The Critical Link 3. Interpreters in the Community

Brunette, Louise, Georges Bastin, Isabelle Hemlin & Heather Clarke (Eds) (2003)

John Benjamin: Amsterdam

Reviewed by: Mette Rudvin

Critical Link 3. Interpreters in the Community – a selection of the papers presented at the conference by the same name in Montreal in 2001 – is the third in its kind (the first two 1995, 1998), a series of conferences dedicated exclusively to what has come to be known as ‘Community Interpreting’. Critical Link 4 was hosted this year (May) in Stockholm, promoting the importance of ‘professionalization’, as the theme of the conference – the choice of the theme a significant indication of the discipline’s (near-)autonomy in academia. Although - as both Critical Link 1 and Critical Link 2 - the geographical/linguistic bias is largely Western and Anglo-Saxon, this distribution simply reflects the emergence of this discipline as an independent profession and as an independent academic discipline primarily in these geographical areas (especially Australia and Canada). As a counterweight to this bias we find three contributions from Venezuela, Malaysia and Kosovo. The first two – for obvious historical-colonial reasons – largely follow mainstream Western traditions.

The third paper – about locally-employed interpreters in Kosovo - does however break new ground in geographical and thematic (political, ethical) focus and signals an opening towards and recognition of the wide range of sectors in which community interpreters actually work and perform. The fact that many papers show a high degree of sensitivity to cultural issues and a recogntition of language as a cultural practice, is a welcome signal of the shift away from the mechanistic approach that used to dominate Interpreting Studies (following of course a general shift away from a simplistoc, essentialsi positivism in the humanities generally). A recognition of the dynamic and inter-relational nature of language – epitomised by a discipline that is inter-cultural and inter-dependent by nature[1] – is indeed welcome. In addition to the surveys in this volume, many of which are conducted in the health sector, three papers discuss community interpreting from a theoretical perspective, and three present case studies or detailed analyses of linguistic data in legal interpreting. An EU-based legal interpreting project is described at the end of the book. Meyer et al.’s case study of data from an interpreter-mediated doctor-patient communication provides a novel, highly interdisciplinary methodological approach to data analysis; another original angle is that of Bowen and Kaufert’s assessment of the cost-benefit from the perspective of hospital administrators. A departure from the legal/health bias can be found in the last paper in the book – a thought-provoking paper about the interpreter working in conflict situations. Helen Tebble reports the results of a major survey at Deakin University/Monash Medical Centre the aim of which was to develop a generic model for interpreting consultations for doctors, but also to analyse linguistic data of communication with health professionals and suggest techniques for analysing interpersonal features (reflecting Tebble’s earlier work using a Functional Grammar model on patient-doctor consultation stages).

The data includes authentic video recordings of interpreter-mediated patient-doctor communication. Issues of mode and address, gender, chunking, turns of talk, briefing and telephone interpreting are briefly addressed. One of the interesting findings here was that untrained medical consultants tend to pass on the responsibility of giving bad news to interpreters. Interesting also are the comments on how ad-hoc interpreters tend to switch between or incorporate their interpersonal roles as interpreter/ family-friend etc., governed by the overall skopos of the communicative event (i.e. understanding each other) rather than by professional code of ethics. The practical output of the survey was a pedagogical training model including a videotape/manual for training doctors, appropriate also for distance learning. Ineke Crezee’s contribution describes the establishment of the first health interpreting services in New Zealand and reports on a small survey in Auckland – the fruits of a larger survey investigating barriers to migrants accessing the health care system. This survey showed clearly that language and culture differences (for example different concepts of health) were significant barriers to accessing the health care system. The survey suggests among other things the need for better information for immigrants and more health information pamphlets. Bernd Meyer, Birgit Apfelbaum, Franz Pöchhacker and Alexandre Bischoff adopt a stimulating mixed-method approach to analyse the same extract of an interpreter-mediated patient-doctor consultation (drawn from a larger corpus), by way of the following analytical models: Functional Pragmatics, Conversation Analysis, Interpreting Studies, and Health Sciences, reaching different results and conclusions about the performance of ad hoc interpreters.

