25 Nov 2013
It is perfectly possible to be impartial but not completely neutral. People have their own prejudices, needs, wants and firmly held opinions. Taking Goffman’s concept of the roles people occupy when speaking and listening, but using Clark’s nomenclature, a speaker occupies three roles in almost overlapping succession. Firstly he or she acts as "principal", in which they have an idea they wish to convey and which they own as an expression of their whole self (personality, beliefs, preferences, prejudices, needs and wants). Secondly they act as "formulator", arranging a form of words that they believe will carry their idea into the mind of the listener, and be understood. Thirdly, they must speak, in "vocaliser" role. Meanwhile the listener, if they are paying attention, will receive the stream of sound in "attender" role. If they are hearing a language they understand they will move into "identifier" role in which they identify units of meaning within the stream of sound. As the talk flows backwards and forwards each speaker has to wait only one turn in order to correct any misunderstandings. The third role the listener occupies is the role of "respondent". In this role the listener attributes overall meaning and intention to the speaker's words. The attribution of overall meaning and intention expresses the listener's personality, beliefs, preferences, prejudices, needs and wants. Interpreters are responsible for facilitating communication between people who cannot do more than ‘attend’ to one another, without the help of an external attender/identifier and formulator/vocaliser. They are engaged in relaying messages for other people; they may not alter, distort or in any way damage the message during the relay. They may not "own" messages or responses. If they engage as full interlocutors, their "principal" and "attender" functions will be fully operational and their own personality, beliefs, preferences, prejudices, needs and wants will inevitably colour the message that is delivered. Impartial means working with people you may not agree with and keeping your own opinions to yourself. Couple that with confidentiality and you have a safe place for people with strong opinion or feelings to talk through an impartial interpreter. The key to impartiality is the idea of the 'alter ego' or 'other self' in which the interpreter reflects the tone and register of each speaker's output in turn. That's why I prefer to work in whispered simultaneous mode although it isn't often allowed outside the courts, mainly due to unfamiliarity with the idea. It doesn't leave much time for one to think, 'I don't approve of that', and colour interpreted output, albeit inadvertently. Working in the first person is another bastion against the interpreter's personality creeping in. It keeps impartiality in the frame and avoids the adult equivalent of the 3 year old naughty child who sticks their tongue out at an unknown grownup because he’s holding on to Mummy's skirt and thinks she will protect him from a scolding. That and "I repeat everything I hear" keep speakers aware that they are responsible for their own meanings and attributions. This is especially so when the interpreter does repeat something an interlocutor had been told not to say. They only do that once. It is helpful to introduce oneself prior to beginning the interpreted interaction and hand over a double sided business sized card. The message on one side is in English and on the other it appears in the other language. The message states the interpreter’s independence as a professional, the language s/he works in and the facts of his/her impartiality and confidentiality. It also states that s/he will interpret everything they hear. The message is explained in both languages and then presented to both parties to the conversation as a gift so neither interlocutor can claim to have been wrong-footed.
It is interesting that a job as a mental health social worker involves not making judgments of people's behaviour or attitudes. As a Samaritan volunteer for nine years, the same rule applied to all of us. Sometimes things heard on the phones were hard to treat a neutral manner and careful control of the voice and lexicon was called for. However, at least the duty team could debrief each other at the end of the shift, which interpreters can't, on the whole.
Dr. Jan Cambridge
Public Service Interpreting Consultancy
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