is expensive and complicated. How do I get costs down?” “Where can I find interpreters?” “Since everyone speaks English, when and why would I need them?” “What results can I expect?” “Do you know anyone who speaks [insert language here]?”

These aren’t exactly questions of deep theory, at least not on the surface, but they are still important. We can mumble all we like about event typologies, hypertext skopos, corpus analysis and the like but unless and until we can show that these things correspond to something meaningful in the experience of interpreters and interpreting users, they are purely philosophical ideas. To quote Brian Baer, for our theories to be useful, they must be “moored to the fact” of interpreting.

Rethinking the Questions

Even “staying moored to the fact” of  interpreting is not enough. If research is really to make a difference, it might just have to lose its fixation with the act of interpreting and ask bigger, often uglier questions about what interpreting is really about. I used to be fond of saying that we love interpreting because of what it is; clients buy it because of what it does. It turns out to be a simplification but not by much.

When we untie ourselves from the concrete lump of our own existing terminology and categories and allow users to talk about interpreting on their terms, something amazing happens. While we have been quibbling over pragmatic markers, church leaders have been thinking through the implications of using interpreting to build unity across different cultural backgrounds, engineers have been using interpreting and diversity to boost problem-solving, and CEOs and CFOs have been checking that it is delivering Return On Investment.

We can respond that such concerns are the preserve of theologians, business scholars, and economists but they can and should be ours too. After all, most of us would bristle at the future of interpreting being decided by people who know nothing of its pain and glory. But unless we are prepared to get involved in those worlds, that is the future we are choosing. The future of our discipline is tied inescapably to the future of interpreting. The strategy behind our research should show we understand that.

And Translation

My own experience and expertise is in interpreting but I have been asked many of the same questions about translartion by the business owners I have met. Last week’s “@translationtalk” Twitter disscussion, led by Tim Gutteridge came to similar conclusions too.

If anything, and despite the much vaunted “sociological turn”, translation research has a history and reputation for being even more distanced from commercial realities than interpreting research. It’s a reputation that it no longer deserves but it lingers nonetheless.

Expanding the Spotlight

So what do we do about all this? Paradoxically, learning to ask the right questions may well mean expanding our view beyond our traditional focus on the mechanics, linguistics, pragmatics and cognitive gymnastics of what translators and interpreters do. To be of most use to translators and interpreters, we might have to get to a stage where translators and their translations, interpreters and their interpreted versions are no longer our sole focus.

If spending time in the “real world” has taught me anything, it’s that understanding why, how, when and for whom our work is used will bear much more fruit than simply examining the work itself. We shouldn’t be afraid to venture into the economics of translation and interpreting, defining and refining return on investment, examining its place in organisational and social dynamics, understanding it part in the value chains of organisations. We need to better understand which translation and interpreting delivery methods produce which kinds of commercial results in different contexts, what an “excellent” (and not just “competent”) translator and interpreter looks like and how their business relates to those of buyers.

As the only discipline(s) whose sole focus is translation and interpreting, we are the people best placed to really get to grips with what translation and interpreting means for business, education, health, religion, justice and the arts. And finding what it means necessarily means understanding its delivery, use, costs, alternatives and results.

Quite simply, we need to ask fewer questions of “texts” and far more of organisations, economies, companies and people. We drone on and on about how important translation and interpreting are, perhaps it’s time we better understood exactly what role it plays for people who will never read out theory books.

There is a huge potential for our research to make a real and lasting mark across every aspect of society. It’s up to us what happens next.


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