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A Brief Introduction to Interpretation


- Interpreting Is Interpreting Or Is It? (January 1999)

by Holly Mikkelson

- Theoretical Foundations and Principles of Translation by Seyyed Ali Miremadi


Interpreting itself can be described in simple terms: "The interpreter has first to listen to the speaker, understand and analyze what is being said, and then resynthesize the speech in the appropriate form in a different language ..." (Jones, 1996: 6). According to Seleskovitch: "Interpretation is more like painting than photography. Photography reproduces words without attempting to explain their meaning. Painting seeks to discover a meaning, to convey a message and reflects the object as seen through the eyes of the painter."(1979:19) An interpreter is a person who converts a thought or expression in a source language into an expression with a comparable meaning in a target language either simultaneously in "real time" or consecutively after one party has finished speaking. The interpreter's function is to convey every semantic element (tone and register) and every intention and feeling of the message that the source-language speaker is directing to target-language recipients.

The Difference between Translation and Interpretation

Despite being used in a non-technical sense as interchangeable, interpretation and translation are not synonymous. Interpreting takes a message from a source language and renders that message into a different target language (ex: English into French). In interpreting, the interpreter will take in a complex concept from one language, choose the most appropriate vocabulary in the target language to faithfully render the message in a linguistically, emotionally, tonally, and culturally equivalent message. Translation is the transference of meaning from text to text (written or recorded), with the translator having time and access to resources (dictionaries, glossaries, etc.) to produce an accurate document or verbal artifact. Translators have time to consider and revise each word and sentence before delivering their product to the client. While live interpretation's goal is to achieve total

accuracy at all times, details of the original (source) speech can be missed and interpreters can ask for clarification from the speaker.

Types of Interpreting
Simultaneous interpreting: As the name suggests, providing the target-language message at roughly the same time as the source-language message is being produced. According to Seleskovitch (1978a), In simultaneous interpretation the interpreter is isolated in a booth. He speaks at the same time as the speaker and therefore has no need to memorize or jot down what is said. Moreover, the processes of analysiscomprehension and of reconstruction-expression are telescoped. The interpreter works on the message bit by bit, giving the portion he has understood while analyzing and assimilating the next idea.

Consecutive interpreting: In this case, the interpreter waits until the speaker has finished before beginning the interpretation. Again quoting Seleskovitch (1978a), In consecutive interpretation the interpreter does not start speaking until the original speaker has stopped. He therefore has time to analyze the message as a whole, which makes it easier for him to understand its meaning. The fact that he is there in the room, and that the speaker has stopped talking before he begins, means that he speaks to his listeners face to face and he actually becomes the speaker.

Whispered interpreting: Also known as chuchotage. When equipment for simultaneous interpretation is not available, "one participant speaks and simultaneously an interpreter whispers into the ear of the one or maximum two people who require interpreting services" (Jones, 1998: 6).

Conference interpreting: "Enables participants in a multinational meeting to communicate with each other in a seamless fashion, making the language barrier almost imperceptible" (GSTI, 1998a: 6). Some writers equate conference interpreting with simultaneous interpreting. According to Jones (1998), most conferences are

conducted with simultaneous interpreting these days, though interpreters must be prepared to perform in the consecutive mode as well.

Seminar interpreting: A term used by the U.S. Department of State to designate the interpreting that takes place in meetings and small conferences. Gonzalez, et al (1991: 28) assert that "the basic difference between conference interpreting and seminar interpreting is the size of the meeting."

Escort interpreting: Refers to the interpreting services provided for government officials, business executives, investors, observers, and the like, who are conducting on site visits. "Escort interpretation is marked by the spontaneity and the broad spectrum of situations interpreters may find themselves in, from formal meetings to tours of factories to cocktail parties. The mode most often used in this type of interpretation is consecutive, and is usually limited to a few sentences at a time" (Gonzalez, et al, 1991: 28).

Media interpreting: A catch-all term encompassing the interpreting performed at press conferences, publicity appearances, and interviews, as well as films, videos, videoconferences, and television and radio programs (GSTI, 1998b).

Court interpreting: Also known as legal, judiciary, or forensic interpreting, refers to interpreting services provided in courts of law and in legal cases of any sort. According to Gonzalez et al (1991)

Legal interpretation refers to interpretation that takes place in a legal setting such as a courtroom or an attorney's office, wherein some proceeding or activity related to law is conducted. Legal interpretation is subdivided according to the legal setting into (1) quasijudicial and (2) judicial interpreting or what is normally referred to as court interpreting.

Business interpreting: Sometimes known as commercial or trade interpreting. Gentile et al (1996) define the term broadly: In the narrowest sense, the term denotes two or more business people discussing business matters through an interpreter. ... However, we take interpreting in business settings in its broadest possible sense, to include all [liaison] interpreting situations which are outside the welfare/medical/legal rubric. We do not include relationships characterized by a marked differential in power or status within a given society. Examples of these interpreting settings range from arts, sport, tourism and recreation to patent negotiations or government-to-government meetings and delegations. (116) Another setting where interpreting takes place with increasing frequency is the workplace, where the employer or supervisor speaks the official language of the country and employees speak a minority language; this could also be considered business interpreting, and it does involve a differential in power. Frishberg (1986) reports that sign-language interpreters are called upon to interpret with increasing frequency in commercial settings, whether for employers and employees or for interlocutors who are on a more equal footing. Business interpreting may entail either consecutive or simultaneous interpreting.