The encounter analysed here is of a doctor of internal medicine informing a patient - retired Portuguese worker - about invasive procedures during a briefing for informed consent interpreted by the patient’s 28-year old bilingual niece. The communicative plan/pattern follows a pre-organized (by the clinician) sequence of discourse stages that the ad-hic interpreters is not always able to fully appreciate or render. Using Conversation Analysis, Apfelbaum’s analyses the sequential turn-taking of the event, discussing how participants deal with the bilingual and cross-cultural setting, and how they negotiate modes of interaction to help patient understand doctor’s explanations. Repair activities and interruptions indicate different concepts (doctor-interpreter) in terms of how to communicate with patient and make use of interpreter’s knowledge of both languages. From the perspective of professional interpreting Pöchhacker looks at the “translational culture” the ‘set of socially determined norms, conventions, expectations, values governing translational activity’ which informs this event, and at the assumption that communication can be achieved without professional help, signaling a naiive translational culture. It is clear from Pöchhacker’s analysis, however, that the interaction is also quite sophisticated (at the interpersonal level), the untrained interpreter goes far beyond ‘just translating’ (e.g.) by using third person and monitoring for mistakes and taking a generally active role. Pöchhacker’s point that codified codes of practice (including interpreters’ codes of ethics) are socially determined is very valid indeed, a stimulating comment on the role of interpreter that challenges a blinkered approach to the hypothesis of a universally valid or universally shared code of ethics.

Bischoff’s ‘health perspective analysis is interesting too, and also a departure from overly-narrow paradigms, discussing issues such as ‘negotiation of meaning-information and trust, the compatibility of biomedical and ‘native’ frameworks (from an etic-emic perspective) – a potentially fascinating area of investigation. Again we see that the participant roles are not always clear cut, but mutate slightly and the ‘voices’ are often discordant. Bischoff calls for more cross-cultural sensitivity, for trained interpreters but also suggests that the outcomes would improve if interpreters were to work as cultural brokers, mediators, advocates (reflecting the tendency found in other papers in this volume, e.g. Garcés). The comparative methodology adopted in this paper is novel and stimulating and promises so much from a high calibre team that this particular reader was perhaps a little disappointed that no real conclusion emerges presenting the comparative results and discussing more thoroughly the utility of each approach as an analytical tool. Another stimulating paper on an impressive scale and using solid methodology is that of Claudia Angelelli, both for its scale and for the interesting issues it raises about interpreters’ role perception (not easily quantifiable and of which there is very little data available). The attempt to “addresses the questions of the role empirically” is indeed welcome. In a survey of interpreters from Canada, the US and Mexico, from a variety of backgrounds, Angelelli probes their own perceptions of role and visibility. As a number of the other papers, Angelelli starts by challenging the ‘invisibility’ paradigm implicit in the conduit approach.

Following Roy and Wadensjö, she sees interpreters as “essential partners in a cross-cultural conversation” (as Roy and Wadensjö), co-constructors of interaction and proposes a model in which the interpreter “is visible with all the social and cultural factors that allow her/him to co-construct a definition of reality with the other co-participants” (p.16) including his/her views on power, status, gender, age, race, etc. It might nonetheless be legitimate to ask how quantifiable some of the criteria informing the research questions are, for example the relationship between the interpreter’s social backgrounds-perception of visibility (social background cannot be exhaustively investigated through parameters of age, gender, education and income even with the more nuanced criteria of self-identification with dominant/subordinate groups which Angelelli proposes in order to ‘quantify’ the criterion. Interpreters themselves did not consider themselves to be invisible but perceived their role in terms of trust-building trust, facilitating mutual respect, communicating affect and message, explaining cultural gaps, controlling communication flow and aligning with one of parties in interaction- corroborating the results demonstrated in other contributions to this volume. Predictably, conference interpreters perceive themselves as less visible than community interpreters (medical interpreters the most); on the whole. Like Angelelli, Terry Chesher et al.’s world-wide survey in community interpreting to gain insight from interpreters’ perspective is impressive in its scope and furnishes interesting results. Chesher et al also give a summary of CL1 and CL2 that puts their own survey in a larger perspective – the needs of the profession that emerged from the two CL conferences and the resulting FIT committee on community interpreting.

