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Interpreting as intervention:
norms, beliefs and strategies

David Katan
University of the Salento (Lecce)

ABSTRACT According to academics, the interpreting profes-
sion has moved on from its traditional impartial black-box role
to that of intervention. The first part of this paper will describe
what intervention means in practice, and the various levels of
intervention open to interpreters. It will be shown through the
use of the Logical Levels model how the interpreters habitus
both allows and constrains some levels of intervention accord-
ing to professional norms and beliefs about interpreter identity.
The second part of the paper reports an online survey of some
300 interpreters to gauge their own beliefs about invisibility, in-
tervention and responsibility. The respondents replies show a
clear resistance to anything more than a strategic intervention,
following that favoured by the Paris School, and little interest
in more ideological or reflexive types of intervention. Finally, it
will be suggested that openness to change may well come from
those interpreters working in other capacities, rather than from
those working within the interpreting habitus itself.

1. Introduction

Scholars over the last decade or so have begun to question the tradi-
tional dogma of interpreting as a passive, impartial, black box event.
As Pchhacker (2006) puts it, interpreters appear to have gone so-
cial (c.f. Wolf, 2007: 5), and interpretation is now mediation
(Pchhacker 2008), interaction (e.g. Wadensj, 1998), and also in-
tervention (Angelelli, 2003; Munday, 2007; Gavioli and Maxwell,
2007). It is not always clear, though, what intervention actually
means nor what the interpreters themselves believe about this rela-
tively new label. As Maier (2007: 4) quoting Hale notes, there is a
general professional identity crisis regarding the question. Indeed,
David Katan 2
as Mikkelson (2008: 87) points out, the whole area of interpreter re-
sponsibility, what interpreters can and should account for lies at
the crux of the interpreters dilemma, and more light needs to be shed
upon it. There is also, as Maier (2007: 5) points out, an insuffi-
ciency of raw material and need for more data regarding profes-
sional trajectories, self-perception and how interpreters and transla-
tors ply their trade.
This aim of this paper is to address both main points. In part one,
the focus is on what intervention for an interpreter entails, while part
two reports on a questionnaire survey which will provide data regard-
ing full time
practicing interpreters and their beliefs with regard to
readiness to intervene.

2. Levels of intervention

Intervention, as Baker (2008: 16) notes is inherent in the act of
translation and interpreting. So, this paper will discuss the subject,
not in terms of intervention/non-intervention, but in terms of levels of
intervention. I will suggest that for intervention to be fully accepted as
the new dogma, fundamental changes will need to be made in the
habitus, i.e., in the interpreters shared world of subjective aspira-
tions the dispositions durably inculcated by the possibilities and
impossibilities, freedoms and necessities, opportunities and prohibi-
tions inscribed in the objective conditions (Bourdieu, 1990: 54).
The disposition, I will suggest, can be usefully discussed in terms
of a Logical Levels system, a concept borrowed from NeuroLinguistic
Programming (Dilts,1990; Katan, 2004). In this system, any behaviour
(such as an individual intervention) in a particular environment, will
be logically the result of a set of interpreter enacted strategies, sup-
ported by a wider frame of accepted professional or socially accepted
norms. The norms themselves will be based on further unstated more
general beliefs about appropriacy and ethics, which, again logically,

The full time interpreters are a sub-group taken from a survey conducted in 2008 of
around 1000 translators and interpreters, reported in Katan 2009a and 2009b.
Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 3
will depend on the role status, and ultimately identity of the inter-
The outline for this system of logical levels is as follows:

(where, when)
e.g. SME meeting room, table; proximity of
buyer/seller and interpreter
e.g. Court, defense/prosecution positions; (non)
proximity of interpreter
Behaviour (what) Interpreting, speaking, listening, gesticulating, nod-
ding, standing/sitting,
Type of in-
Area of focus Example points
Strategies (how) Semantic Text explica-
translating, adding,
glossing, framing,
downtoning, shifting,





Norms (how)

Beliefs (Why)
Neutrality, fidelity v.
loyalty to text,
listener, self;
interpreter is in/visible
text is sacrosanct/a ve-
Interpreter as
intervenient being
Footing roles
(author, editor)
Spirituality/ (for
whom or for what).
Overriding raison
detre; sense of
cultural gaps
power relations
Missionary v.
Mediator v.
Activist v.

