“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:However, Elisabeth Seitz didn't influence the messages so far as we know and didn't make any decisions for the parties.
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?'"
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.So what should we call the kind of Natural Interpreting that Elisabeth did?
2. The brokering is done on a regular basis. Whereas Elisabeth's press conference interpreting was a one-off event.
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).
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.