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Review of  De-/Re-Contextualizing Conference Interpreting

Reviewer: John M. Matthews
Book Title: De-/Re-Contextualizing Conference Interpreting
Book Author: Ebru Diriker
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 16.2300

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Date: Fri, 29 Jul 2005 07:39:14 +0200
From: John Matthews
Subject: De-/Re-Contextualizing Conference Interpreting

AUTHOR: Diriker, Ebru
TITLE: De-/Re-Contextualizing Conference Interpreting
SUBTITLE: Interpreters in the Ivory Tower?
SERIES: Benjamins Translation Library, 53
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004

John M. Matthews, Facultat de Traducció i d'Interpretació, Universitat
Autònoma de Barcelona


Conference interpreters, understandably, approach debates with
some trepidation. After a fairly uneventful passage interpreting a
single speaker, when Q&A time comes they are suddenly thrust into
the roaring forties of a myriad of different identities. "One speaker
good, two speakers bad", to which we might add "more than two
speakers – an identity crisis". How does a single interpreter cope with
the cut-and-thrust of debate at a conference – trying to identify with a
multiplicity of speakers raising questions, casting doubts, and crossing
swords with -- and without -- a microphone? How does the interpreter
react when the speaker or interpreter makes a mistake, or on hearing
that ominous phrase "I'm not quite sure I understood your question,
perhaps there's a problem with the translation (sic)". It is these and
other related issues concerning the 'presence and performance' of
simultaneous conference interpreters that form the basis of the book
reviewed here, itself the published version of an eponymous PhD
dissertation presented in 2001.

Within a field which is, according to the writer's own
words, "dominated by cognitive, psychological and neuro-linguistic
paradigms", Ebru Diriker offers a look into simultaneous interpreting
(SI) as 'situated action'; i.e., "the position of conference interpreters as
individuals and professionals working and surviving in socio-cultural
contexts, and the interdependency between socio-cultural contexts
and the presence and performance of conference interpreters" (p.2).
In this sense it is a contribution to Interpreting Studies (IS) from the
socio-cultural standpoint, more in line with the sibling field of
Translation Studies, where the 'situatedness of translation' is seen as
being given greater emphasis in the shape of descriptive translation
studies, the 'skopos' theory, translatory actions, deconstructionism,
postcolonialism, and gender studies. Nearer to home, Diriker takes
findings and hypotheses from court interpreting and community
interpreting (where the role of the interpreter is seen as that of a
cross-cultural 'facilitator' and active agent in communication) and
applies them to the sphere of simultaneous conference interpreting
(where the interpreter is generally seen as a competent professional
identifying with the speaker, and applying 'performance rules'
according to professional 'norms').

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the current literature on the
subject, with particular emphasis on the extent to which Interpreting
Research has approached SI as situated action. It looks at previous
calls for, as well as actual research on SI in relation to socio-cultural
and interactional contexts. It also explores and comments on different
definitions of 'context', and the difficulties in defining it. The same is
done with 'discourse', the writer introducing the basic tenets of Critical
Discourse Analysis (CDA), based on Fairclough and Van Dijk, that
serves as the main theoretical framework. The conclusion is that in
spite of calls from several quarters to look outside the 'cognitive
paradigm', there are very few actual studies of simultaneous
interpreting as 'situated action', the main thrust of interpreting studies
being channelled towards the 'cognitive mechanics of processing'
rather than on a 'holistic conception of text, situation and the entire
course of action' in conference interpreting.

Chapter 2 provides an account of the wider socio-cultural context(s) in
SI by studying the meta-discursive representation and self-
representation of simultaneous conference interpreters and
interpreting. The chapter both scans and comments on the codes of
ethics and websites of professional organizations (interpreters' and
users'), general reference books, academic literature, the Turkish
press, and a popular book published by an active interpreter, with a
view to establishing how simultaneous interpreters are represented
and self-represented from the standpoint of expectations and
performance, as well as ethics. The chapter finds that: different
professional bodies provide varying degrees of detail of what they
regard as ethical interpreter performance; there is an apparent
contradiction in all codes between the requirement for "impartiality and
fidelity" (with implications of passive subservience) and the need
to 'facilitate communication' (implying active participation). In the more
specific/contextualised representations, where interpreters recount
real-life events, the involvement of interpreters in shaping the meaning
tends to become obvious. However, in their self-representation,
interpreter decisions to eliminate such 'impurities' as grammatical
mistakes, distinct accents, and so on are not regarded
as 'interference' or participation in shaping the message. Where there
is acknowledged participation, this is regarded by interpreters
themselves as being marginal to their main responsibility -- fidelity to
the speaker's "message".