Figure 1: The Logical Levels of Intervention

David Katan 4
According to this hierarchy of levels, the strategies employed by an
interpreter will be enabled or constrained according to prevailing
norms and beliefs concerning the profession and those concerning
the role or identity of the interpreter.
Importantly, following the popular iceberg theory (Hall,
1959/1990) only the behaviour is fully visible (in our case, listening
and speaking the language, the kinesics, proxemics and other visible
forms of communicative behaviour). The visible behaviour, though, is
logically fostered or inhibited within wider frames. The highest
level, sometimes termed spiritual, mission or purpose answers the
existential question Why am I here?, How do I see myself in rela-
tion to society? and What effect will my work have? Answers to
these questions will be logically linked to the subordinate levels of be-
liefs and professional norms. These levels together will then establish
the possibilities and impossibilities, freedoms and necessities, oppor-
tunities and prohibitions of particular interpreter behaviour in the
objective world (Bordieu, 1990: 54).
Hence, any change in strategy will first need to be sanctioned
within the higher levels of the habitus of the interpreting world. As
Jenkins (1992/2002: 78) states, habitus disposes actors to do certain
things, it provides a basis for the generation of practices. So, by con-
flating habitus and the iceberg theory of culture we can see how the
disposition of the habitus itself to do intervention is directly related
to the level that is involved.
One fundamental level difference is that between the visible, which
Hall termed Technical and the other two levels. Technical is what
we can see the interpreter doing, and can reveal the individual differ-
ences between the source and the target text. The next level is strate-
gic, meaning that the interpreters production of a target text will fol-
low a pattern, which will be less obviously visible. Also, this pattern
will no longer necessarily be strictly related to features of the original
text, but more to the habitus of the interpreter. In fact, the interpreters
right to intervene on the form of the language, to add a metalinguistic
comment, or to advise the listener that the interpreted comment does
not mean what it might seem to mean, takes us to the heart of the third
level of the Logical Levels model, the unquestioned core values and
Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 5
beliefs, or stories about self and the world which then both guides
and constrains ones orientation in the real world (Katan, 2008: 72).

2.1. Strategic intervention

This first level of intervention is where language signs have a clear
WYSIWYG (What-you-See-Is-What-You-Get) referential function,
and any associated hidden values are universal. The focus of the in-
terpreter here is to transfer the terms and concepts in the source text
abroad with minimum loss (Katan, 2008: 70). It is the sense that must
be made clear, which, as Salama-Carr (2008: 145) explains, is com-
posed of an explicit part (which is actually written or spoken) and an
implicit part (what is unsaid but nevertheless meant by the author and
understood by the reader/listener.
This type of intervention may be likened to NeuroLinguistic Pro-
gramming metamodel work, which originally was used to help thera-
pists understand their clients limited view or model of the world
(Bandler and Grinder, 1975). The most important aspect of a meta-
model analysis is to transform client Surface Structures, the ill-
formed language used to describe their world, into well-formed utter-
ances to create the complete representation of the logical relations
(ibid. 1975: 28), inherent in their model of the world. Clearly, ill-
formed surface structures, faithfully interpreted, allow for incomplete
or mis-interpretations by the listener. Intervention at this level means
disambiguating and clarifying the linguistic dragons, warning signs
of potential miscommunication (Katan and Trickey, 1997: 115).
These, as Bandler and Grinder (ibid) point out can usually be detected
when information regarding the subject, predicate or their attributes
are missing. Ill-formed sentences will not satisfy challenges such as:
Who, what or how, exactly?
An example below, taken from an interpreted interview on a TV
show (Katan and Straniero, 2001: 226), gives a good example of how
the interpreter instinctively filled the sense of what was implicit in the
original surface structure:

Guest: (laughs) Ive been adopted by Sioux and I danced the sun
David Katan 6
This is an example of an ill-formed sentence, as we do not know with
whom exactly. Note how the interpreter intuitively supplied the miss-
ing information (in italics):

Interpreter: e ho anche ballato la danza del sole con loro
and I also danced the sun dance with them

The guest continues with a further ill-formed sentence, as we do not
know how, in what way. The interpreter, once again fills in the sense

Guest: and they pierced me on the back
Interpreter: e han- ehm hanno anche ehm praticato delle delle dei segni
rituali sulla schiena (.) dei fori/
and they ehm they also ehm practiced some some ritual signs
on my back (.) some perforations

2.2. Norms

Strategies are a direct outcome of norms which form the bedrock of
the dispositions in the interpreters habitus. Interpreting norms are to
be found explicitly in professional association guidelines. For exam-
ple, the National Standard Guide for Community Interpreting Ser-
vices Canada, published online in 2007 states: there should be no
distortion of the original message through additions, omissions, or ex-
planation. The idiom, register, style and tone of the speaker is pre-
served. Once the fidelity to the original text norm is taken as part of
the habitus, it is logical to then read that the Standards of Practice do
not endorse cultural brokering and advocacy.
In academia too, interpreting course programmes, text books and
research papers were until recently original message oriented, and fo-
cused on invisibility (fostered by the emphasis on training for confer-
ence interpreting). Intervention, though, at the Formal Level was en-
couraged. It was known as la thorie du sens or the interpret(at)ive
approach. The focus is clearly surface message bound, with the aim
of re-producing the sens.
As Pchhacker (2004: 71) notes, interpreting courses worldwide
were directed influenced by the established certainties and truths
Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 7
forged at the first School for Interpreters and Translators in Paris. It
was professional interpreters who dominated the I/T teaching profes-
sion both in Paris and elsewhere. The authority and drive of these
professionalizing programmes, based on conference interpreting in-
visibility and impartiality ensured that any other school of theory or
practice largely remained in the shadow (ibid: 36). It should be
added that the Interpreters School, Trieste, followed faithfully in the
Paris school footsteps.
Much conference interpreting work is transactional (Brown & Yule
1983), so la thorie du sens approach is often sufficient to ensure ef-
fective communication. However, where the communication is clearly
interactional, where connotations, pragmatic meaning and face, as
we will see, all come into play, the inculcation of university training
and professional norms make it difficult for an interpreter to feel pro-
fessional about further intervention.

