LINGUIST List 10.626

Thu Apr 29 1999

Review: Wadensjo: Interpreting as interaction

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  1. Yasuhisa Watanabe, book review "Interpreting as Interaction

Message 1: book review "Interpreting as Interaction

Date: Sun, 18 Apr 1999 19:13:35 PDT
From: Yasuhisa Watanabe <>
Subject: book review "Interpreting as Interaction

Wadensjo, Cecilia, (1998). Interpreting as Interaction. Language in 
Social Life Series. Longman, London and New York. 312 pages.

Reviewed by Yasuhisa Watanabe.

This book outlines some of the fundamental concepts of interpreting as 
an area of study, as well as informing people who may require the 
services of interpreter(s) in their lives of what is expected when an 
interpreter is involved in the communication. Wadensjo attempts to 
differentiate 'interpreting' from 'translating' by highlighting the 
different genres that each area of study deals with, pointing out that 
while translating deals with written texts, interpreting primarily 
deal with spoken language. The person who performs the interpreting 
needs to have a knowledge of both languages concerned, not only the 
grammatical aspects but also the sociocultural side of the language in 
order to accommodate for the differences in areas such as the levels 
of politeness. Bakhtinian dialogue theory is applied to analyze the 
interaction among the communicating parties in this book. Once the 
interpreter is involved in an interaction between two people, the 
interaction is no longer that of an dyad, but that of triad. 
Accordingly, the variations in interaction dynamics is observed, and 
any examples taken from her colleagues (mainly Swedish / Russian 
interpreters) are included in the book.
Wadensjo also presents various other functions of an interpreter in 
conversations, outlining that the role of interpreter also includes 
that of mediator between the two parties who do not share the same 
language and/or the same sociocultural background.

The book consists of 10 chapters. Chapter 1 summarizes the past 
studies and various current issues in the studies of interpretation, 
for example, the study of interpreting has typically been included in 
the study of translation, and the role of the interpreter has often 
been underestimated in the interpreter-mediated interaction. In modern 
society, the interactions between people who do not share the same 
language or cultural background is becoming more common. Considering 
the varieties of languages and cultures that co-exist in modern 
society, more and more interpreters may be needed to ease the 
difficulty of communicating across the language barrier. However, 
interaction that involves an interpreter is still seen as a special 
case of an interaction. The outline of the book follows, based on such 
Chapter 2 considers the nature of spoken language in order to 
determine the nature of interpreting. Since interpreting deals with 
spoken language, it is important to determine what constitute spoken 
language. Wadensjo first compares two notions about the language: 
'talk as text - text production and text processing' and 'talk as 
activity - interaction and situated sense making'. Because of the 
differences in sociocultural functions of the languages concerned in 
the interpreting, it is not uncommon for interpreters to follow the 
meaning of the utterance rather than the grammatical aspects of the 
text. Wadensjo examines a case where she interpreted Russian 'yes' to 
Swedish 'no' in a court of law to make sense of the defendant she was 
interpreting for.
Wadensjo then goes on to explore how sense is made in spoken discourse 
by introducing Bakhtins theory of the appropriation of others words, 
that a word makes 'sense' when spoken with an intention to make sense 
in the given context by the speaker with his or her own semantic 
interpretation of the word. Interpreters, and people studying 
interactions involving an interpreter, therefore, need to recognize 
the meanings of utterances in the right context.
Chapter 3 briefly describes the current situations surrounding 
interpreters in the community in terms of the places and circumstances 
where interpreters are required, and education course and 
certifications available in various countries. A 'code of conduct' for 
interpreters is also discussed in this chapter.
Chapter 4 explores an interpreters role as an intermediary. Since 
most of the time when an interpreter is needed in an interaction, it 
is likely to be between a member of a majority group and a member of a 
minority group within the community. The interpreter therefore needs 
to act as a mediator. Wadensjo presents three kinds of mediation: 
formalized and spontaneous intermediaries, who act as if to organize 
the two parties; non-persons, who are present but treated as absent, 
and; gatekeepers, intermediaries who exist between lay people and 
institutions. In this particular instance, intermediaries need to 
explain the differences in the social and cultural system to the 
people intending to go through the gate, hence the title. Chapter 4 
also presents issues in interpreting in real situations, especially in 
the court room setting. For example, Wadensjo argues that not all the 
interpreters currently working in the legal system are properly 
trained to handle such interactions.