Qualitative rather than quantitative (many open-ended questions, which must have been a huge effort to analyse!), this format not only does provides a wealth of information on interpreters’ perspectives of their own roles, but Chesher et al provide the reader with some wonderful quotes from their respondents, which – combined with the statistical results – are very revealing as well as adding that ‘human touch’ (e.g. how they manage delicate turn-taking situations when the patient is crying, how to clarify their own role and the issue of visibility, lack of respect/status). The results are quite encouraging in that they indicate a consensus on the importance of ethics. They also provide the actual questionnaire. Dubslaff and Martinsen’s survey of interpreters and service providers covers all fields of community interpreting. It aims ultimately to improve standards of interpreting for immigrants and refugees in Denmark by improving qualifications for community interpreters. Through empirical data they establish both the need for new interpreting programme and definitions of training programme on the basis of these needs. Their survey points to a lack of specialised interpreter training options at intermediate level to bridge gap between basic-level and university-level programmes. Their survey also discloses a number of interesting ‘paradoxes’ – namely that interpreters are keen to have access training programmes but are not willing to invest much time in doing so, and that, although they would like further training, they are nevertheless satisfied with own performance seldom encounter problems (professional honour and credibility could be at stake here, it might be hard to gauge the veracity, not to speak of ‘objectivity’ of such responses).

Carmen Valero Garcés discusses recent demographical changes in Spain that have led to an increased need for practitioners of community interpreting and translating (CI&T) and – on the basis of results from a survey among 100 health care professionals - the roles to which they have been assigned – especially in terms of the issue of ‘mediation’. Garcés’ focus is very much on both cultural and ethical issues in community interpreting and she relates these issues to the realities and needs of Spanish institution. She also makes a distinction between professional and volunteer interpreters – a distinction that inevitably informs the roles and self-perception of community interpreters. A detailed comparison of the results obtained here with that of the other surveys on role and interpreters’ self-perception presented in this volume could yield valuable information and shed more light on an area which deeply affects the interpreter’s job, performance, relationship with the other parties involved, and the development and positioning of the profession as whole. Beltran Avery’s paper describes the developing and piloting of a certification tool to evaluate basic levels of competence in medical interpreting in the State of Massachussetts, the aim of which is to provide users with a standard of quality they can expect from graduates of this programme and to provide interpreters with an assessment of their performance and weaknesses. In its aim to create a prototype flexible enough to cater for large variety of languages and cultures, education level, assimilation degree, etc. (especially in the testing process) it shows culture-sensitivity in its methodological approach, and pragmaticism in its sensitivity to individual abilities rather than formal criteria (i.e. written abilities irrelevant for oral interpretation test; attempt not to penalize candidates not proficient in written English), aiming for “a certification process that is truly inclusive and respectful of the diversity of cultures and languages” (p.111).

Oda and Joyette’s contribution present results of a survey conducted in the context of domestic violence, more specifically the Partner Assault Response programme in Ontario and a development of a specialized training programme specifically focusssed on interpreting for the perpetrators of domestic violence. The interpreters’ own attitude towards their clients are closely examined in order to understand “the dynamic of domestic violence and their attitudes towards perpetrators” (p.153). Even the cardinal rule of confidentiality (insofar as it relates to the safety of women victims) is put into perspective in this particularly sensitive area straddling both law and psychology. Straker and Watts provide a valuable introduction to the current state of community interpreting in Britain, addressing the gaps both in provisions for interpreting and for training opportunities. For their project (funded by EU funds, government institutions and charitable bodies) the refugee-led community organization Praxis collaborated with City University on a training project recruiting candidates from a refugee background. They describe the recruitment phase and some of the (sometimes unexpected) difficulties and advantages specific to using refugees as candidates (for example health and physicals tress problems). Marco Viola’s extremely stimulating contribution discusses a series of culture-related aspects in a study on interpreter training in Canada’s Aboriginal community. The three theoretical contributions spring from experience with therapeutic work in a refugee/asylum seeker setting and sign language interpreting and all challenge the traditional linear-mechanical methodology.

