Monday, July 20, 2009

Danica Seleskovitch

Danica Seleskovitch (1921-2001) was a famous teacher of expert conference interpreting. She was also famous as a researcher and theorist. She founded the interpretation wing of the École Supérieure d’Interprètes et de Traducteurs (ESIT) at the University of Paris III and reigned over it for some 20 years.

As a theorist, she never tired of preaching the distinction between mechanically translating the linguistic expression from one language to another (which she called transcoding) and transposing the intended content of what was said, the deverbalised ‘message’ (which she called interpretation). Though in reality there is no sharp separation between the two and most translation is a hybrid of them, her dichotomy is a very useful construct for translation theory and teaching, and we used it in Harris & Sherwood 1978. Though it was not new – I was taught at school to “translate the ideas, not the words” – she added a suggestive twist to it: namely that the deverbalised message is represented in the interpreter’s mind in the same form as it is stored in medium or long-term memory. Hence the title of her magnum opus as a researcher, Langage, Langues et Mémoire (Paris, Minard, 1975).

There is a book-length biography of Danica, with a very good portrait photo of her on the cover, in Danica Seleskovitch: Interprète et témoin du XXe siècle by one of her numerous interpreter disciples, Anne-Marie Widlund-Fantini (Paris, L’Âge d’Homme, 2007). What follows is an anecdote about her.

In January 1980, I visited ESIT and was invited to give a talk to a small group of her graduate students. The topic I chose with missionary zeal was, naturally, Natural Translation. I was listened to politely, but I realized that NT was the antithesis of interpreting as she and her school understood it. They were only interested in the expert, professional kind. On the few occasions I bumped into her later, she didn’t mention my visit.

I worked as a conference interpreter myself in Canada until 1989, when I had to drop it due to illness. However, I made one comeback. That was in 1994. What revived me momentarily was a call to interpret at a conference at Winnipeg, the capital of the province of Manitoba in the centre of central Canada. Why Winnipeg? Well, most people think that French Canada is all in Eastern Canada, with its stronghold in Quebec. However, since the time of the French explorers, traders and missionaries in the 18th century, there have been outposts of French Canadians further west, and one of them is still the Winnipeg suburb of Saint Boniface, more than 2,000 kilometres from Quebec. It has a Catholic cathedral and an archbishop and – to cut a long story short –a university school of French/English translators. In 1994, the translation school at the Collège St Boniface organized a conference on Perspectives d’avenir en traduction (Future Prospects in Translation) and I was asked to interpret. Two things tempted me into accepting. First, the organiser of the interpretation at the conference was Denise Laporte Dawes, an old friend and a pioneer interpreter in Winnipeg. The other attraction was that the keynote speaker was to be none other than – Danica Seleskovitch.

By then Danica had retired too, but she was still in demand around the world for her incisive lectures. Though she was very fluent in English, she was at her best as a speaker in French, in fact a great pleasure to listen to. I was rusty and I don’t feel I rose to the occasion. Nevertheless, I had one moment of surprise satisfaction. Danica was telling how she had been on a trip to Africa, and how impressed she had been by the ability of some young boys who interpreted for her in a market. In other words, language brokering. I could not say she had seen the light, but I thought to myself that she had at least glimpsed it.

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