Chapter 5 outlines the practical considerations when analyzing 
interactions involving an interpreter. Goffmans (1990) concept of 
'role is utilized in this chapter, to determine the dynamics of 
interaction involving an interpreter. Data collection methods are also 
reviewed in this chapter, and their possible effects on the 
interactions themselves. For example, Wadensjo mentions that the 
naturalness of an interaction maybe hindered if participants are 
conscious about being recorded. 
In Chapter 6 Wadensjo presents some ideal models of interpreting and 
how they are carried out with examples that she has observed. She 
introduces the notion of 'rendition, and describes it as being what 
is retold by an interpreter from the original utterance. Although 
close rendition is the norm, rendition can be reduced or expanded by 
the interpreter to whatever degree is necessary to convey the full 
meaning of the original utterance. Interpreters can also choose to 
substitute, reduplify or ignore a part of the original utterance if 
Chapter 7 examines the role of an interpreter in a three-person 
interaction, and the role of interpreter as a mediator is emphasized. 
Here Wadensjo argues that interpreters need to negotiate the meaning 
of the original utterance and find a socially appropriate way to 
express it in the target language.
Since the interaction occurs among three or more people, it does not 
always follow the conventional turn taking of interactions between two 
people. This may occur when one does not understand the others 
language, one may ignore the others attempt to participate to the 
conversation, or to even attempt to participate in the conversation in 
a position which may not normally be culturally acceptable. One 
example given in this book is when a Russian patient kept talking with 
the interpreter in Russian, while a Swedish nurse, feeling left out of 
the conversation, breaks into the interaction by telling the 
interpreter 'say what he has said now' (p.173). The interpreter is 
faced by two overlapping turns. In such situations, interpreters need 
to be aware of the different positions they can adapt to mediate the 
Chapter 8 deals with ways to resolve misunderstandings in interpreted 
discourse. Wadensjo divides the causes of misunderstandings into two 
categories: local factors, such as linguistic and coordination 
problems, and global factors, caused by the discrepancy in the view of 
the institution and the interpreter by the two primary participants. 
Once again, it becomes evident that interpreters need to utilize 
his/her power to mediate the conversation they are involved in. The 
interpreter may need to discuss the lack of understanding by one party 
openly or privately to resolve the misunderstanding. One example given 
in the chapter is translating the plurality of 'you' in Russian and 
Swedish. Interpreters working in these languages may change the 
plurality of the second person because of the perceived differences in 
the levels of politeness in the two languages. In legal settings, this 
may cause trouble in ambiguity, therefore the misunderstanding was 
clarified openly in the interaction.
Chapter 9 brings up the issues of neutrality of the interpreter in the 
interaction. In the 'code of conduct' outlined in Chapter 3, 
interpreters usually speak in first-person singular form. However, by 
doing so, there are cases where this may bring an outbreak of emotions 
towards the interpreter from the primary interlocutors when discussing 
sensitive content.
Another sensitive issue in interpreting is how much emotion should be 
conveyed in the interpretation. Interpreters are often needed to 
interact with victims of physical abuse or rape, and the emotional 
condition of the original utterance is evident in the para-linguistic 
features of the speech, such as tone of voice. A question to be raised 
is 'should interpreters adapt their tone of voice as well?' One may 
see that failing to sufficientlyot convey such emotion may reduce the 
tension in the interaction, and conversely, over-doing emotion may 
insult the original speaker through appearing insincere.
Chapter 10 summarizes the arguments presented in this book. One 
argument the author admits to have with her colleagues is that whether 
an interpreter should stick to text-to-text model of translating or 
incorporate other techniques as described in this book. 
She concludes that interpreters should be flexible in adopting the 
different styles of interpreting, citing an example where the 
interaction between a pregnant woman giving birth and a midwife 
helping her. In the early part of the interaction, the primary 
interlocutors started the conversation with enthusiasm, but since the 
interpreter interpreted word to word, it was felt that all the 
excitement of having a new baby was lost in the interpretation. 

This book offers a detailed insight into interpreting as a profession. 
Examples are taken from a wide range of situations, including in a 
courtroom, at a police investigation, and in hospitals. Accordingly, 
this book provides a good introduction to interpreting to people who 
may encounter interactions involving interpreters, both professionally 
and privately, including legal and medical workers alike. As Wadensjo 
suggests in her concluding remarks, interpreting is not a 
straightforward job. It would not be difficult to agree with her that 
an utterance should be interpreted as an action, and it appears that 
this view is shared by many discourse researchers through the use of 
terminology such as 'speech acts' (cf. Austin, 1962). Various 
interpretations of meaning can be considered depending on the 
situation where the text uttered may not appear in the syntactic 
structure. In those cases, verbatim 'word to word' Translation may 
fail to convey what is intended by the speaker.
On the other hand, although the information and examples presented in 
the book are informative for a broad range of audiences, a 
professional interpreter may find the book too general, although some 
of the suggestions made could still have relevance for experienced 
persons as well. To counter this, it may be suggest that there could 
have been more practical ideas and suggestions for interpreters 
reading this book to apply to their everyday work in the field. In 
conclusion, it may be said that the book provides a stimulating guide 
to people who are new to interpreting or who are interested in the 
research issues associated with the profession, while at the same time 
the issues presented are relevant enough to trigger debate amongst 
interpreting professionals as well.

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon 

About the reviewer
Yasuhisa Watanabe is a part-time lecturer of Japanese at Queensland 
University of Technology. He also works as an interpreter of Japanese 
and English privately. His research interests include pragmatics in 
second language acquisition and sociocultural influence on language.

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