Monday, January 29, 2018

Inspirational and Inspired Interpreting

We kick off 2018 on this blog with a post about church interpreting, a function which is mostly performed by non-professionals. It has been an unusually long time since the previous post, and for this the pandemic of flu of the long-lasting, misnamed 'Aussie flu' variety is mainly to blame. My apologies for not wishing all you Followers a Happy New Year.

The conventional image of the ideal interpreter is that of a neutral, colourless transmitter of information who neither adds to nor subtracts from nor influences the message. This is what is taught in the training schools due to the long tradition of professional interpreters themselves conducting training and research, and no doubt it fits a great many interpreter functions such as court interpreting, most conference interpreting and community interpreting. Nevertheless there are important areas that it doesn't describe, or at any rate not adequately.

One such area is religious or church interpreting. Far from it being marginal, a researcher, Adelina Hild, finds "clues that point to the fact that IRS [interpretation in religious settings] might be one of the most widespread types of interpreting activities in certain communities." Therefore my interest was awakened recently when a student wrote to me from Taiwan – this blog travels far – about a thesis she's thinking of doing on interpreters who work for missionaries. Missionary interpreters are an important subgroup of religious interpreters and there are missionary interpreters worldwide; Evangelical Christian, Mormon, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist etc. Her project reminded me that religious interpreters must not only convey information; indeed that may not even be their primary function. Like the speakers for whom they interpret, their task is to persuade or convince their listeners. For this they may even go beyond words. The first description of a church interpreter on this blog was about a church meeting in Cameroon where the interpreter mimicked the body language of the pastor, something that would be a no-no in conference interpreting. [To find it, enter Buea in the Search box on the right.] An interpretation in neutral language and flat, colourless tones lets down an inspiring speaker. The interpreter too should inspire. Therefore I call such interpreting inspirational interpreting. As one inspirational interpreter puts it, "Taking such an active participant role is in stark contrast with the professional ideal of neutrality or impartiality,"

Like myself, the student in Taiwan has been an admirer of the Finnish Pentacostal interpreter Sari Hokkanen since we heard her speak at the first NPIT conference [see Sources below]. Hers was a paper that should be read by all student interpreters because it gives a very different view of interpreting. What she brings out emphatically is that such interpreting may not only be inspiring, it may also be inspired.
"Pentacostalism emphasizes personal religious experience, defined as encountering God, making it a salient feature of the social context of the volunteer interpreting context. Therefore I study spiritual and practical levels of preparation… In addition, I examine ways in which a personal religious experience, especially 'hearing from God,' can take place while interpreting, which speaks of my active participation in the interpreted service… the goal of preparation is not only to achieve a personal religious experience, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to mediate religious experience in others."
Lest it be thought that strong religious belief makes religious interpreting unique, consider what Sari herself says: "Religious interpreting settings may have plenty of similarities with non-religious settings that have a strong ideology." I myself felt it when interpreting in Canada for some political speakers. There are situations where inspiration makes the difference between a good interpreter and a great interpreter, just as it does between a good speaker and a great speaker.

Aeltje Chen (Taiwan). Personal communication about missionary interpreting. Email, 15 November 2017.

Sari Hokkanen. Simultaneous interpreting and religious experience; volunteer interpreting in a Finnish Pentacostal church. In R. Antonini et al., (eds.), Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, Amsterdam, Benjamins, 2017. pp. 195-212.

Sari Hokkanen, Simultaneous church interpreting as service. The Translator, vol. 18, no, 2, pp.201.309, 2012. Abstract at

Adelina Hild. The role and self-regulation of non-professional interpreters in religious settings: the VIRS project. In R. Antonini et al., (eds.), Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation, Amsterdam, Benjamins, 2017. pp. 177-194.

Sari Hokkanen. Source: University of Tampere.