C is for … – The Interpreter’s Languages (Part II)

Last week, I left readers hanging, having explored the A and the B of the interpreter’s language combination as defined by AIIC and beyond, but not the C. I’m going to try to make up for that today.

We all know what “C” stands for to the Cookie Monster. For interpreters, “C” refers to “the language(s) of which the interpreter has a complete understanding and from which she or he works” (AIIC definition). These languages are also referred to as “passive languages”, since interpreters are not expected to work into them from any other language.

Passive, my foot!

Now, no-one should get the impression that passive languages are the poor cousins of the interpreter’s combination, or that since a language is “only” a C, it doesn’t require much effort to maintain. To an interpreter, passive knowledge of a language can often seem very active indeed! At least that’s how it feels to me at times, when I think about all the work I have to put into learning and maintaining my various passive languages.

To be able to classify a language as a C, an interpreter must have a full understanding of that language in all of its different forms. This means what? Well, to me at least, it boils down to three things.

1) You should be familiar with dialects and regional variations – so if, for example, the only French you understand is français de France, then you will have to start tuning your ear to the twang of Québécois and the distinct rhythm of African French (and don’t forget Belgium and Luxembourg and all the other places where French is spoken). Austrian vs. German vs. Swiss, Flemish vs. Dutch, the various versions of Spanish spoken around the world … Few languages are spoken in a single, standard version, and an interpreter must really know as many variants of his C as possible.

While I’m on the topic of language variants, it’s also worth remembering that anyone who wants to work from English will all too often find themselves working from Globish instead – that international version of English spoken around the world by non-native speakers, each in their own special way. A Finn does not speak Globish the way a Korean will, and interpreting from these and other non-native speakers of English will at times require the interpreter to develop special skills (like mind-reading, maybe?). Bootheando, interpreting blogger extraordinaire, looks at the term in her post entitled Preparados para el Globish, which includes a cartoon and a video on the subject.

Interpreting students who plan to work from English will really have to try and make sure they understand a broad range of  accents in English – from regional dialects to Globish and beyond. (N.B. there is a politically incorrect, expletive-riddled but highly illustrative YouTube video on the subject of English accents that went viral a few months ago. I’ll refrain from giving you the link so as not to injure any sensibilities. However, if you want to get an idea of what you’re up against, you’re free to try to track it down yourself.)

2) You must also be familiar with a range of registers. By register, I mean (more or less) a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. This is probably easy enough for somebody who has lived for extended periods and/or studied or worked in a country where the language is spoken, who will have had exposure to the language in a range of registers, but might not prove so easy for others. When I started studying interpreting, for example, I found that my “kitchen Dutch” had to be brought up to speed quite quickly – something I tackled by reading Elsevier and the financial pages of De Standaard, and by participating in an exchange to the EMCI course in Antwerp, among other things.

From the kitchen to the classroom

On the other side of the register spectrum are those students who have taken a more “book-learning” approach to a language who often find that they can’t understand street slang or other less formal versions of a language as spoken in different social settings. This may not be a problem if you only ever work in Parliamentary Committees, but will definitely be an issue if you end up at a public hearing or a trade union conference, or any other meeting where participants may not be so concerned about using the formal register to express themselves.

3) Your knowledge of a language needs to cover a broad range of fields. It’s not all just politics and the evening news. As I said in my post on general knowledge, an interpreter’s knowledge needs to span many subjects – and by extension, their knowledge of their passive languages must also cover these subjects.

I’ll have chocolate chip, please

Expressed in this way, the learning of a C language might sound a bit daunting, and might make aspiring interpreters reading this right now wish they were back on Sesame Street. One thing is clear, and that is that language proficiency to the layman (which some might equate to level 2 or 3 on the ILR table) is not the same as language proficiency to an interpreter (for listening or passive knowledge, I’d put it at level 4).

Not too  long ago, I found myself explaining this to a friend who had said that she thought that I would soon be ready to take an interpreting exam for Portuguese, since, as she saw it, my language skills had advanced to a point where I was relatively fluent (I’ve reached B2 on the Common European Framework, or so my Portuguese teacher tells me!). Sure, I can read a Portuguese paper just fine and hold my own in an intermediate-level conversation. To many non-interpreters, this equates to fluency in a foreign language, and for a large number of real-life situations, this degree of proficiency  is indeed more than enough. But as I think I’ve just illustrated, it is not enough in my line of business. So I will keep plugging along happily with my Portuguese lessons until that faraway day when I feel that I have a fair shot of convincing an interpreting examination board that my level of knowledge meets the three criteria I’ve listed above.

After all, I would hate to think what would happen if I was in the booth and the Portuguese speaker I was working from decided to stray from European affairs or the financial crisis – about the only two subjects I can currently follow with any confidence in that language. And if he did that in an Azorean or regional Brazilian accent and then proceeded to throw in some slang, I’d be até o córrego in no time (Portuguese speakers, feel free to cringe).

