Sunday, June 15, 2014

Church Interpreting and The Philosopher’s Stone

This is a guest post by Jonathan Downie of Edinburgh. Jonathan is a Professional Conference Interpreter who also does interpreting in churches. He is a postgradúate student of Heriot-Watt University, and he was responsible for coordinating the church interpreting sessions at the NPIT1 and NPIT2 conferences. So he’s an expert on it and it’s a privilege to have this contribution from him.
Other relevant guest posts welcome.

It’s a bit odd, if you really think about it. The (now thankfully outmoded) tradition for training conference interpreters is to make them work really hard to make their work go unnoticed. Impartiality, completeness and even appeals to secrecy mean that the archetypal conference interpreter is one who lets you pretend that they don’t exist. The philosopher’s stone of interpreting is to be so smooth and clean that clients can lie back and imagine that they are actually listening to a speech produced in their language.

Walk round the corner from the conference hall to the local international church and the picture changes completely. Across four continents, nine countries, and numerous denominations, research in church interpreting is beginning to paint a picture of a kind of interpreting that is visible, powerful and unavoidably changes the context in which it appears.

Take the work of Cécile Vigouroux on interpreting in a church in South Africa. Here the interpreting is not only carried out sentence-by-sentence on-stage but it functions as a symbol (perhaps only a symbol, go read her article) of the openness of the church to the English-speakers in the surrounding community. Suddenly, the existence of interpreting has turned a church that would otherwise be labelled an immigrant church into a fully-fledged member of the local church community.

Then there’s the work of Sari Hokkanen. A conference interpreter by trade, her autoethnography of church interpreting not only shows how this practice blows giant holes in our nice neat classifications of interpreted events but it puts paid to the idea that neutrality and impartiality are always the keystones of interpreting. At the end of May 2014, at the NPIT2 conference in Germersheim, Germany, she even dared to talk about crying in the booth and being personally affected by the material she was interpreting. It turns out that interpreters are human and have feelings too. Who knew?

Jill Karlik, who should probably be recognised as the mother of church interpreting research, offers an equally insightful datum. One of her respondents felt that interpreters were so important in one church in Gambia, that he deemed one his co-preacher. Here we have stakeholders actually asking for interpreters to partner with them in the production of a text. This sense of partnership might explain why Hayne Shin found so many interpreting users in churches in Korea who wanted interpreters to be Christians before they sat in the booth.

Now, it is highly possible to dismiss all this work as inconsequential. Yes, the majority of church interpreters might be natural interpreters. Yes, it seems to be more common than anyone previously thought but it is still marginal, right? I am sure most of these arguments have been applied to research on other forms of natural interpreting too. It is much easier to dismiss such work than learn from it.

Perhaps this is a case where the professionals can learn from the naturals. In church interpreting, there is no way to pretend that interpreting can or should make itself invisible. There is an admission by everyone involved that a church service with interpreting is completely different to one without it. Rather than trying to erase this difference, many churches seem to want to celebrate it and use interpreting to the full. I have personally visited a church where interpreting is given pride of place in the constitution and is seen as a core activity.

From this flows a whole new way of working with interpreters. Partnership rules the day there. Preachers interrupt their own sermons to congratulate interpreters on their work. They exploit the potential of having two people on-stage and discuss how to better communicate across cultures with interpreters off-stage. As I said, we have a lot to learn, even and especially from people who have never received training in how to interpret. Maybe it’s our values that need to be realigned, not theirs.

Jonathan Downie’s business address is Integrity Languages,

Sari Hokkanen. Interpreting through tears: Religious experience, emotion and simultaneous interpreting. Paper to the Second International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, Germersheim, 2014.

Jill Karlik. “Natural” interpreting in a group of Gambian churches: Frames of reference. Paper to the Second International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, Germersheim, 2014.

Hayne Shin. User-expectations on the role and qualities of church interpreters: Consecutive and simultaneous interpreting in Korean churches. Paper to the Second International Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, Germersheim, 2014.

Cécile B. Vigouroux. Double-mouthed discourse: interpreting, framing, and participant roles. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 14:3.341-369, 2010. Available for downloading from

Which is the interpreter, which the preacher? It was at a service like this in Cameroon that I first encountered church interpreting myself. − BH

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

NPIT flash!

It was decided, by drawing out of a hat at the conclusion of NPIT2 in Germersheim last weekend - see previous post - that NPIT3 will be held in Zurich in 2016, and NPIT4 in South Africa (at Cape Town or Stellenbosch) two years later.

It looks like the adventure that started at Forli in 2012 is gong worldwide. As I wrote in The Importance of Natural Translation, a paradigm is determined not only by its methodology but also by its object of study. Consequently a new paradigm is emerging in Translation Studies.