Hanneke Bot’s discussion – based on data from video-recorded therapeutic sessions draws on recent psychotherapeutic methodology which acknowledges the interactive role of the therapist- i.e. s/he is no longer seen as a “blank screen” (in this she is naturally following the general paradigm shift in the humanities, challenging the possibility of neutral, uninvolved observation and a recognition of the subjectivity of ‘the gaze’. The examples she provides from her data suggest how patients deal with interpreter bonding, conflicts of interest-impartiality; a clear departure from a simplistic ‘neutral’ stance although perhaps concepts such as neutrality could be clarified or problematized a more. An interesting discussion on negotiating interpersonal roles through the use of 1st and 3rd person demonstrates the dynamic nature of this triadic process. The distinction between boundary violations and boundary transgression, again borrowed from psychotherapy, are interesting and potentially very useful conceptual tools for further discussions of interpersonal roles in interpreter-mediated communication. Eighinger and Karlin also discuss interpersonal roles, using data from sign-language interpreting in the light of what they term a ‘feminist-relational approach’. By this they mean to suggest an intrinsic link between the term ‘feminist’ and a series of values such as listening, consensus building, cooperation, empowerment, social justice and experience, cooperation towards greater good rather than individual profit). The authors fail, however, to define the notoriously slippery and multi-facted term such feminst adopt a far too simplistic approach (i.e. pertaining to women’s socio-cultural or supposedly innate behaviour, or to a modern Western academic and/or political discipline called ‘feminism’?); they take for granted an intrinsic link between a concept related to “women/woman” on which there is little consensus in the literature in this area. Had they clarified their own classificatory methodology or use of this term it might have been easier for the reader to accept the link between values and ‘feminist’.[2]. Nevertheless, the emphasis on the relational aspects of interpreter-mediated communication - also at the heart of the relationship of this triad to society at large - is very valuable, as is that of the empowerment of the interpreter.

Bélanger’s paper is in my view the most interesting of the theoretical contributions and would deserve far more analysis than space permits. Challenging the mechanistic conduit approach, and demonstrating how some applications of this approach are based on a reductive reading of a particular theory of communication (which does not account for human-to-human interaction) she proposes an alternative, triadic, strategy. Again, using empirical data from sign language interpreting the paper proposes an interactive model based on three-party configuration. Bowen and Kaufert address an angle of interpreting completely neglected (to my knowledge) so far, but crucial for service providers – namely that of budget. They discuss the pro’s and con’s of using four different models used widely in business/economic theory to assess the costs and benefits of health interpreter programmes, including not only immediate costs, but ethical costs/benefits and long-term psychological consequences. The immediate risks of failing to provide adequate language facilities are quite clear (decreased use of prevention services, increased risk of hospital admission and emergency department, delays, complications, etc.). But to what degree are long-term consequences for patient, family and society (what economists would call welfare) measurable? And how do you assess ethical responsibility in material terms? Is, it, the authors ask, appropriate to decide on the basis of cost-effectiveness? Especially when so little data is available. This could perhaps have been discussed more at length. Budget constraint is an important practical issue that academics tend often to neglect. More studies are needed to convince hospital – and other – administrators that language services really are a priority. Roy Thomas examines a topic largely neglected in the literature, he describes how locally-employed interpreters are placed in an extremely delicate and dangerous position in that they will often be perceived as ‘allies’ or collaborators of the foreign institutions. When no longer under international protection they and their families are often at grave risk. After describing the logistical conditions under which such interpreters work, and the ethical implications of not providing sufficient protection (for example in an evacuation process or when the conflict comes to an end) Thomas - a Peace Support Operations training consultant – presents a worrying case study from Kosovo where locally-employed interpreters lives’ were jeopardized (indeed one was believed to have been killed, a similar case is reported from Afghanistan) because they were not offered follow-up protection after the withdrawal of the foreign organization.