2.3. Cultural and Pragmatic intervention

There are two Levels here, pragmatic and cultural, though interlin-
guistic pragmatics cannot really be discussed without the wider frame
of the cultural, so the two levels will be to all intents and purposes
conflated. In general, at this more out-of-awareness Logical Level,
the focus is no longer on making the sense apparent in the surface
structure, because the text is now viewed as discourse, and as involv-
ing meaningful exchange. Hence, quality of the uptake and the prag-
matic effects dominate. At this level there are a number of areas of fo-
In all cases the focus is on the hearer and the effectiveness of the
uptake. Audiences intra-culturally have an out-of-awareness under-
standing for the type of discourse appropriate within a particular
genre. Hence, at this level of intervention, the interpreter is aware that
the pragmatics of communication is influenced by the culture filter
(c.f. Katan, 2009c). Discourse viewed at this level, allows an inter-
preter to judge to what extent normal communication style may be
valued differently inter-culturally and to intervene accordingly. Katan
and Sergio-Straniero (2001: 227), for example, give the following cul-
David Katan 8
tural intervention example of a talk-show interpreted guest, a Maori
doctor who spoke very basic English:

Guest /Interpreter Back-translated Italian interpretation:
expert talk
G: a woman can create the possibility
I: e una donna pu in effetti con ci
creare una possibilit

A woman can in fact through this create
a possibility
G: and the sex of the twins
I: anche possibile stabilire a seconda
del tipo di alimentazione ehm una mag-
giore probabilit di avere un maschio
piuttosto che una femmina

It is also possible to establish ehm de-
pending on the form of alimentation a
greater probability of having a male
rather than a female

The language of the doctor in the interpreted Italian example is longer,
more complex, and employs a more formal and specialized lexis. It
also includes background information, implicit from the immediate
context, conforming to Italian KILCy
expert-talk norms. The result is
that the Italian audience now correctly hears an expert giving medical
advice according to Italian generic norms
In transactional communication, interpreters intervene to maintain
appropriate register. In interactional communication, illocutionary
force requires intervention if it is to be successfully carried across cul-
tures. As Hatim & Mason (1997: 81) themselves underline:

Crucially, it should be added that the seriousness of an FTA [face threat-
ening act] is a cultural variable; it cannot be assumed that that the same act
would carry the same weight in different socio-cultural settings

Mason (1999: 156) gives an example of an Italian entrepreneur refus-
ing an offer from a potential buyer. He explains how an untrained in-
terpreter (the entrepreneurs daughter) showed not only bicultural
awareness but also the instinct to save everyones face:

Entrepreneur: Digli che un imbecille!/Tell him hes an imbecile
Interpreter: My father wont accept your offer

This interpreter here is doing more than just making the sense explicit.
Indeed, almost the opposite strategy is being employed. The reason, as

For KISS/KILC (Keep it Long and Complete) (see Katan, 2004: 261-2)
Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 9
Katan (2004: 316) suggests, is that in an Italian exchange emotional
language is much more acceptable than in a British, and that language
in general is rarely taken at face value. Hence the interpreters inter-
vention, in producing a more acceptable message, was a successful
interpretation of the illocutionary intent.
For an interpreter to be able to decide how the force of a speech
act will be received in this exchange, she needs take a variety of per-
ceptual positions:

The first position would be that of the black-box interpreter or anima-
tor (in Goffmans sense): attention is paid exclusively to the words, and ide-
alised meaning. In the 2nd position, the interpreter is translating for the cli-
ent, and is aware of the pragmatic effect of each translated turn. In the 3rd
perceptual position, the interpreter can disassociate from the interactants on
stage and gauge the effect of the dynamic negotiation of meaning (Katan
and Sergio-Straniero, 2001: 221)

At this strategic level we could also mention the need to manage con-
versational maxim differences. Kondo (1990) (and Katan, 2004: 304)
talk of the problem of intervention and cultural variation with regard
to how implicature functions in diplomatic talk; and how this strategi-
cally affects uptake particularly when the negotiation is delicate. The
case in point regarded a Japanese interpreter and the faithful transla-
tion of his prime ministers positive sounding words, zensho shi-
masu/I will deal with the matter in a forward looking way. This ut-
terance, though, actually flouted the Maxim of Quality: do not say
that for which you lack adequate evidence or rather dont lie, the
flouting of which is an accepted Japanese way to reduce the weight of
the face-threatening act. President Nixon was unable to access the im-
plicature, and hence did not hear the diplomatic lie. After 12 months
of subsequent Japanese silence regarding the matter, Nixon felt be-
trayed and thought all Japanese politicians liars and utterly untrust-
worthy (Kondo, 1990: 59). The interpreter had been bound, as Kondo
states, at the lower level of strategic intervention due to constraints of
the professional norm: interpreters can work essentially only with
what has been expressed (1990: 63).
Had the interpreter been able to extend his habitus of possibilities,
he would have been able to intervene culturally, aware that the accep-
David Katan 10
tance of conversation maxims is culture specific. In Anglo cultures
Quantity (make your contribution as informative as required) rather
than Quality is the more diplomatically acceptable floutable maxim.
Hence, the interpreter could have introduced, for example, a non-
sequitur, such as we would not wish to spoil your stay here (Katan,
2004: 304), or perhaps signal closure, such as The Prime Minister is
suggesting that this is a delicate matter.
Other aspects of intervention at this level are to do with differing
cultural signifying practices. When, for example, in the middle of an
Italian business meeting, the Italian member says Vogliamo un
caff?/What about some coffee, this may well signify Lets have a
break from the business in hand, and not Lets have some coffee
brought into the room while we work.
We have now left the intervention levels of linguistic compensation
or manipulation, and are now suggesting that the interpreter should in-
tervene as author (Goffman 1981). With regard to the above exam-
ple, the interpreter could decide either to work on the text itself and
say Shall we go and get some coffee? or intervene as primary par-
ticipant, framing the words of the original text, What about some cof-
fee?, with her own addition, such as: I think he is suggesting from
the coffee bar downstairs.
Apart from adapting or adding to the surface message, there are
many cases of intervention that actually require withholding the mes-
sage. Under the heading Dont tell the patient, Blignault et al (2007:
229) recount the vital importance of not interpreting what the plain-
speaking Australian doctor might report, for example, to patients of
Vietnamese origin. This is due to the fact that it is even more taboo to
discuss illness and death in Vietnam than it is in the West.
Yet, when it comes to religious talk, however, it is the West that is
more reticent. Herrero (cited in Vidal Claramonte, 2005: 270) reports
how the faithful interpretation of the culturally normal frequent invo-
cation of God practiced by a Moroccan citizen accused of drug traf-
ficking offended those in authority, the belief being that only the
good should invoke Gods name and even then only in exceptional

Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 11
2.4. Ideological

This term is used by Wing-Kwong Leung (2006: 139) as a neutral
rather than derogative term in translation studies. In his words, ideo-
logical is sociopoliticized, and it means being oriented towards ac-
tion it is proactive, not just reactive. This ideological level fo-
cuses on defining who is acting or intervening. If we define the
who as a professional interpreter rather than friend, colleague or
employee then we will logically expect different norms, strategies
and behaviours regarding the type of intervention. The professional
will feel constricted in her ability to intervene by the norms of her
habitus, while the amateurs will be much freer to interpret, and with a
clear sense of loyalty based not on sense but on meaning, uptake and
relationship. On the other hand, if the person defines herself as a cul-
tural broker (Gay, 1993: 293) then loyalty will be towards fair play
and to ensuring effective communication for all. This will then result
in the interpreter deciding not only to intervene on the text, but at a
meta-level to intervene on the interpreting event itself. In business,
Gavioli and Maxwell (2007) discuss how the interpreter can and
does initiate un-elicited talk.
It is at this level, also, that power relations and the possibility to re-
dress the asymmetries in the communication process becomes the ob-
ject of focus. Asymmetry is a natural result of the fact that the com-
missioner will usually be, or will represent, one of the clients only.
The interpreter herself, too, will usually be closer to one of the clients
linguistically, culturally or affectively. In a number of countries, par-
ticularly those more ascription oriented (c.f. Katan, 2004: 239-240)
the business interpreter is expected to take sides, according to who is
paying: [her] role is to support [her] own team and possibly even to
protect them from confrontational conduct by the western negotiators
(Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner, 1997: 110).
Palmer (2007: 20) points to further problems regarding neutrality in
more extreme situations. In Iraq, western journalists and soldiers have
to depend on local interpreters and fixers, resulting in the possibility
of false information; or alternatively, as a result of a journalists ex-
cessive dependence over time on the local informer, the interpreter
may not just inform, but actually form the journalists view of the
David Katan 12
situation. From the point of view of the interpreter, she will find her-
self in an uneasy position, especially when her ethics are not coherent
with those of their commissioner (c.f. Inghilleri and Harding, 2010).
In fact, western interpreters are in reality not as neutral as their
habitus would have it. Moeketsi (2007: 107), for example, notes how
South African interpreters are required to interpret private discus-
sions between prosecution and/or defense lawyers and their clients,
which may create the impression that the interpreter colludes or con-
spire with the opposing parties in litigation. Whatever the interpret-
ing situation, whether war, legal or business, issues of trust are exactly
the same.

2.5. Reflexive

Though collusion is considered unprofessional by all western written
and unwritten interpreter professional codes of conduct, there are now
more, academic led, calls for interpreters to be identified as activist
(Baker, 2008), committed to redressing current power imbalances, and
in particular, to give more voice to the less powerful in society.
At this meta-level, the interpreter is very much more self-aware of
who she is and of her position in society; and, importantly, does not
take the status quo (e.g. power relations in society or professional
rules of conduct for interpreters) as given. At this level, all interpret-
ing means intervention; and that not only will the quality of ones
work be visible, but so too will ones own ideology, beliefs and work-
ing norms. Taken to its extreme, the interpreter consciously decides
how to consciously manipulate the original stance taken by a client to
redress the asymmetries of power. Professional associations, and most
lay people, would certainly call this type of intervention sabotage
(see also Palmer, 2007).
Baker (2008: 18), herself, stops short of completely endorsing in-
tervention which would visibly contravene professional norms. At the
same time, though, she makes it clear that there are a number of situa-
tions where an interpreter should be entitled to autonomously decide
to actively influence the reception of the message away from the in-
tention of the original speaker.
Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 13
A further possible reflexive intervention is that of whistle-blowing.
One case which received a great deal of media attention was that of a
university lecturer in interpreting, who is also a court interpreter with
23 years experience. Writing in the New York Times, Camayd-Freixas
(2008) recounts how the American Immigration and Customs En-
forcement trumped up charges on immigrant Guatemalan workers,
which he began to feel very uncomfortable about. He notes that the
norm as laid out in his professional contract was clear, and in theory
provided for an interpreters reflexive response, i.e. to refuse the as-
signment. As he tells us:

Standards for Performance and Professional Responsibility for Contract
Court Interpreters in the Federal Courts, where it states: Interpreters shall
disclose any real or perceived conflict of interest and shall not serve in any
matter in which they have a conflict of interest.