Chapter 3 focuses on the narrower context of a particular conference
(2-day colloquium on topic of "Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt:
Metaphysics and Politics", Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, 29-30 May
2000). The aim of the chapter is to focus on simultaneous interpreters
and interpreting in a particular event and seeks to understand how
simultaneous interpreters are "positioned" in an actual conference
context, and how this tallies with the meta-discursive representation
and self-representation presented in Chapter 2. The chapter provides
an analysis of the questionnaire-based interviews carried out amongst
participants and interpreters, speakers, organizers and users of SI,
concerning 'presence and performance of interpreters' at this
particular event. The results highlight the diversity of viewpoints of
organisers, speakers, interpreters themselves and users of SI with
regard to the presence and performance of the interpreters. It is an
account of the different user expectations of an SI performance
contrasted with opinions of an actual performance; interpreter's
impressions of organisation and speakers are also included. The
chapter also provides an account of the raft of problems and pitfalls
awaiting a researcher out to gather authentic material for an empirical

Chapter 4, the longest in the book, gives us a glimpse of the other
side of the coin. It analyses the same issues mentioned in Ch. 3 using
transcriptions of recordings of the floor and the interpreting booth,
where two interpreters (A and B) work from English into Turkish and
vice versa. With these transcripts as a starting point, the writer seeks
to investigate why, when and how interpreters 'shift the speaking
subject', i.e. change from using the 'speaker's I' (or 'alien I', the norm
in simultaneous interpreting) in their delivery to using the 'interpreter's
I' (i.e. speaking as themselves, and therefore diverging from the
professional norm) or else use reported speech when referring to
speakers. Fifty-eight instances of such shifts are reported, though the
writer concedes there may be more and of a more subtle nature. The
analysis points to four "speaker positions" adopted by the interpreter
as compared with the one according to the norm:
(1) Interpreter takes norm-based speaker position (first person
singular, 'speaker I').
(2) Interpreter assumes speaker position indirectly by reported
speech, paraphrase, explanatory remarks about speech on floor.
(3) Interpreter assumes speaker position implicitly (blends own
remarks into first person of 'speaker I').
(4) Interpreter assumes speaker-position explicitly (inserts own
remarks or comments in delivery).

The shifts themselves are not seen as random but following a clear
pattern. They occur with:
(a) speaker/interpreter apologies,
(b) speaker's/interpreter's mistakes,
(c) overlapping/semi-verbal/inaudible interaction on floor,
(d) problems with transmission of interpreter's/speaker's voice,
(e) ambiguous or contradictory input on the floor,
(f) language/culture-specific discussions or difficult word-connotations
in one conference language on the floor,
(g) references in non-conference language on the floor, and
(h) accusations of misinterpretation from the floor.

Chapter 5 juxtaposes and contrasts the analyses carried out in
Chapters 3 and 4. In this sense it provides an account of how the
meta-discourse on SI relates to the findings of actual SI performance
at a real conference. An account is given of what the meta-discourse
on SI suggests, followed by participants' observations on the presence
of interpreters, and the performance of those same interpreters as
suggested by the conference transcripts. As a result of these
analyses, the chapter offers tentative hypotheses on the reasons
behind the convergences and divergences between what is said and
what is done in simultaneous conference interpreting. The main
conclusions reached are: the 'mythical nature' (in Barthesian terms) of
meta-discourse on SI has been exploded by the reality of an actual SI
performance; that this meta-discourse is purposeful in that it increases
both the symbolic and shaping power of the interpreting profession --
the former providing it with value as a marketable commodity, the
latter aiming to impose specific "performance instructions" on insiders.
By foregrounding the "ideal" interpreter, it seeks to bring actual
behaviour closer to the most effective (i.e. commercially most viable)
image of the profession.