Locally-employed interpreters are placed in an extremely delicate and dangerous position in that they will often be perceived as ‘allies’ or collaborators of the foreign institutions. When no longer under international protection they and their families are often at grave risk. Not only does Thomas draw the reader’s attention to the highly questionable strategy: that of recruiting interpreters whose safety and lives will be jeopardized by accepting the interpreting commission (as is that of their families) offering their service to Western organizations, but he places issues of interpreter loyalty and affiliation in a new perspective entirely. It would also be interesting to know how the interpreters are selected? why aren’t interpreters from the organizations own ranks used? and indeed - how are questions of loyalty/affiliation addressed and checked in the recruitment procedure? It might be interesting to compare this with cases reported from WWII where interpreters used to interrogate prisoners by Nazi officials were – long after the war – associated with the interrogators. Interestingly, several media have recently reported cases of what could be described as breaches of interpreter loyalty and ‘group-affililation’ at the US detainee camps for Taliban suspects at Guantanmo Bay where an Arabic interpreter was reported to have been acting as a ‘spy’ for detainees. The theoretical issues in terms of group bonding/identity and group loyalty in interpreting are to my mind fascinating in themselves, but would deserve further study and attention also because they would shed more light on the multi-faceted role of the community/public-service interpreter, a much-deabetd topic in the literature on CI and prone to an overly narrow euro-centric appraoch priviliging not only a mechanistic view of language transfer, but Western-based structures, instituional organization and discourse, resulting in a code of ethics that is valuable in itself but does not mirror, represent or account for the extremely diverse nature of this discipline which, unlike conference interpreting, straddles an enormous range of application. In my view[3], the variety in areas of application (the hospital emergency room vs. the courtroom, the military prison interview versus the negotiating table in a business meeting) will govern the interpreter’s chosen discourse strategies and ethical choices, i.e. the skopos, or the ‘intentionality’ of the communicative event will guide the chosen strategies, even when this does not concide with a generally-recognized code of ethics. The reason for this is also that public institutions will tend to have more leverage that the individual interpreter, or than the interpreting profession’s code of ethics.

Many readers are probably already familiar with the pan-national project on standardization in legal interpreting across the EU. Six founding institutions from Belgium, Denmark, Spain and the UK, funded by the European Commission of Justice and Home Affairs, embarked upon an ambitious and promising project to “establish equivalencies in the standards of interpreting and translation within the European Union” (p.294), the so-called Grotius Project. The aim is to “have common targets and principles and that each Member State implement these through their own national structures, systems and cultural conventions” (p.296). Corsellis et al. discuss the various parameters and problems that led to the establishment of this programme and list some of the recommendations contained in the Aequitas volume (Hertog 2001) for what concerns training, assessment, registration and professional development, professional practice (they are careful to define the term ‘profession’) and supervision and mentoring as well as general lines of communication. The section on legal interpreting includes three case studies and a study of the current job-market for legal interpreters in Malaysia. Yvonne Fowler’s study springs from her own work as a police-interpreter trainer. Having noticed a number of discrepancies in the way in which police officers conducted interpreted witness statements and the problems this caused for interpreters (again, in terms of roles and participation) she took the initiative to set up an experiment to study these encounters in greater detail. Taking witness statement, the reader learns, is actually a complicated process in terms of discourse strategies, skills and roles. A mock trial was arranged with four different interpreter-mediated interviews and tested this against authentic data. Fowler discusses in detail the methodology of statement transcriptions (i.e. in English or in the witnesses’ language?). She provides insight into the complex processes involved both for police officer and interpreter and weighs the various transcription methodologies against each other. Edith Vilela Biasi describes the working conditions of court interpreters in Venezuela against the background of the recent shift in the Venezuelan criminal Code Procedure to an adversarial system from a system in which the judge seemed to have a more authoritative role.

After presenting the reform, she discusses the role of court interpreters as social actors and see for them an active role – not so much in the actual interpreted session (or at least that is not discussed)- but “to take up the practical challenge of adapting themselves to the new system through different initiatives aimed at raising awareness about the importance of their role. At the same time they must try to guide the changes taking place by participating in the system establishing ethical and adequate work conditions ...” (244). A more precise use or definition of the term ‘social actor’ in the context of the interpreters linguistic and socio-linguistic performance/competence would have added much to this paper. Bente Jakobsen’s furnishes us with a wealth of linguistic data, derived from her work on her PhD project on court interpreting and on the basis of these data – of which she provides several examples – proposes a model to categorize the various types of interpreter additions that emerged in her corpus based on the pragmatic effect of these additions: for example. ‘additions with no impact on the semantic and/or pragmatic content of the source’ (such as repetitions or false starts) or with ‘minimal impact’ or ‘significant’ impact. The classification is useful (also for didactic purposes, I have found) for analysing interpreter-mediated linguistic data and in many way complements Wadensjö’s classification of interpreter ‘renditions’.The final paper in the legal section is from Malaysia – a welcome counterweight to the Western/Anglo-saxon bias – and describes the situation of court interpreters. Because of Malaysia’s colonial history and multi-lingual nature, it has a long tradition of court interpreting and court interpreters are civil servants. Ibrahim and Bell describe a situation in which a once-effective system is now seriously challenged by lack of funds and excessive work loads for the interpreters –attracting few new recruits, this is due also because of the burden of the numerous tasks interpreters are required to fill – practically acting as court clerks. Interpreters’ dissatisfaction has been thoroughly documented in two nationwide survey.