The question was did I have one. Well, at that point there was not
enough evidence to make that determination.

Hence, he remained faithful to what had been expressed during the
trial, but afterwards did blow the whistle, reporting the trumped up

2.6. Changing intervention level

There are two main motivating drives for suggesting that the inter-
preter take on more intervention. The first, is that it is now accepted
(by academics at least) that meaning is co-constructed rather than in-
nate in the text (c.f. Ondarra, 1997), and that therefore interpreters
themselves are active intermediaries (Mikkelson, 2008:86) added
to the fact that their very presence influences the co-construction of
meaning. Secondly, there are a number of academics who see inter-
vention as political, and that the interpreters presence as gatekeeper
will either further dominant power relations, or if empowered may
help safeguard the less powerful.
David Katan 14
That said, Mikkelson (ibid) herself is convinced that belief in activ-
ism is still a minority position taken in academic quarters. It is
probably also true that in general the last thing a business client wants
is a reflexive interpreter, as Masons interpreted father makes clear:
Perch non gli hai detto quello che ti ho detto di dirgli?/Why didnt
you tell him what I told you to tell him? Here, the client (and commis-
sioner) echo the interpreters traditional professional norm, that what
is stated in the text should be restated, whatever the effect.
So, what about the interpreters themselves? According to Angelelli
(2004:1), there is evidence of a shift in the interpreters dispositions.
She opens her volume on healthcare interpreting suggesting that in
this first decade of the 21st century, the interpreters are beginning to
ask: What can I do to help, what is my role? And, it is to the inter-
preters that we now turn.

3. The interpreter

A survey of over around 1000
translators (T), interpreters (I) and as-
piring T/Is conducted in 2008 via the internet was designed to gauge
the subjective aspirations and the dispositions durably inculcated,
or more simply, the T/I beliefs about their world(s). One set of major
beliefs investigated concerned T/I operational norms. As Toury (1999:
14) states, these norms are the translation of general values or ideas
shared by a group as to what is conventionally right and wrong, ade-
quate and inadequate into performance instructions appropriate for
and applicable to particular situations. Importantly, as Simeoni
pointed out (1998: 26) A habitus-governed account emphasizes
the extent to which translators themselves play a role in the mainte-
nance and perhaps the creation of norms.

1223 began the questionnaire. 901 answered all the questions
Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 15
3.1. Norms v habits

Before analyzing the results, it should be made clear that a discussion
of habitus, the model of the world, does not in itself tell us how inter-
preters actually behave in a particular environment. As Korzybski
(1958: 58-60), among others, tells us, the model or the map of the
world, is just that. Like any other map, it is necessarily a simplifica-
tion and distortion of the reality. Hannah Amit-Kochavi, for example,
insisted that she never intervened during her translation of the Ara-
bian Nights from Arabic into Hebrew. Yet, when Pym (2009) probed
further, she realized that she had not only made strategic interventions
on the text but she had also made a number of autonomous editorial
decisions, which included deciding which of the Nights to translate
into Hebrew.
Closer to home, Eraslan Gerek (2008: 25) reports on a survey of
conference interpreters, which shows how interpreter replies did not
coincide with reality: Through the analysis of these interpreted inter-
actions, it was found that the actual behaviour of interpreters in real-
life situations, or their role performance in Goffmans terms, differs
considerably from their normative role defined both by interpreters
and users as neutral and uninvolved in the interaction and faithfulness
to the original speech. Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (1997: 32)
also note that performance might not mirror declared values, simply
because there will be other over-riding values, which may-well not be
declared. With this in mind we will now investigate the interpreters

3.2. The Survey Corpus

The questionnaire was posted to colleagues (T/I teachers, profession-
als and MA/PhD students) around the world, using surveymonkey
Overall results can be found in previous publications (Katan, 2009a,
2009b). With regard to interpreters, 304 out of the 870 who work in
T/I ticked interpreting as a first, second or at times role, and have

David Katan 16
an average of 12 years experience (23% with 21+ years). Of these,
158, roughly half (57%), interpret and also translate as their main area
of work, with the majority (122) on a freelance basis. The vast major-
ity have some form of I/T university education (85 have either a de-
gree or MA in interpreting, and a further 40 have a degree in transla-
tion). Only 75 classified themselves as interpreters only. Clearly, the
survey results cannot tell us if this reflects the market, but intuition
would lead us to suspect that there are relatively few interpreters who
can live comfortably by interpreting alone.
The breakdown by country of response is as follows:

Figure 2: Country

As can be seen, though the survey was global, the results are very
much skewed to certain countries (for more details see 2009a). The
targeted nature of the survey also meant that the respondents them-
selves regarded themselves as professional, committed, and from
the comments it was clear that they distanced themselves from the
cowboy competition (see Katan, 2009b).
Respondents were given a wide array of choices regarding fields of
work, as can be seen in figure 2 below, as well as the opportunity to
tick more than one of ten main areas plus anything and everything
as well as add their own other main area. Those who had ticked
both translating (T) and interpreting (I) as main role were classi-
fied as part timers and hence were not included in the chart below.
Almost every interpreting respondent ticked 2 main areas resulting in
Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 17
229 main areas from a sample of 125
respondents. They were also
allowed to apportion the fields of work into up to three levels of im-
portance: 1st job/main area, also and at times.

