Franz Pöchhacker at the UPF

A few weeks ago, Franz Pöchhacker of the University of Vienna held a public lecture at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. My colleague at AIB, Mary Fons, was fortunate enough to be able to attend the lecture, and generously agreed to tweet the event using @AIBInterpretes.

Following the tweet report, there was a request that Mary publish a summary of the lecture for those who were not able to attend the talk. Since AIB doesn’t have a blog of its own (yet!), I offered to publish the report here on The Interpreter Diaries. So here it is! Thanks, Mary – and happy reading!


Franz Pöchhacker, Interpreter Studies: Evolution and State of the Art – 30 May 2011, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

Pöchhacker was an engaging lecturer with a sense of humor. He managed to cover the history and present trends in the field of interpreter studies quite comprehensively in the relatively short time available.

 I, on the other hand, will be unable to give a good summary of his presentation (I suspect reading his book is probably best). We interpreters may be good at multitasking, but frankly, tweeting AND summarizing AND asking questions AND followup questions is a bit too extreme for me to handle. So all you’re going to get is what struck my fancy and some ensuing thoughts.

Just Do It

First, I liked this quote: “Our primary concern [as interpreters] is being able to do [the job], rather than make interpreting an academic study, but the two should go together.” The first half of the sentence is the part that made me want to cheer, but that’s probably because I wasn’t persevering enough to complete the research section of the excellent trainer training course run by Barbara Moser which I attended back in the 90s. I enjoy hearing about research, reading conclusions and sifting the evidence to see if I agree, but actually doing research myself, and doing it properly, is not the kind of hard work I seem to excel at, since interpreting itself with all its adjoining tasks (studying, invoicing, record keeping, networking…) keeps grabbing my attention.

Interpreters In Ancient Egypt

A historical tidbit to bring up in conversations – the title “Overseer of Dragomans” was used in 3000-year-old Egyptian documents (6th dynasty, for those of you in the know). This means that not only did interpreters exist – they must have been around for ages, however informally, whether mentioned or not – but they existed as some sort of profession and, moreover, overseeing their work warranted a lordly title. Chairing a meeting of interpreters these days has been unfavorably compared to herding cats, but it’s got to be easier when the interpreters are, in effect, your slaves or subjects – perhaps we should ask some of those agencies we all love to hate.

As an aside, I wonder what the overseeing was like… for some reason I keep imagining Python-esque or Les Luthiers-like scenes in which the interpreter is either mis-corrected, beaten up as the bearer of bad news or required to interpret increasingly disparaging statements about himself. (Yes, it’s typically a “he” in these sketches.)

Theory: A Definition

The meat and potatoes in the presentation was Pöchhacker’s description of modern theory and research, with a historical overview followed by a representation of paradigms. Most interesting was the proposed definition of interpreting – “a form of Translation [please note capitalization] in which a first and final rendition in another language is produced on the basis of a one-time presentation of an utterance in a source language”. It’s based on the ideas of Otto Kade and worded to include signed interpretation – and live subtitling, for that matter.

Still, some things fell between the cracks. As the speaker explained, the definition leaves out the “fake consecutive” or “simultaneous consecutive” technique that involves recording the speech and then doing simultaneous interpretation from the recorded version. (I’d be terrified to try this without backup note-taking, being all too familiar with equipment malfunction!) I also add upon further consideration that it leaves out those situations in which we are asked to interpret videos for which there is no script and, in order to accommodate the client, we watch them once or several times over in advance to get the typically fast-paced content straight and hopefully filter out background noise or music. Anyone who tries to tell me that’s not interpreting is picking a fight!

What To Study And How

Pochhacker is quite rightly of the school that “Interpreting is interpreting” but of course differences have to be acknowledged and accounted for. Different techniques, different settings and power structures, different technologies, different locations and different degrees of language relatedness (my addition) have a bearing on how we work, live and are assessed or assess ourselves for accuracy and ethics. We do well to use research to learn about issues we have never consciously come across and consider whether they should have a bearing at how we go about our work. (For instance, a video of a relative interpreting for a patient and leaving things out is not altogether unrelated to the situation in which an intended off-mic utterance by a politician is not interpreted even thoug the mic is actually on.)

I really must bring this piece to a close, so I recommend reading Pöchhacker on the memes and paradigms that pervade interpreting studies. I do think it’s somewhat excessive to speak of paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense when referring to the different perspectives brought to bear in interpreting studies – sociological approaches do not cancel out neuropsychological ones, abandoning either would be a great disservice to the profession and to science, and they all use the methods of long-existing disciplines. Ultimately, the main thrust of the presentation is that ideally we interpreters should be aware of current research trends and findings obtained from many different perspectives and involving many different manifestations of interpreting.