The result is a huge backlog of cases due to the lack of interpreters! Ibrahim and Bell discuss this situation against the background of national language planning policies and provide a series of recommendations for improving the current situation.[4] This reader would have welcomed a greater sense of the evolution of the discipline in the choice of contributions, especially for a discipline as new as this one. Given the predominance on training and surveys (symptomatic of a discipline in its early phases), a more in-depth discussion on methodology and how such valuable tools can be applied across national borders (albeit recognising the difficulty of universalizing such quintessentially culture-bound and institiution-specific practice); i.e. how can general training programmes be adapted to other areas and other cultures? how can training needs and methodologies and how these can be adapted to local situations and how they can be addressed internationally for standardization of standards and training (as Grotius sets out to do). If we really want to discuss training issues, however, perhaps this volume should have included at least two papers on training methodologies that are not focussed on special needs groups (although that in itself is extremely welcome). Does the sub heading ‘new realities, new needs’ suggest that it is these new special needs groups that are the ‘new realities’ rather than a general need for training in health, legal, social services. Furthermore, an integration between the different branches of CI (court, medicine, police, war, etc.) would have been appropriate – perhaps as a separate paper raising the epistemological and methodological differences/commonalities in e.g. ethics and training would have been appropriate (training and accreditation standards, state policies that impact on the profession, language planning policies in a multi-lingual/ethnic context – demographic trends etc.). The transition from the beginning-of-the-millenium CL3 volume (on Interpreters in the Community) to the CL4 conference claiming an established professional identity for CI (“professionalism”) in the new millenium, would have been an appropriate channel for at least one paper with a vision for the future, giving an indication of where the discipline is heading, on new directions and opportunities.

Despite a few methodological limitations mentioned above (and which are of course only a subjective reading of this reader’s own personal expectations and interests), CL3 is essential reading for anyone interested in the development of this discipline: The contribution of the Critical Link series, widely used by students, scholars alike, is essential to this discipline, still in its infancy: it has established the coming of age of CI to members of the profession helping to provide – internally – a sense of confidence and group-belonging, it is a public declaration claiming public affirmation externally. It also has the practical advantage in its printed form of gathering papers on similar subjects ‘under one roof’ and in its conference form of gathering practitioners, scholars and public-sector representatives ‘under one roof’ providing an invaluable forum for exchange and debate. In its cyber-form it provides a useful channel for discipline-related information and diffusion of papers. CL5 in Sydney in 2007 will no doubt prove to consolidate its role.


[1] This interdependence and interaction comes into play at many macro and microlevels due to the involvement of public (or private) institutions represented by the interlocutor – the service provider: institition-academia; institution-interpreter; institution-client at the level of institutional role, at the level of culture (the client is typically, although not exclsuively, a migrant representing a culture ‘distant’ from that of the host country), at the level of interpersonal role (age, gender, hierachy, social and institutional role and status, etc.) and at the level of interpersonal discourse strategies.

[2] Having said that, many well-reputed models do make such assumptions, rather glibly in my opinion. Geert Hofstede’s describing cultural differences in business interactions operates with a similar male-female biploar differentiation, for example.

[3]“Professionalism” and Contradictions in the interpreter’s role”; paper presented at Critical Link 4, Stockholm 20-23 May 2004.

[4] At Critical Link 4, Ibrahim raise a number of extremely interesting points in terms if interepreter-role in her paper on court interpreting in Malaysia, showing how court interpreters functioned practically as clerks or even judicial advisors.

©inTRAlinea & Mette Rudvin (2004).
[Review] "The Critical Link 3. Interpreters in the Community", inTRAlinea Vol. 7
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