Figure 3: Area of Interpreter Specialisation (actual numbers)

The radar chart above compares the relative specialisation in each
field, represented by the relative position of main area, also and at
times on each ray. As can be seen, the principal outliers on the outer
ring (main area) are business interpreting (18%), followed by tech-
nical (16%) legal (15%) and then anything and everything (14%).
The also, middle ring, as can be seen, is almost as large, but shows
more communality, favouring legal, marketing and tourism - apart
from the already popular legal, technical, and business. The at times,
inner ring, is almost perfectly undifferentiated, though there is a slight
hesitancy to dabble in business. In fact, business interpreting appears
to the most specializing, with most distance between the three rings.
However, an analysis of the entire group of all T and I business
main area respondents (209) from the main survey showed that only
six did not have a 2
area of work (2 interpreters and 4 translators).
Clearly, also the fact that we have some literary responses in the

It will be seen that the number of replies is never constant, as respondents were
allowed to skip individual questions at will.
David Katan 18
chart above shows just how variegated a further 1
, 2
or 3
area of
work might be - not forgetting the 60% of the interpreters who also
or at times will interpret anything and everything.

3.3 Visibility

The first question regarding habitus asked the respondents to state
how much they agreed that the T/I should be invisible, meaning to
what extent should one noticeably intervene in the flow of proceed-
ings between the clients.
The following graph shows how similar the 117 interpreters
to the translators and to the mixed group of those who said their main
area was both T and I.

Figure 4: T/I should be invisible (%) according to main role

These groups are mutually exclusive, meaning that these interpreters do not translate
and the translators do not interpret. As mentioned earlier, though, the vast majority do have
another, second job (such as in teaching). For further details see Katan 2009a/b.
Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 19
Actual numbers
Interpreter Part-timer
Definitely agree 73 17 9 99
Mainly agree 166 51 71 288
It depends 110 32 64 206
Mainly no 27 9 25 61
Definitely not 24 8 19 51
Total 400 117 188 705

As can be seen, there is remarkable conformity between the three
groups, with the interpreters more of less midway between the transla-
tors and the part-timers. The majority of the 705 respondents, here,
cluster around the mainly agree that the T or I should remain invisi-
ble whatever the situation. Specifically regarding the interpreters, if
we merge the mainly with the definite we find that 58% (68) of in-
terpreters basically agree that invisibility is an ideal to be preserved,
while only 15% (17) basically disagree.
The it depends category was designed to gauge the readiness of
interpreters to change strategy, regardless of their norms. It was
worded as follows: It depends: meaning yourself, i.e. your own
choices, which may oscillate between all the above [original words,
listener, commissioner] at any given moment. Positive replies to it
depends should then reveal those who have a much more ideological
and reflexive approach to the job in hand, and should give us an idea
of the proportion of interpreters who consider intervention not so
much as a fixed norm but as a series of options with all Levels
available. Of the 3 groups, the interpreters are the most norm-bound:
only 27% felt that it was the interpreters role to make their own deci-
sions regarding appropriate visibility. This was only one percentage
behind the translators it depends, but a good seven points behind the
part-timers (34%).
Breaking down the main area freelance interpreter group into the
more popular specialist areas results in a very low number of inter-
preters per group even though this includes those who also might
translate. Yet, it may show us if there is a likelihood of any pattern
differentiation, which might then show some differing views on visi-
bility. The numbers are as follows:

David Katan 20
Immigration/Public service: 10
Medical: 10
Legal: 23
Technology: 25
Business: 47

As can be seen from the chart below, even with very small numbers
taken from over 20 different countries around the world, there is re-
markable conformity with one exception:

Figure 5: T/I should be invisible (%) according to interpreter job area

The medical interpreters are clearly the only group open to visibility;
while, surprisingly, the cultural mediator par excellence, the immigra-
tion and public service interpreter, appears to be the least open. Yet, of
course, the numbers are so small, that all we can say is that there is lit-
tle to differentiate the various areas of the profession.
If we look at the main area of work for the whole group of all
those who work (and study) in medical (96 responses), community
(immigration, public service) (86), legal (160) and business (209),
which now specifically includes translators, we can see the same

Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 21

Figure 6: Translator/Interpreter should be invisible (%)

As can be seen, there is again remarkable agreement between the vari-
ous groups. If anything, it would seem that that the medical interpret-
ers are most in agreement with invisibility (6% more than the average
of the other 3 groups), though there is a fairly sharp drop of 14%
mainly agreeing to invisibility. We should though always remember
that with such small numbers we can only talk about the general
trends, and not the handful of medical interpreters who did not tick
mainly agree.

