Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mea Culpa: 'language brokering'

This post is intended mainly for people doing research on Natural Translation.

Technical terms should be used with care and precision. As Michel Paradis warns us:
“Too many controversies over the past quarter century have been caused by a failure to stipulate what researchers meant by a word, and sometimes this was a word that referred to the very object of their research.”
It pains me, therefore, to have to do a mea culpa and confess to flagrant and repeated misuse of the term language brokering. Most recently in the post of 6 August about the interpreting done by athlete Elizabeth Seitz, which bore the title Olympic Language Brokering but wasn't.

So what is language brokering (LB)?

Let's go back to the beginning. The earliest use of LB that appears in my Bibliography of Natural Translation is in a 1995 article by Lucy Tse of the University of Southern California. She defined it as follows:
“Language brokering refers to interpretation and translation between linguistically and culturally different parties. Unlike formal interpreters and translators, however, language brokers influence the messages they convey and may act as a decision maker for one or both parties.
Thus the defining characteristics are that "brokers influence the messages they convey and may act as decision makers." Hence the use of brokering, as in to broker (i.e., to negotiate) an agreement. It follows that LB shouldn't be used as a synonym for mere interpreting, even if the interpreting is done between members of linguistically and culturally different communities and renders them a service. But that's what I've done.

Let's call Lucy's definition the 'strict sense'. A classic example of LB in that sense was reported in 'Translating as an innate skill' long before the term came into use. It concerned 'BS', the young daughter of an Italian immigrant to Canada:
"Hard bargaining is one of the 'games people play' in Italy. An admissible tactic in it there is to call one's adversary a fool. Not so in Canada. BS's father would use her to liaison interpret for him at bargaining sessions with non-Italians. Father would get worked up in the Italian style and become angry and upset. BS would attenuate his outbursts in her interpretations, even at the risk of drawing some of her father's anger on herself. It led to exchanges like this one:
     Father to BS: 'Digli que é un imbecille!' (Tell him he's a nitwit.)
     BS to 3rd party: 'My father won't accept your offer.'
     Father angrily in Italian: 'Why didn't you tell him what I told you?'"
However, Elisabeth Seitz didn't influence the messages so far as we know and didn't make any decisions for the parties.

My impression is that the requirements for influencing and decision making haven't been strictly adhered to subsequently; but that on the other hand two other characteristics have been added and were already implicit in Lucy's paper:
1. The brokering is typically done by a member of an immigrant community on behalf of family or friends who have to deal with the dominant community of the country.

2. The brokering is done on a regular basis. Whereas Elisabeth's press conference interpreting was a one-off event.
So what should we call the kind of Natural Interpreting that Elisabeth did?

Let's consider its characteristics:

  • It's done by Natural or Native (i.e., untrained) Translators.
  • It's done altruistically to help someone out on a particular occasion.
  • It's an unforeseen, unpremeditated reaction to the need, which may itself be unforeseen. The interpreter isn't prepared for it.
  • The interpreter and the people interpreted for don't necessarily know one another.
  • It's done in short consecutive mode (a sentence or two at a time) and is bi-directional (from one language to another and vice versa).
 Various possible terms for it have crossed my mind. Ad hoc interpreting, for instance? That captures the feature on a particular occasion, but it's is already in use as an old-fashioned synonym for liaison interpreting. Volunteer interpreting? It agrees with altruistically but it suggests something more organised, like interpreting for NGOs. Spontaneous interpreting? not quite, because it's a reaction to a need. Impromptu interpreting? It agrees with unforeseen, unprepared, and we could add natural to it to get impromptu natural interpreting. It doesn't capture all the characteristics listed, but words don't usually cover all the aspects of their referents. I'll settle for impromptu natural interpreting for the moment, but suggestions welcome.

Lucy Tse (University of Southern California). Language brokering among Latino adolescents: prevalence, attitudes, and school performance. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, vol. 17 (1995), no. 2, pp.180-193. Abstract and full text available here.
Michel Paradis. A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins, 2004. Abstract available here.
Brian Harris. An Annotated Chronological Bibliography of Natural Translation Studies with Native Translation and Language Brokering, 1913-2011. 45 p. Available free from
Brian Harris and Bianca Sherwood. Translating as an innate skill. In D. Gerver and W. H. Sinaiko, eds., Language Interpretation and Communication, Oxford and New York, Plenum, 1978, pp. 155-170. Available free from


  1. It appears to me that the example of language brokering done by ed 'BS' (the young daughter of an Italian immigrant to Canada), involves what missiologists would call "contextualization", or what marketers would call "localization". In both contextualization and localization one goes beyond straight interpretation to a reshaping the message to ensure that the target audience perceives its original purpose and impact, especially when a straight translation communicate a different purpose or have a different impact than the one intended.

  2. Quite agree with Ed and the way of describing things more precisely. To be fair language translation means the translation should be kept in the boundary of meaning with effective words of that language.

  3. Hi! You are done great job. You are sharing very nice and important information about language brokering in your post!

  4. Thank you for sorting out the terminology. As said earlier I have a problem with Language Brokering, but as it is defined by Tse in 1995 it's easier to accept. I'm still not happy with Language Brokering being used as overall term for Natural interpreting.

    In the case of Elisabeth I think impromptu natural interpreting is good.

  5. Thank you, Tolken. You're right: Language Brokering shouldn't be used as an overall term for Natural Interpreting. But a misunderstanding arose because of local circumstances in the USA. Marjorie Faulstich Orellana told me at Forli that she hadn't realised there were so many other forms of Natural Interpreting until she saw my Bibliography.

  6. Yes i have research on Natural Translation. And find the Financial Translation

  7. Hi! You are done great job. You are sharing very nice and important information about language brokering in your post!

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