FuzzyLaw Mini-article

24 Jul 2013

The myth of the typical

I have often found the idea that the role of the public service interpreter is to put the non English speaker on the same footing as an English speaker helpful to illustrate the implications of the Impartial Model of public service interpreting promoted by the NRPSI (National Register of Public Service Interpreters) . When discussing issues of professional conduct with students it helps to ask them to think what would happen in the situation under discussion if the service user spoke English and there was no interpreter. However, the FuzzyLaw project suggests that this "maxim" is meaningless in terms of linguistics. It clearly shows that there is no "typical" English speaker in this respect as English speakers may or many not understand the specialised terminology used by professionals. This seems to support the approach of adhering to the original register as the safest course of action. It may not always be possible for terms that have no close equivalent in other languages and interpreters have to resort to paraphrasing but it seems to me a good guiding principle nonetheless.

Interpreters are sometimes asked to sign statements to the effect that they have translated or interpreted something in such a way that the service user can understand. This may be understood as a requirement to adapt the register to what we perceive to be the listener's ability to understand technical terminology but the FuzzyLaw project suggests that there is no reason why interpreters should be in a better position to do this than the public service professionals. Some public service professionals are being encouraged to ask questions designed to check whether what they have said has been understood. I have seen doctors and police officers do this when working with interpreters and I understand it is routine practice when the service user is an English speaker too. If the statement to be signed mentioned above implies that interpreters should do this for non English speakers, it is is in danger of undermining the role of the public service professional and the autonomy of the service users to address their questions directly to the professional.

Elsa Cowie, Interpreter and Interpreter Trainer


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