Average other
Difference between Medical
and Average other groups
Definitely agree 18% 12% + 6%
Mainly agree 32% 47% -14%
It depends 28% 22% + 6%
Mainly no 11% 10% + 1%
Definitely not 11% 10% + 1%

Overall, there is not really (yet) enough evidence to corroborate Ange-
lellis (2004:1) assertion that health-care interpreters (or community
interpreters for that matter) are consciously questioning the traditional
Of those who mentioned it depends, 22 added comments. As
stated earlier, the it depends category was designed to highlight
those who might have a more interventionist disposition. However, it
David Katan 22
was clear that, for most, visibility was perceived as intervention as a
strategy, and not as a norm; and would be dictated, not by interpreter
beliefs, identity or purpose, but by a lower Logical Level, the Envi-
ronment, referred to as the situation or context. Also, where the
comments specifically mention higher Logical Levels of visibility, it
is usually done so cautiously, gingerly moving away from the sanc-
tioned habitus with an array of hedging devices, conditionals, modals
and do on. The example comments below regarding when an inter-
preter should intervene have been organized according to five types of
situation mentioned:

A. Clarification
If it is business interpreting the main aim is to make sure that the two
business partners are getting their point across and that they understand each
other. It can be necessary to become more visible. (Italy, degree T/I; T/I
freelance, marketing assistant; business; 13 years)

B. Type of interpreting event:
An interpreter should not always be invisible in liaison interpreting,
where the personality is important to the client. (Italy, Master T/I; T/I free-
lance; -; 5 years)
Cooperative encounters (eg: medical and social services: visibility and
negotiation are often appropriate. Adversarial encounters (eg: US legal set-
tings): invisibility. (Argentina, degree/T; freelance/I; legal; 8 years)
Depends on the assignment - sometimes a high degree of visible inter-
cultural operation is required and desirable.... a true "invisibility" is practi-
cally impossible to achieve. (Finland; degree in languages, Master T/I; Free-
lance/I; legal, technical, community; 10 years)

C. Issues of responsibility:
It could depend on the politics of the situation where someone could
blame the interpreter for interpreting something in a certain way (even if cor-
rect). Then the interpreter's life could be in jeopardy! (Germany; Master in
Science-Arts/Languages; PhD student/freelance I/T; marketing, business,
technical, tourism; 21+ years)

D. Physical/Psychological presence and audience expectation/wants. community interpreting settings the interpreter should not be invisi-
ble, he/she contributes to the whole atmosphere of the setting which is for ex-
ample very important in psychological/psychotherapeutic settings (the main
field Im working in). (Austria; Master/T; permanent/I; medical; 7 years)
I have experienced many situations where customers deliberately use the
interpreter as "buffer", "mediator" or even "strategic tool" (e.g. to buy time).
Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 23
All this of course refers to consecutive interpreting! (Germany; Master T/I;
permanent/I ; technical/legal; 10 years)

E. Acknowledgement
He/she should be invisible only during the interpretation, but he/she
should be very visible after or before it, especially if the interpretation was
good (Croatia; degree/I; I/freelance; business/technical/tourism; 6 years)

3.4 Loyalty

The interpreters were given four choices as to where they put first, or
most loyalty. As the figure below shows, it is the original words that
must be adhered to rather than the listeners needs:

Figure 7: Interpreter main focus/loyalty (actual numbers)

Though the listener is in second place, with 26 replies, this is still 50%
less important than the original words, which scored 56. In lowly
third place was it depends, meaning that only 22 out of a total of
113 interpreters demonstrated a disposition to take active control of
their objective reality.
Furthermore, compared to the other groups in the survey (transla-
tors, the T/I part timers, academics and T/I students) it is the inter-
preter group whose insistence on loyalty to the text shows itself to be
the most durably inculcated by the impossibilities, the necessities and
prohibitions which they feel to be inscribed in the objective conditions
of their work. The graph below shows the relative emphasis according
to each group:

David Katan 24

Figure 8: T/I and academic main focus/loyalty (%)

Hardly surprisingly, while the interpreters might be the most conser-
vative, it is the T/I teachers who are the most open to focussing on the
possibilities, freedoms and opportunities provided in the objective
conditions, with 41% replying that loyalty would depend on the in-
terpreters own decisions. However, this did not stop, over a quarter
(28%) of the T/I teachers affirming primary importance to the original
words. We might also note that the students, tomorrows interpreters,
are clearly influenced by the skopos theory, with nearly a third (31%)
believing that loyalty lies with the quality of listener uptake. The stu-
dents also believe slightly more in their own freedom to act but, even
for them, the it depends, meaning yourself, is still hardly a prior-
ity at only 28%.

3.5. Responsibility for Listener Reaction

Surprisingly, perhaps, replies to the following question appeared to
contradict the interpreters invisibility. The question was: Given that
the interpretation is linguistically correct, to what extent should the in-
terpreter be responsible for listener reaction ideally and in reality:

Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 25

Figure 9: Responsibility for Listener Reaction (Actual numbers)

As can be seen, the vast majority felt that, ideally, it was the inter-
preters job to intervene always on behalf of the listener. The vast
majority also agreed, that in practice, the interpreter did intervene
very much of the time on behalf of the client.
The 13 who replied it depends explained, in the main that con-
text (as before) would affect the level of responsibility. There was an

A) Professional ethics:
It depends on the interpreter... some just don't care about this. I think it is
a very important part of the job (Brazil, degree in Sciences, freelance T/I;
anything and everything, 6 years)

The other replies have been grouped as follows:

B) Client disposition
on the purposes of the author: if they mean to cause indignation, be ob-
noxious, be aggressive, an interpreter must not change these individual au-
thorial goals and purposes...(but has to be invisible)
(Hungary, Hu-En, degree in T/I, PhD in Arts, freelance I & I/PhD; tour-
ism/immigration/business, 7 years)

