To See Ourselves as Others See Us

On Burns day (25th January) Heriot-Watt had a visit from Dr Julie Boéri of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona for her lecture on the Sociology of Translation and Interpreting. Dr Boéri took us on a journey from the Nuremberg War Trials to World Social Fora to explore just how interpreters see themselves and their profession.

Her main objective was to explore whether the world of professional interpreting, with its fixed standards and inherited traditions was in opposition to the world of activism, with its disregard for rules and attempts to build something different. In court interpreting, as we discussed last week, these worlds sometimes meet. Professional and social concerns can and do merge into one when the profession seems to be threatened.

In conference interpreting, on the other hand, long-term strategies for increasing the status of interpreters, led by AIIC (the International Association of Conference Interpreters), have tended to emphasise how interpreters need to build up a repertoire of complex skills. It wouldn’t take long for them to say that the only place to obtain these skills was in a university that had AIIC-approved experts doing the teaching. The profession was then built on the model of people gaining expertise by learning from experts.

As ever, things aren’t quite as simple as they might seem. Apparently, there are many professionals who choose to work for BABELS, an activist organisation offering volunteer interpreting, and many other professionals who choose to donate some of their time to NGOs. This means that volunteer interpreting is not necessarily worse than paid interpreting and neither does paid interpreting have to mean that the interpreter is not committed to what they are saying.

Perhaps the real problem then isn’t the barrier between paid and volunteer interpreting but between “professional” (i.e. neutral) interpreting and “activist” interpreting. Even here, I am sure readers will be able to think of examples that see the two merged together. What would we call it if a committed environmentalist was paid to interpret for a large ecological NGO? Would they see their role as the neutral professional or would they be an activist, simply because they support their client when they are outside the booth? Is it even reasonable to say that interpreters can ever be truly neutral? Don’t all interpreters enter the booth with pre-conceived ideas and preferences that will always appear somehow in their output?

How do you see yourself? Are you an activist translator or interpreter? Do you think language professionals should always be neutral? Do you know or care how your clients see your role? As always, we look forward to reading your comments.

Jonathan Downie

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