Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Church Interpreters 3 (continued): Norms and Mimicry

There was a striking contrast to be observed between the manner of the church interpreter at work just outside the Advanced School and the norm of professional conference interpreting being taught to the students inside. The norm in question rules that the interpreter should at all times remain dispassionate, calm and even in delivery, and above all maintain an impression of neutrality. Furthermore, the norm applies also to professional diplomatic interpreting, court interpreting and community interpreting (though some people dispute it in the last case).

It’s true there have been one or two notable exceptions to the rule. It was said of Paul Mantoux, who is generally regarded as the founder of modern conference interpreting for his role at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919:

"The official interpreter, Paul Mantoux, interpreted from French to English and back again throwing himself into each speech with such verve that one might have thought he was himself begging for territory." (MacMillan, Paris 1919, p. 54)
And in the old film about the United Nations interpreters in New York (Other Voices, c. 1975), one of the interpreters tells a story concerning the famous incident when Nikita Khrushchev took off a shoe at the General Assembly and banged it on the table. A Russian interpreter was so carried away that he too shouted, and banged the table in the interpreters’ booth until the water glasses jumped off. However, the interpreter who tells the story adds, “He was a bit of a ham. He’d been an opera singer before,” as if to underline that it was not the norm.

One might call such behaviour interpreter mimicry.

For the Cameroonian church interpreters like the one I heard there was no such norm. Or rather, the norm was reversed. The experience left me inclined to say, in imitation of Pope,
For norms of interpreting let fools contest;
Whate’er makes most compelling speech is best.


  1. Actually, it would seem that one of the norms of church interpreting is precisely to act as a "co-preacher." How far this goes is still to ve discovered but as someone who has worked in both "professional" and church interpreting, i can tell you that the difference between the two is the skopos. In the conference world, the skopos is often to persuade or inform using rhetoric or facts. In the church world, the skopos is something more akin to "live/demonstrate/perform the message." Thus, if the interpreter were to adopt the norms of conference interpreting in church, they would fail to fulfill the skopos. Similarly, if they were to adopt the norms of church interpreting in the conference hall, they would look like fools. Horses for courses really.

  2. Very interesting to hear from you, JD, that what I said about Cameroon goes for far-away Glasgow too.

    I agree that it’s due to what the theoreticians call skopos, i.e. function or purpose.

    Do you adapt your interpreting to Glaswegian? I ask because I read yesterday that “a London-based translation company is advertising for people with a knowledge of the Glaswegian dialect, accent and ‘nuances’ to help interpret for some of its baffled clients when they visit the Scottish city,” and that it has received more than 300 applications for the job so far!

    I have a story of my own about interpreting Glaswegian, but it has to do with professional conference interpreting so it’s not for this blog. However, I’ll gladly send it to you and anyone else who’s interested if you let me have an email address.

  3. Funnily enough, in church I go Engish->French; in professional work, I work mostly French->English. So, no, I don't adopt my interpreting to Glaswegian although, obviously, I have no problem with Glaswegian speakers.

    And before you ask, I did apply to that agency. I am looking forward to seeing what they say!

  4. The co-preacher matter goes as far a preferring a not so good male interpreter to a female interpreter if the preacher is a man. Much more so if it is consecutive interpreting.

  5. Thank you mr. I don't think it's deliberately sexist. Rather it's a matter of 'identifying' the interpreter with the speaker. One of the long-established conventions of conference interpreting is that such identifying isn't necessary; it's even permissible to switch over from a male to female interpreter or vice versa right in the middle of a long speech. However, 'identifying' turns up, for example, in TV interpreting.

  6. Apart from the work of Sari Hokkanen, I am not aware of the "co-preacher" role meaning a preference for the interpreter and preacher to be the same gender. Even in her work, I think it is more a hierarchical thing than a gender one.

    The precise workings of this role are also very different in different contexts, something I have hit in my thesis. Are you going to make it to NPIT2?

    Oh and for the record, I did get the Glaswegian interpreter job. It made national headlines. Lastly, sorry for being such a brash twerp in my earlier comments. One lives and learns!