David Katan 26
C) Physical proximity
whether he has a chance to have contact with his listener
(Slovenia, PhD in I, freelance I/lecturer; anything and everything, 15

Comments regarding client disposition show once again the belief in
invisibility, and fidelity to the original regardless of how listeners up-
take the message, exactly as outlined in Gentile et als authoritative
Liaison Interpreting: A Handbook: The formulation of the message
is the responsibility of the other parties; the interpreters responsibility
is to interpret (Gentile, Ozolinis and Vasilakakos, 1996: 48).
And this is the key to the apparent paradox. There is quite simply
an implicit belief that loyalty to the original words is the best way to
be loyal to the listener, as explained by one respondent (in reply to the
question on loyalty to the (1) the original words, (2) the listener,

I do not think that there is a conflict of interests between the 1st and 2nd
option (Germany, degree in I, freelance I/lecturer; technical/immigration, 7

3.6. Who is the interpreter

At the beginning I mentioned that the logical levels within the habitus
are governed by beliefs about self and purpose. In an attempt to ascer-
tain who the interpreter believes she is, respondents were asked to
compare their work with that of another profession. There were 115
interpreter replies to this question, and each respondent could tick up
to three boxes which most did. The percentage results among the 12
options were as follows (popularity of reply clockwise from most to

Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 27

Figure 10: The Interpreter can be compared to a ... (%)

The first point to note is that that the two shapes are not dissimilar.
Hence, practice, in the main follows theory, but falls short of the in-
terpreters ideals, except for a surprising agreement on the most popu-
lar comparison of all, that of mediator (23% ideal and 22% in prac-
tice). Given what has been said before, perhaps there are 2 caveats to
be made. First, the results are necessarily skewed, in terms of the per-
sonalised form of targeted respondents. Many of the 66 respondents
(57% of the group) who ticked mediator will have been directly or
indirectly influenced by this authors particular habitus, and publica-
tion, subtitled an introduction for translators, interpreters and media-
tors (Katan, 2004).
This volume emphasized the unrecognized intervenient nature of
the profession. Probably more relevant here though is the fact that
mediator, as Baker (2008: 15) points out, is a vague term. She notes
that from a semiotic perspective, mediation implies a person speak-
ing on behalf of another person, and hence mediation would be the
same as reporting what someone else has said or written, in the same
or in another language.
David Katan 28
So, more than probably, given the interpreters loyalty to the origi-
nal language, the group see mediator, not as a cultural mediator, but
in line with the next most popular set of comparisons (linguist, artisan,
wordsmith), i.e. as relayers, and guardians of the surface text as a
The relayer respondents were, of course, also allowed to tick more
intervenient being (Maier 2007) roles. As the chart shows, examples
such as agent of social change, educator, missionary, or broker,
rate as more or less the least popular, each garnering less than 10% of
the total proportion of preferences which goes to confirm this text
relayer hypothesis,
Yet, it must also be said that there is an important minority who do
feel that interpreting has a stronger sense of mission, for 25 respon-
dents (20% of the total cohort) did also tick agent of social change as
one of their choices. An analysis of this group, though, shows little
patterning. They come from 11 different countries, have more or less
equally a degree in languages or in I/T, and are more or less equally
distributed amongst the professional areas:

Figure 11: Main areas of work: All interpreters v Agents of social

What is of interest is that a number of the agent of social change
group added significant other main fields of work:
Interpreting as intervention: norms, beliefs and strategies 29
military (Hungary; degree in T/I; freelance I; + legal, also immigration
and medical; 8 years)
international humanitarian org. (Georgia; degree in I; freelance T/I; +
immigration, medical, tourism & legal; 7 years)
human rights (Finland; Master in T; freelance I; + anything and every-
thing; 21+ years)
third sector NGOs, CSOs (Brazil, degree in sciences; freelance T/I; +
anything and everything; 6 years)

We may presume that the Hungarian freelance interpreters military
role refers not to active duty but to something more humanitarian,
which is what would link it to the other respondents. In these cases,
then, the belief that an interpreter is an agent of social change is re-
lated to their wider field of action.

4. Conclusion

Interpreter intervention can be considered at a number of Logical Lev-
els, organized in terms of beliefs about role and norm possibilities and
constraints. These will determine the Level and type of intervention
believed to be appropriate. The interpreters habitus, its model of real-
ity, and the field in which it operates would appear still to be bound at
the first Level of intervention: explicitation of the sens. It is a strategy
to be employed when needs must. Though academics have begun to
highlight the limitations and the distorted reality of the interpreters
objective conditions there also appears to be strong indisposition to
change from within the profession. Indeed, as Simione hinted (see
above), it is the translators themselves [who] play a role in the main-
tenance and perhaps the creation of norms.
At the outset we noted that any change in strategy will first need to
be sanctioned within the higher levels of the habitus of the interpret-
ing world, but it may well be that for interventionist strategies to be
sanctioned, there will need to be more cross fertilization from fields,
like those above, all of which come from outside the profession.
And, as a final word, I can only concur with this comment:

We as professional T/Is need to stand up to our social status, there is still
a lot to be done regarding visibility and ethical responsibility (Spain, Master
David Katan 30
in T/I + Master in Arts + painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna;
freelance T/I; anything and everything; 21+ years)


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