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)

The University of Westminster closes its training program

The Announcement

This is the news I woke up to last Monday morning:

“It is with deep regret that we are writing to inform you that the University of Westminster has decided to close the MA Conference Interpreting course.  It is a shame that a respected course so close to its fiftieth anniversary should be wound up.  As you doubtless are aware, the Coalition government recently made severe cuts in Higher Education funding, leaving the University with difficult – and sudden – decisions to make about how to effect savings.  We were informed of this in early April, made a counter-proposal for a streamlined course, with full staff support, but it has not been accepted.”

The news of this closure dropped like a bombshell on the interpreting community. Readers who may not be familiar with the interpreter training course at Westminster may wonder why. To help you understand the situation better, I’ll just briefly give you some background information on the course that has just been disbanded.

The interpreting training course at the University of Westminster was established in 1963 at what was then the Polytechnic of Central London. Westminster was a founding member and the original coordinating institution of the EMCI (European Master’s in Conference Interpreting) consortium. This is a group of 18 universities that cooperate in the post-graduate training of conference interpreters through student and teacher exchanges, resource sharing, videoconferences, and liaison with the EU institutions. Westminster is also one of only two courses in the United Kingdom recommended by AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters.

Countless graduates of the PCL/Westminster training course have gone on to successful careers as conference interpreters as staff or freelancers at the UN, the EU and other institutions, as well as on the private market. There is currently even one alumnus working for the Canadian government! Some alumni have reached important positions in interpreting administrations, others are active as trainers, and many also contribute actively in other ways to the promotion of the interpreting profession.

Despite being located in the UK, Westminster does not train only English booth interpreters. The course follows the tradition of other illustrious schools such as the ETI in Geneva and ESIT in Paris, training a broad mix of interpreting students with different language combinations. French, Spanish, Italian, German, Polish, Swedish, Hungarian, Czech, Bulgarian, Russian and Chinese interpreters have all been trained there. Westminster was also the first school to train interpreters in the Maltese and Irish booths. The school has also organized short courses for working interpreters as well as for the SCIC (the Interpreting Directorate of the European Commission) and the European Parliament.

The Justification

Anyone who, like me, wanted to find out more about the closure would have quickly come across this notice posted on the official course website:

Statement for Applicants on Closure of MA/PG Dip in Conference Interpreting

MA/PG Dip Conference Interpreting is a well-respected course that has been recognised by the EMCI, AIIC, the EU and the UN in various ways for the quality of its graduates. The closure of the course is not a decision that has been taken lightly and it has not been taken because of any quality, teaching, management or recruitment problems.

The training of conference interpreters to the level to which the course aspires is a resource-intense activity and the course generates a significant deficit each year. Whilst the Department has worked closely with the course team to develop a sustainable model of delivery, and has looked at a range of options to achieve this, this has not been possible.

Higher Education sector in the UK is currently subject to a range of financial pressures. In the present climate, the Department is no longer able to subsidise course delivery to the extent required by a conference interpreting provision and has been unable to identify a sustainable business model for the long-term future of the course.

Given the very limited choices available, a strategic decision has been taken to withdraw permanently from the training of conference interpreters, rather than attempt to reduce delivery costs and compromise quality, and thereby to refocus the resources of the Department on other activities.”

The Reaction

Now, I don’t think anyone needs any help to grasp the importance of the points being made in this notice. It’s made quite clear that despite the fact that the course is recognised for excellence in its field, budget cuts had led to the decision to disband it.

I think that this decision marks a serious precedent in higher education, particularly with respect to the field that concerns me most: that of post-graduate interpreter training. When the value of an education is converted into little more than a dollar sign (or in this case, pound sterling), then alarm bells should start going off everywhere. Stakeholders, and society as a whole, have a responsibility to recall the bigger picture. If conference interpreter training is considered “too expensive”, what will happen to the values of multilingualism so championed by the European Union? If the training of interpreters suddenly becomes unaffordable, what will happen to the quality of global political debate and intercultural discourse? These, and many other underlying questions, are thrown up by the decision to close Westminster.

The Response

With all this in mind, the interpreting community has decided to speak out on the decision. In the past days, I have heard many different people, all linked in different ways with the interpreting world, express their shock and dismay at the decision to close the Westminster training course. This is a message that should reach the ears of those who took the decision, if only so that they understand the reception that their decision has had among the wider community.

To this end, the interpreting blogosphere has decided to launch a joint action to raise awareness amongst readers of what has happened at Westminster and encourage individuals to express their views on it. Today, Bootheando, In my words, Cosas de Dos Palabras, the blog of Judith Carrera, Aventuras de una traductora-intérprete en Madrid, and The Interpreter Diaries are all publishing posts with the news. At the end of each post, you will find a link to a Facebook page that has been set up to allow members of the interpreting community to express their views on the matter. If you have a view you would like to share, or would simply like to express your support to the course coordinators in these complicated times, please take a moment to post a comment on the wall.

We encourage readers who are also fellow bloggers to take the information given here and publish it on their blogs as well. All readers are invited to share the news with the broader interpreting community using the available channels.

We may not change anyone’s mind, but at least we should speak out about how we feel about the decision to close the interpreting course at the University of Westminster.

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