Saturday, February 2, 2013

Perfect Bilinguals. Interpreters as 'menials'

This is by way of an interlude while I prepare the continuation of the previous post.

Over at his blog The Liaison Interpreter, Lionel Dersot wonders what a perfect bilingual is. It's true there are several definitions, but my favourite description is the one I got from a doctoral thesis by a well-known French diplomatic interpreter, Christopher Thiéry. He proposed the following as a test protocol. Seriously.
1. Put the Subject (S) for 15 minutes among a group of native speakers of language A and get a conversation going. To avoid bias, the group mustn't include any acquaintances of S.

2. After the conversation, ask the participants (other than S of course) whether S is a native speaker of their language.

3. If so, put S for another 15 minutes among a group of native speakers of language B and repeat steps 1 and 2.

4. If both groups have answered in the affirmative, then S is a perfect bilingual. Simple and realistic.
Personally I don't think I'd pass in any of my second languages. Perhaps French on a good day. Thiéry, who studied Professional Expert Interpreters who were members of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), thought few of them would pass it; but I believe the results would be quite different with subjects from a naturally bilingual community.

Elsewhere Lionel recounts his efforts to encourage a good Japanese interpreting student who is inhibited by the way Japanese society regards liaison interpreters as 'menials'.
"I told her how derogatory interpreting in consec mode inside entities can be perceived. An enabler is a servant, an in-between, meaning for those acting as leaders a menial job."

Satow in the 1860s
This is by no means a new problem. Ernest Satow, a British Professional Expert diplomatic interpreter in Japan in the 1860s, was constantly annoyed by the low status which the Japanese accorded to interpreters.
"On one occasion, some Japanese officials at a conference had written up our official titles over the doors of the rooms intended for us, and mine had been rendered by 'tongue-officer,' a euphemism for interpreter; this I immediately had done away with, and my name substituted, for in Japan the office of interpreter at that time was looked upon as only fit for the lowest class of domestic servants, and no one of samurai rank would ever condescend to speak a foreign language. I had often to fight pretty hard with Japanese of rank to ensure being treated as something better than a valet or an orderly."
The problem was aggravated by the fact that interpreters were associated with foreign trade; up till then the Japanese had only needed interpreters to deal with the traders from overseas, and commerce was considered demeaning for samurai. Obviously the Japanese attitude to trade has changed a lot since then, but not their attitude to interpreters.

  • Lionel Dersot. A short course report. The Liaison Interpreter, 2013. Click here.
  • Christopher Thiéry. Bilingualism in Professional Conference Interpreters. Translated from French by Susan Stillinger. Monterey CA: Monterey Institute of International Studies, 1980.
  • Ernest Satow. A Diplomat in Japan: The Inner History of the Critical Years in the Evolution of Japan When the Ports Were Opened and the Monarchy Restored. London, 1921. One of the later editions is available here.
Yokahama Archives of History


  1. Very interesting story. Looks like this occupation is never going to die!

  2. Thank you very much to refer to my blog. I am confused. There are better qualified writers around on matters of interpreting. Ernest Satow saw it all quite a while ago, and right here in Japan.

  3. Yes, Satow was a long time ago. That's what makes my point, which is, "Plus ça change..." He was surely well qualified to talk about liaison interpreting. He had several years of 'front-line' experience at it in his early days in Japan, before he rose to the rank of ambassador. Anyway, more about Satow in my next post.

    As for Thiéry, he too had substantial liaison experience. I met him in Ottawa when he was accompanying Mitterrand, and he told me it was very interesting but very tiring because he was on call from six in the morning till past midnight. But I think he made a mistake in his thesis by generalising about bilingualism from his sampling of AIIC interpreters.

  4. Great Test Protocol…It reminded me of history between the 30’s and 40’s that recalled the protocols at each intervals during the emergency. The interpreters were associated with the business functions but as on current stage, a wide range of sectors need the professionals at every field to cope-up with the environment to make the communication path error-free.

  5. I write my PhD at the Department for Bilingual Studies at Stockholm Uni, and I have three children who are early bilinguals. These two things have dramatically changed my view on bilingualism and 'perfect bilingualism'. I am rather convinced that there are no such creature as a perfect bilingual. There are just bilinguals, with different levels of fluency or mastery of their languages. Although, I think that you can be a "double-A" interpreter, I think it's an illusion to believe that two languages have the exact same weight in all situations.

    The menial issue in interpreting is as relevant as ever. In homogeneous, monolingual societies such as my own or Lionel's, the bilingual is seen as a freak. I think that's part of the reason for interpreters having a low status, especially interpreters for the immigrant community. And that's also why many bilingual children are not seen as resourceful but (oh dreaded word) alingual.

  6. Plainly attitudes to bilinguals depend greatly on the society in which they live. It matters a lot whether the society is bilingual. Here, in a village near Valencia, about half the population of all ages is bilingual in Valencian and Spanish -- too many for them to be regarded as unnatural or alingual. In fact people don't think anything of it. What's more, most of the bilinguals are early bilinguals from having been exposed to the two languages at home and/or outside it from infancy. They may not be equally fluent at writing both languages, because under Franco Valencian wasn't taught in the schools. But in conversation, many of them would pass Thiéry's test. That's why I say that 'perfect bilinguals', in the sense of 'early bilinguals' and 'balanced bilinguals equally fluent in both languages', are NOT a rarity.

    But certainly it isn't necessary to be a 'perfect' bilingual in order to function as an interpreter.

  7. Bilingualism is not enough... Interpreters and translators must be familiar with the culture of the source and target language speakers as well. This also includes a good command of general and specialized vocabulary. Well, the test protocol proposed is very interesting.

  8. Dear language translation services,

    You're talking about the requirements for (Professional) Expert Translators. This blog, while it recognizes the existence of and need for such people, isn't concerned much with that level. It's focussed on translators who do NOT have training and who may even be limited to the cognitive world, knowledge and vocabulary of young children.

  9. Something else that I think us "elite professional interpreters" forget is that passing for what in AIIC would be considered a double-A requires speaking not just two languages on the same level, but also prestigious dialects of both languages. I've heard of rappers in the US who are capable of rapping spontaneously in both English and Spanish, for example. That must involve just as many cognitive processes as simultaneous interpreting. But you try to enter an English booth at the EU or the UN with African-American Vernacular English or a Spanish booth with even a moderate Puerto Rican one and see what happens. So ironically, the most bilingual people might be considered alingual by both groups, depending on which participants are selected.

  10. Yes, you're right, Jonathan, that accent counts. When I emigrated to Canada in the 1960s, I found from listeners' remarks about it that my British accent, though acceptable generally, stuck out like a sore thumb when I was interpreting, and I found it advisable to modify it to something mid-Atlantic. The problem arises between Canadian French and European French; some organisations won't accept the former especially if it's strong. (On French TV they even subtitle it.) So it's quite likely that conference interpreters take a biased view of what constitutes 'perfect' bilingualism and that they set it too high. However, there's no proof that I know of.