After years of experience and observation, certain attitudes and responses no longer surprise us. We become familiar with the strange behaviour of hearing people. After an interpreter has worked at a public event, perhaps standing on a stage and interpreting a presentation or performance, there is bound to be a wild-eyed member of the public rushing up to say, “That was fantastic!” Or if they are particularly suggestive, they might gush, “That was beautiful!”. How would they know if it was good interpreting, we wonder. And why don’t they come up to us and say, “Your interpreter looks good, where did you find him/her?” Other people ask the interpreter questions about themselves and their use of sign language – “How long did it take you to learn that?”, “I’ve always wanted to learn sign language, where can I find a class?” Experienced interpreters joke wryly about carrying a tape or printout of answers to these predictable questions. But the most predictable thing of all is that people will ask the interpreter, not us.
But of course most people aren’t comfortable talking to deaf people, at least when they first encounter them. We perceive that the interpreter is used as a kind of shield by some people, as a way of keeping the unfamiliar and possibly confronting reality of deafness at arm’s length. Indeed we often do the same thing ourselves, keeping tiresome hearing people at bay by making conversation with our interpreter. The interpreter represents facility not only with two languages, but also with two cultures. In a situation of potential cultural conflict, we each displace our awkwardness and discomfort with the other onto the interpreter. As a repository of bilingual and bicultural knowledge, they will simultaneously understand us and render us less strange to the other.
Another dimension of people’s fascination with interpreters is that they can potentially represent us in new ways, or know things about us that they’re not telling. Just as we are fascinated by a photograph of ourselves that shows how we appear to others, we are drawn to the idea that what we have said may be presented to others in a different form, that we might appear or sound different from the way we projected ourselves. And conversely, we are aware of the interpreter’s power to misrepresent, edit or obfuscate, even though we know they are ethically bound not to do so. For some people these possibilities are intriguing, for others they arouse unease or suspicion. Indeed, for some people, interpreters appear as custodians of obscure and mysterious knowledge, with the potential—almost never realised but alarming nonetheless—to use or withhold this knowledge in unpredictable ways.
Interpreters are, for the most part, highly trained professionals working with a Code of Ethics which requires them to ‘render faithfully’ a message from one language to another. There is an academic discipline, Interpreting and Translation Studies, with an extensive literature about their practice and the social contexts of their work. Interpreters work in all kinds of situations, from boardrooms to doctors’ offices, from international conferences to workplace staff meetings. The common denominator to almost all of these settings is people’s misconceptions about their role and skills.
Where do these misconceptions spring from? I suspect that representations of interpreting in our popular culture help to feed some of the confusion. It seems that the world is most interested in interpreters when they are working in fraught situations, confronting ethical dilemmas, and especially when they are breaking the rules. This seems to apply to interpreters in any language, not only sign language interpreters.
Many of us remember the news story in 2005 about the Ukrainian sign language interpreter, Natalia Dmytruk. A TV news interpreter in Ukrainian Sign Language, she broke with protocol and informed viewers that the election results were fraudulent. It grabbed international headlines and Dmytruk became a hero, with her “courageous action” winning awards and earning her speaking engagements around the world. It was hard not to join in the acclaim, but it was also hard to reconcile this with the way we expect interpreters to behave and to be perceived by the public.
One of Nicole Kidman’s films a few years ago was “The Interpreter”, about a woman working for the United Nations as an interpreter in an obscure African language. She inadvertently eavesdrops on a plot to assassinate an African leader, feels obliged to reveal this, and immediately becomes an object of intense interest for rival politicians and minders. This film highlighted the way interpreters can be perceived as repositories of great and often mysterious knowledge, and objects of ambivalence because they have choices about what to do with that knowledge. What happens when their ethical obligations conflict with international security and diplomatic relations? And how is this different from interpreters who face ethical dilemmas every day, but whose situations don’t threaten to start World War III or warrant the attentions of Sean Penn – are their ethical dilemmas any less important and perplexing?
