Stuff We Should Probably Know, But Don't

“So, is interpreting really complicated enough to need research?”

It’s an all too common question, especially from those who have never tried to do interpreting. For some reason, many people imagine that the work of translators and interpreters consists mainly of looking up words in bilingual dictionaries and stringing them together. If that is the case, then there really is no need for research. All we need to do is make sure that translators and interpreters have expensive enough dictionaries and leave them be.

Obviously, the truth isn’t quite as simple as that. There are a surprising number of questions that remain unanswered in both translation and interpreting, any one of which could be honed into the basis for a nice PhD proposal. Here are a few.

• How exactly does university-level training improve interpreting and/or translation performance?

It is an unspoken assumption that if you do a good university course in translation or interpreting, you will be a more able translator at the end. However, no one seems quite sure exactly how or even if this might work. Is it just a matter of providing space for targeted practice? Are there techniques that are only learned at university? Is it more about setting people up as lifelong learners? The list could go on.

• Do interpreters in different settings (international conferences, courts, business negotiations, hospitals, etc) use the same basic processing strategies?

We could easily imagine that “interpreting” is a single skill, which can be transferred to any setting. After all, all interpreters need good memory use, the ability to process several inputs at once and sensitivity to linguistic nuance. However, we already have research that points out that the demands placed on interpreters in different settings vary enormously. Does this mean that interpreting in different settings involves different processing strategies? If so, how would you know? A similar question could be asked about translating different kinds of documents. Do legal translators use the same skills as literary translators? If not, why not? If so, how could you tell?

• How exactly do translators and/or interpreters choose between different ways of translating the same phrase or term?

Anthony Pym has suggested that translators and interpreters will always try to minimise the amount of risk involved in any translation. So, if there is any ambiguity, they will tend towards literalism for fear of introducing unintended meaning. This seems plausible enough but does it actually represent the actual thought processes of those doing the work? What criteria do professional translators use when deciding how to translate something? What criteria do interpreters use? Does this change according to context or according to training? What effect might rates of pay or tiredness have on these decisions? How can we know how translators are making their decisions?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg. I am sure that any reader of this blog could create a much longer list than can be seen in this post. Only by research could we ever have answers to any of these questions, which each tell us something important about language and communication. One of the amazing things about research is that it would take a lifetime for any one person to answer any of these questions. By working together, breaking down these large problems into smaller chunks and sharing our results, we can begin to tackle them.