Medical interpreting: Alternative terms are health care interpreting and hospital interpreting. According to Frishberg (1986: 115), "Interpreting in medical settings encompasses a variety of situations, from routine consultation with a physician to emergency procedures, from prepared childbirth classes to support for complex laboratory testing." Many experts include mental health interpreting as a subcategory of medical interpreting.

Educational interpreting: Often included under community interpreting, this is a rapidly growing field of specialization, especially among sign-language interpreters (Frishberg, 1986; Aguirre et al, 1997). It involves interpreting in the classroom for students who cannot understand the language of instruction, as well as interpreting between teachers and parents and at school board meetings and disciplinary hearings. Either consecutive or simultaneous interpreting may be required, depending on the circumstances.

Over-the-Phone Interpreting (OPI): Also known as remote interpreting, this term refers to interpreting services provided via telephonic links (occasionally with video links as well), in which neither the interpreter nor the parties are in the same physical location. (Heh and Qian, 1997). OPI interpreters tend to work in medical, social service, business, and legal cases. At present, most OPI interpreting is done consecutively, but as telecommunications technology develops further, simultaneous interpreting will become more prevalent (Mintz, 1998).

Community interpreting: Perhaps the most controversial of the terms used to differentiate between types of interpreting (see Mikkelson, 1996a & b; Roberts, 1994), it refers to interpreting that "enables people who are not fluent speakers of the official language(s) of the country to communicate with the providers of public services so as to facilitate full and equal access to legal, health, education, government, and social services" (Carr et al, 1997). This type of interpreting is also known as liaison, ad hoc, three-cornered, dialogue, contact, public service, and cultural interpreting; there is very little consensus about the definitions of these terms and whether or not they are synonymous (Gentile et al, 1996; Carr et al, 1997). Community interpreters were once considered amateurs and well-meaning but misguided "do-gooders" (Gonzalez et al, 1991: 29), but nowadays they are increasingly recognized as specialists in their own right.

Qualities of Interpreters
Regardless of whether the subject of discussion is a court, medical, or conference interpreter. The following qualities are identified by various authors as essential for good interpreting:

Language skills: Even laypersons recognize that interpreters need to have a good command of their working languages to interpret accurately, though they underestimate the extent of that command. Writers about all types of interpreting, from conference (Seleskovitch, 1978a; Jones, 1998) to court (Gonzalez et al, 1991) to community (Frishberg, 1986; Gentile et al, 1996) emphasize the breadth and depth of linguistic

proficiency required. They are also unanimous in making the point that language is just a prerequisite for mastering the techniques of interpreting.

Analytical skills: Gonzalez et al (1991: 363) declare that analysis is "foremost" among the strategies employed by court interpreters, "so essential to [simultaneous interpreting] that it can be considered an intrinsic part of the process rather than an ancillary tactic." Writing about conference interpreting, Jones (1998) also stresses how important it is to analyze a speech before interpreting it. The standards of practice for medical interpreters (MMIA, 1995) also cite analysis as a key element in interpreting proficiency.

Listening and recall: As Gentile et al (1996: 44) note, "Effective interpreting requires effective listening skills." Many authors define the specific kind of listening that interpreters perform as "active listening," and further point out that "[t]his active, attentive listening is quite different from other forms of listening, and has to be learned by the interpreter" (Jones, 1998: 14). Memory or recall is also identified as essential by virtually all experts on interpreting, regardless of the type: Seleskovitch (1978a: 34) goes as far as asserting that "in interpretation, memory and understanding are inseparable; the one is a function of the other."

Interpersonal skills: One might expect heavy emphasis on this quality among medical and social service interpreters, who are in more direct personal contact with their clients than conference interpreters (Roberts, 1994). But even conference interpreters are encouraged to develop these skills, as they may have a great deal of personal contact with delegates (Jones, 1998; Seleskovitch, 1978a).

Ethical behavior: Although the interpreter's code of ethics has the greatest impact on the interpreter's work in legal settings, ethics are a major consideration for all interpreters (Frishberg, 1996; Sussman and Johnson, 1996). Jones (1998) describes the delicate situations that can arise in international conferences, requiring that

interpreters thoroughly understand their role and exercise good judgment. Medical interpreters must be particularly attuned to the importance of patient privacy issues.

Speaking skills: Most people associate speaking skills with appearances before large audiences at public events such as congresses, assemblies, or press conferences; and public speaking is indeed a key component in the training of all types of interpreters (Weber, 1984; Frishberg, 1986; Gonzalez et al, 1991). Gentile et al (1996: 47) point out, however, that even liaison or community interpreters, who generally interpret in more intimate settings, need to be able to express ideas well: "Effective speaking skills range from quality of voice to choice of idiom, vocabulary, phrasing etc. So both what comes out of the mouth of the interpreter and the way it comes out are important in the overall effectiveness of the interpretation."

Cultural knowledge: It is almost universally acknowledged that interpreters working in medical and social service settings need to be acutely aware of cultural differences , although there is widespread disagreement about what they should do with that knowledge (Carr et al, 1997). Court interpreters are also expected to take culture into account, although they are much more restricted in their ability to educate their clients about cultural differences (Gonzalez et al, 1991).

Subject knowledge: Although professional interpreters often complain that their clients do not understand their need to prepare ahead of time and gain some understanding of the subjects to be discussed in order to interpret accurately ("You don't need to understand it, just translate it!"), all experts on interpreting recognize the need to acquire technical terminology and content knowledge in relevant fields (Seleskovitch, 1978a; Gonzalez et al, 1991; Frishberg, 1986; Gentile et al, 1996; MMIA, 1995).

Thus, it is clear that to some degree or another, all interpreters must demonstrate the qualities listed above, regardless of where and for whom they interpret.