John Le Carré, the wonderful novelist who specialises in stories of spying and intrigue, used a similar dilemma in his 2006 novel The Mission Song, about an interpreter of mixed Irish/Congolese descent, Bruno Salvador (known as Salvo). Salvo is brought in to interpret some delicate political negotiations between warring clans from his own country, and international agents who have an interest in the country. Before long, he is caught between his professional obligations and his own loyalties, and becomes entangled in a dangerous web of intrigue and corruption. Le Carré, the master of the spy genre, presents the interpreter as a “double-agent” by default.
At the beginning of the meeting, one of the negotiators summons Salvo to the top of the table and demands of him, “So which are you, my boy? Are you one of us or one of them?” He replies, “Mwangaza, I am one of both of you!” But as modern interpreters might agree, it isn’t always so easy to resolve divided loyalties or to stay impartial. As Salvo remarks elsewhere, “top interpreters must always be prepared to act as diplomats when called upon.”
While working on a recent research project with a colleague (who is also, coincidentally, an interpreter) we were intrigued by the tale of a 17th-century Native American man known as Squanto, who served as an interpreter between the first English settlers in New England – the Pilgrims – and the Native Americans of the area. Squanto’s story is fascinating not only as an example of how interpreters have been present throughout history, but also because he took advantage of his access to both groups in order to seek political power for himself and his relatives. The only person who was able to expose his machinations was, of course, another interpreter. But Squanto had developed such close relationships with the Pilgrims that the English Governor could not bear to hand him over to be punished even when confronted with evidence of his duplicity. And when Squanto was dying (probably poisoned by his fellow tribesmen), he asked the Governor to “pray … that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in Heaven.” The story is an intriguing historical example of an interpreter exploiting his access to two languages, and it also illustrates the bi-cultural affiliations and even the co-dependency that can arise from the interpreting relationship. Squanto has remained well-known for hundreds of years. Had he operated just as a disinterested translator, without his extra-curricular activities, his story would probably not have endured as long as it has.
These are just a few examples of the fascination and ambivalence with which popular culture can view interpreters. But in each case, what brings the interpreter into the foreground is that they are confronting the possibilities of crossing the line of confidentiality, though it is rarely given that name in these stories. And – in all of these examples – they do cross it. The conflicted, flawed interpreter is becoming a handy plot device… just as the isolated, silent deaf person has been for centuries.
Where are the news stories, movies, novels and historical sagas about the interpreters who do their job with care and attention, who work to make their ethical obligations clear and manageable, who successfully stay in the background and let their clients emerge as agents? There aren’t any of course, because people like that don’t make good copy or memorable fictional characters. And because these thousands of professional interpreters don’t get celebrated in popular culture, the average person doesn’t know how they work, and they still need to keep explaining their role to people.
Sometimes we speculate about futuristic interpreters. It’s already possible to have a ‘remote’ interpreter working via video-conference. This can result in strangely stilted interactions, since we don’t have that live human buffer in the room to deflect – or absorb – deaf and hearing people’s uncertainty with each other. Will holograms or avatars be part of the interpreting scene in the future, as some have suggested? I hope not – the complex interplay of uneasiness, curiosity and communication in live interpreting experiences is just too interesting.
An earlier version of this article was published as "Interpreters Behaving Badly" in Across the Board, the magazine of ASLIA (Vic.). Used with permission of the editor.
Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association. "Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Professional Conduct. 2007. 3 May 2010 < http://aslia.com.au/images/stories/ASLIA_Documents/ASLIA_Code_of_Ethics.pdf >.The Interpreter. Motion picture. Prod. G.M. Brown, A. Minghella, and S. Pollack. Dir. S. Pollack. Universal Pictures, 2005.
Le Carré, J. The Mission Song. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2006.
Napier, J., R. McKee, and D. Goswell. Sign Language Interpreting: Theory and Practice in Australia and New Zealand. 2nd ed. Sydney: Federation Press, 2010.
Philbrick, N. Mayflower: A Voyage to War. London: HarperPress, 2006.
Washington Post. “As Ukraine Watched the Party Line, She Took the Truth into Her Hands.” 29 Apr. 2005. 25 Nov. 2008 < http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/04/28/AR2005042801696.html >.