Walking The Talk

We all love to theorize, expatiate, and recommend, and often neglect our own recommendations when our roles are shifted. For instance, I shocked myself by instinctively tapping on the mic before asking a question! All through the presentation, which lasted a couple of hours altogether, a student interpreter was slugging away in a tiny booth. Someone tweeted that I should relieve her, but I didn’t see that tweet until later and it never occurred to me to step in that way, as her teachers were in the room. However, in hindsight I realize that I should have commented on the matter. After all, unless this was done deliberately as part of some interpret-till-you-drop-and-check-results research project, we do know it’s not a good idea to keep interpreting simultaneously for hours on end, and having students do it is probably a mistake on many levels. My midsummer resolution will be to point out this sort of situation in the future whenever I’m among the audience and not in the booth – especially when the interpreters are students.


Mary Fons is a Barcelona-based conference interpreter, member of AIIC and one of the founding members of AIB. She is a regular contributor to Communicate!, the AIIC webzine.  


11 thoughts on “Franz Pöchhacker at the UPF

  1. Pöchhacker has a curse on him. Whenever he comes to Spain, his speeches are always interpreted by students. Some years ago, it was me and my fellow students from Alicante, when he talked about public service interpreting in Alcalá. ;o)

    Very interesting indeed. And a very nice man.

    • Interpreting for interpreters, there is no worse fate … I remember attending a FIT conference (as a delegate) in Paris about 10 years ago and there were interpreters working for a crowd of about 200 interpreting researchers/practitioners. Wild horses would not have dragged me into the booth that day!

  2. Thank you Mary. You made me remember that I was once mis-corrected when doing consecutive in a public event with 100+ people in attendance. Of course, I had to interpret the comment (I think I did so quite calmly) while feeling quite sure that I had understood the speaker but with doubts about whether I had mis-spoken. I was infinitely relieved when the speaker, who spoke both languages btw, corrected the member of the audience, a statement I also had to interpret, without any hint of relief or glee in my voice. A memorable occasion indeed, the comic aspect of which I could only appreciate later.

    • @Luigi, I’m glad that story had a happy ending!

      I wonder if anyone can locate a Flying Circus sketch with an interpreter. Mary and I were trying to remember if there was one, and I did some hunting, but all I could find was the one of the Hungarian phrasebook and another one of them giving a Norwegian news report with subtitles. It’s amazing how politically incorrect the world was back in the 70s. I don’t know if comedians would get away with that stuff anymore…

      For anyone looking for comedy relief, there is a Les Luthiers sketch entitled “Lo importante que es saber idiomas” with some great consec in it:

  3. Un grand merci pour ce blog passionnant auquel je souhaite longue vie ! J’ai créé une page sur mon blog en néerlandais avec des liens intéressants et j’ai bien entendu ajouté The Interpreter Diaries !

    Jonathan Faydi
    (collègue freelance de la cabine française à Bruxelles)

  4. Thank you Mary for the summary. Pöchhacker is always a very interesting and pertinent speaker. And although Kade’s definition may not cover all types of interpreting I think it’s a fairly encompassing definition of what it is.

    Hear, hear, to your words about the doubts of the Kuhnian paradigm shift. I have written almost a verbatim of that in an article that I hope will make it to a book sooner rather that later… I believe paradigms or memes or whatever should (and often do) interact and draw from each other’s conclusions.

    I also like that he always links community and conference interpreting together, sometimes (especially when you teach students) you get the impression that they are worlds apart when in fact they are only different sides of the same coin. The only thing that are worlds apart is the pay. Although a friend of mine who is very active in court interpreting told me that in Sweden if you have a language (e.g. Arabic) that allows you to work full time (i.e. taking up to 5 short assignment/day) and you have court interpreting credentials then you can make up to 4000 € /month before taxes. And that’s not a badly paid job.

    I saw the twitter comment about helping the interpreting student. How come that very often at conferences on interpreting there are either no interpreting provided or the interpreting provided don’t respect even the most basic working conditions. Conferences on interpreting are great possibilities for students to get experience, but even students have the right to booth mates, working hours etc. Maybe I’m exaggerating and maybe this was something that was agreed upon between student and teacher beforehand. But I have seen other similar cases.

    • Thanks for the comments, Tolken. I really liked the post you wrote in response to this one:

      I personally think that conference and community interpreting are closely related, but still require different training and skill sets (for instance, I could never be a community interpreter because I don’t have a B language), not to mention certification. This, however, shouldn’t preclude the different interpreting communities working together to promote their mutual interests. See what was done at the InterpretAmerica summit ( this weekend as a perfect example of how we can all work together to define standards.

      As for using interpreting students as cheap (or indeed, free) labour, I agree that if students are going to be used to interpret at university events, they should at the very least be given the opportunity to work in decent conditions. This means at least two to a booth, turns of max. 20 min (they get tired faster) and prior access to documentation whenever possible. I don’t actually organize the practice sessions that are run occasionally at the ULL, but it has always been my understanding that when my students are asked to interpret at a university talk, these three conditions are always met. The good news: they often do such a good job that they get asked back the next year! The bad news: they may well be taking work from qualified local interpreters who would otherwise get paid to do these sessions. I don’t know …

  5. Pingback: Interpret everything – or not… | Interpretings

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