C is (finally!) for Conclusion

This last point brings to me why I have decided to spend so much time looking at the whole questions of the language ABCs in the first place.

One of the main reasons why I have devoted two full posts so far to the topic of an interpreter’s language combination is that all too often, I see that the concepts are not fully understood by the general public. And since this general public includes our users and clients, it is worthwhile trying to set the record straight, if only so that they know what to expect when they hire us.

Possibly more worrying to me as an interpreter trainer is the fact that the same lack of awareness would appear to exist in some applicants to the interpreting course where I teach. One possible reason for this might be the use of different language classification systems at the universities where they come from. If they have just done an undergraduate degree where “B” was used to designate the language they were majoring in and “C” was used for their minor, then it is understandable that there might be some confusion when the post-graduate course uses a different classification system.

Applicants also often unintentionally misjudge or overestimate their own language skills. They might state that they have double As or Bs when they don’t, and in some cases even claim a language as a C when they don’t actually know the language very well at all (in such cases, I’d call this a “D” – a language you have some knowledge of, but which you can’t yet interpret from).

This is not a criticism of applicants or students by any means, it is simply a reflection of the fact that passive and active language requirements for an interpreter are often so much higher than what people think, even students themselves. Very often over the course of a training program, and sometimes even before the year begins, students’ language combinations will be modified from what they originally indicated on their application form in order to reflect more accurately their language proficiency. Of course, this goes both ways: there are also cases of students who underestimate their language skills, who end up getting a D upgraded to a C, or a C to a B.

So there you have it: my two-part take on the ABCs. Part III of the series on the interpreter’s languages will be coming soon …

Related Posts

Learning your ABCs – The Interpreter’s Language Combination (Part I)

“Which languages should I learn?” – The Interpreter’s Language Combination (Part III)

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14 thoughts on “C is for … – The Interpreter’s Languages (Part II)

  1. As you rightly say Michelle, interpreters have to know languages to a level few outsiders are familiar with. One of the effects of this is there are very few formal learning tools at this advanced level (classes, books, schools all stop short).

    For anyone what you’re doing with your PT this page (please excuse the plug) has some interesting & surprising ideas about how to learn languages to interpreting level – all provided by conference interpreters.

    http://interpreters.free.fr/language.htm

    Andy

    • Plug away, Andy! Your page (Interpreter Training Resources) is already on my blogroll, and on the bibliography I hand out to new students every year.

      I’ve found one way to deal with the language learning challenge is to hire a teacher together with another interpreter. At least that way the students all have the same goals. Then it’s just a matter of explaining to the poor teacher what it is you need (not always that easy). The refresher/intensive courses targeted at working interpreters are good, too.

      Quite a few interpreters, when they feel they’re almost ready to add Spanish, come to La Laguna to audit classes there. They usually do this in exchange for teaching/contributing in class. It’s a win-win situation: students get to work with professional interpreters, and they get to perfect ther Spanish in an environment that’s conscious of their needs.

    • P.S. Reading David Walker’s “Dekalog” on your site reminded me how I expanded my vocabulary in Spanish after moving to Spain – by watching the game show Pasapalabra! I’m a game show junkie anyhow, and this one was perfect for me.

  2. David is full of great ideas. One that I use most often ties in with something you said about reading magazines cover-to-cover – that is buying technical magazines on subjects you aren’t familiar with and reading them.
    Aviation, potholing, cars, gardening whatever. By the time you’ve read one or two on a given subject you’ll see that a small core set of expressions/terms come up again and again. In my experience these are the semi-technical terms that the journalists expect an average native-speaker to understand for that subject area (so an interpreter would want to as well).

    • Aha, this is in keeping with my golden rule of “know at least enough not to sound stupid, even if you can’t sound like an expert”. Reading Popular Mechanics will do that, will it? I’ll definitely try it!

  3. And yet, you’ll never be ready for everything. Once the chairman of the Socialist Group at the EP quoted Martin Luther by saying: “Aus einem traurigen Arsch fahren keine lustigen Furzen” *). It’s an authentic quote, it looked it up on google.

    Do you know the word “fart” (and all the slang variations and euphemisms) in all your C languages?

  4. I wonder… does your first illustration have 4 cookies in order to include all our D languages? Or would that have to be Donuts rather than Cookies?

  5. Pingback: “Which languages should I learn?” – The Interpreter’s Languages (Part III) « The Interpreter Diaries

  6. Pingback: Learning your ABCs – The Interpreter’s Languages (Part I) « The Interpreter Diaries

  7. Pingback: Are most ASL interpreters working in their C language? « Daniel Greene’s Blog–o–rama

  8. Pingback: Day 15 – My goals as an interpreter | Interpretings

  9. Pingback: European Multilingual Blogging Day 2012 | The Interpreter Diaries

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