Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Interpreter's Accent

The interest shown in the recent post about interpreters' voices encourages me to write about a related topic: their accents.

In the case of Natural Interpreters, the matter can be dealt with summarily. Natural interpreters speak with their natural accent, that is to say their normal conversational accent. For one thing, they are probably unaware that it's an issue. And for another, they work in ad hoc circumstances where they wouldn't have the time or the ability to change it.

For Expert Interpreters, however, it may have far more impact.

Some years ago, when Queen Elizabeth of England, who's also head of state of Canada, visited Montreal, she tried to please her French Canadian subjects by making a short speech in their language. It was broadcast nationally. So it was accompanied by simultaneous interpretation because only a minority of English Canadians understand French. The broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, took care to engage a female interpreter with a mature voice. Nevertheless, they overlooked something else. Hardly had the broadcast started when the CBC began to receive phone calls of complaint – this was before the internet – from listeners who objected to hearing Her Majesty 'speak' English with an unmistakably Canadian accent. Let's call this effect of incompatible accents accent shock, by analogy with culture shock.

I myself felt it. When I emigrated from London to Montreal, I carried with me in my baggage my British accent. For a long while I didn't see it as a disadvantage. The standard BBC-type accent is well respected in Canada and in North America generally, so nobody suggested I change mine. Indeed I was approached by an eminent Polish economist to coach him in it, because he was a consultant to the United Nations, and the UNO bureaucracy – so he told me – preferred a British accent to an American one. So we swapped a veneer of British accent for the elements of cost benefit analysis. But when I took up conference interpreting I decided I had to modify it. It's a process, sometimes conscious but often not, called linguistic accommodation. I did it because it distracted listeners from giving their full attention to the speakers, and that shouldn't happen.

My awakening came at a three-day meeting of the Council of Ministers of Education, where I was the sole interpreter from French to English. Canada has no national ministry of education because, by its Constitution, education is an area to which each constituent province retains exclusive rights; nevertheless the provincial ministers meet several times a year to coordinate. The discussions take place in English except when the ministers from Quebec are speaking. Even if the latter do know English, politics require that they speak only in French, and only a minority of the other ministers understand French. So I had an attentive audience. At the last session of those meetings it was the custom for one of the ministers to say a few words of thanks to the interpreters. But on this occasion the minister added something unexpected. He said (paraphrase):
We thank the interpreters. But I must say I found it very odd to listen to my colleague from Quebec speaking English for these last three days with a perfect British accent.
And everybody laughed, so I knew he wasn't alone.

What other principles can we lay down for Experts besides avoiding accent shock of the above kind?

The great divide in English is between British, or British derived (eg Australian), and North American. As Oscar Wilde famously said, "The English and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language." Furthermore, on the British side, accent is particularly indicative socially and disapprovals are strong. The Guardian Unlimited recently asked readers if they had encountered prejudice because of their accent. The conclusion from their responses was that approved accents include those inculcated by a 'public school' plus Oxbridge university education and the so-called 'liberal' professions like law. Disapproved include 'working class' ones like those current in industrial cities like Glasgow or Manchester. The two last are also strongly marked geographically.
Your accent still goes to the heart of who you are. It locates you not just geographically, but economically and socially too.
Upwardly mobile people often 'iron out' their accent accordingly. Non-native TESOL teachers often remain blissfully ignorant of all this. But Expert Interpreters are supposed to be highly educated, well paid people working in national and international settings. They should sound like that and, once again, their trainers should pay attention to it.

To be continued. The continuation will touch on French and Spanish.

Press Association. Lincoln: Walking Dead accent shock. The Argus (UK), 4 October 2013. It's the only other occurrence Google could find of the term accent shock.
Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.
Lucy Mangan. The language barrier. Guardian Unlimited, 24 August 2013.



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