Finally, mentioning implications for interpreting studies, the writer
points out that the evidence challenges the widely-held view that
conference interpreters work in homogeneous settings, even in
technical meetings; points to the fuzziness of quality criteria employed
in user surveys; challenges the cognitive paradigm in SI that seeks to
explain interpreted utterances with reference to mental processes
only; suggests that in SI we are dealing with a phenomenon
of "meaning negotiated by the interpreter" rather than "meaning
intended by the original speaker", thus involving the interpreter's own
subjectivity as well as a variety of socio-cultural and interactional
factors. The final conclusion is that the assumption that simultaneous
interpreters access and transfer the meaning as intended by the
speakers is too simplistic to account for the complexity of actual SI
behaviour, and hinders more critical analysis of the process.

The Appendix contains the transcription conventions used in the
study, and presents excerpts (original, interpreter versions into
Turkish and English, writer translation if original in Turkish) and
analyses of all 58 instances pointing to a "shift in the speaking
subject" in interpreter delivery. It also provides an extensive transcript
of the last 25 minutes of the conference to demonstrate the
relationship between the shifts and the general flow of the conference.


This highly readable account of meta-discursive representation of the
interpreter contrasted with a real SI performance is indeed
groundbreaking in its approach, as described on the book's back
cover. It is a pioneering attempt to bring into simultaneous interpreting
studies findings from related fields such as court and community
interpreting. In doing so it challenges the professional 'norm' in SI of
fidelity to the speaker via accessing speaker's intended meaning and
transferring it 'fully and faithfully'. This study claims that there is more
subjectivity on the part of the interpreter than meets the eye (or ear).

Relatively jargon-free, the book can be read with profit by both
interpreting professionals and researchers. Professionals will no doubt
find the description of conference organisation familiar (though the
particular conference under discussion seems to have had more than
its fair share of problems for the interpreters). Researchers in the field
of interpreting studies will recognise in this often disarmingly candid
account the many problems involved in gathering real material for an
empirical study (so exhaustive an account that it may even be taken
as a practical check-list)
However, since this book is the published version of a PhD thesis,
comments will concentrate on the academic side.

As regards the literature review, and as someone essentially
unfamiliar with issues involved in court and community interpreting, I
would have appreciated a rather more wider-ranging discussion of
these two fields and the way the writer sees them impacting SI studies.
Perhaps the short shrift given this section is a result of having had to
condense this section from the original PhD dissertation, but I was left
with a feeling of not having been provided with a solid grounding in
the issues under discussion. If the aim of the writer is to open up a
field which seems to be fairly well-established elsewhere (i.e. the
interactive role of the court/community interpreter as opposed to the
supposedly neutral positions taken by the simultaneous interpreter), it
is not made clear what of ideas are "imported" from those fields, as is
the tradition in Interpreting Studies (Cf. the 'heavy borrowing' in
different interpreting paradigms mentioned in Lambert & Moser-
Mercer, 1994). In addition to this, the section could also have
benefited from reference to discussion of the issue of 'presence and
performance' in publications not present in the body of the book or the
bibliography such as Pöchhacker 2004 (although the current book
was probably in press at the same time, there is an explicit mention of
the "guidance and support" provided by this author) or Pöchhacker &
Shlesinger 2002 (especially Parts 6 and 7).

Whatever its merits -- and it has many -- this study faces a problem
faced by all interpreting researchers, that of basing conclusions and
hypotheses on a very small number of opportunistic samples -- in this
case the performance of just two interpreters (the recording of a third
was lost), with both inter- and intra-personal variations in the unit of
analysis. Interpreter A is reported as being more self-effacing when
dealing with shifts in the speaking subject; interpreter B on the other
hand is described as being more forthcoming and prepared to shift.
The latter is also attributed with the phrase "I don't care what comes
out of my mouth, as long as it sounds good" (p. 74): this would be
seen by many professionals as at the very least indicative of a fairly
cavalier attitude towards the profession and, at worst, an un-called for
and facetious remark. Neither is it made clear whether the two
interpreters are actually members of any professional association,
therefore feeling duty bound to apply ethical standards. It is a distinct
possibility that the hypotheses and conclusions are weakened by
these facts (the writer herself recognises the danger of extrapolating),
especially when coupled with another statistical reality – are 58
instances of 'shift of speaker position' -- representing perhaps 15
minutes' interpreting time, compared with 2 whole days' of interpreting
where there were no shifts -- sufficient to defend the hypotheses put
forward? Or could those shifts indeed be considered as statistically
marginal to the main activity, as mentioned by interpreters

The suitability of Critical Discourse Analysis -- mentioned as the
theoretical mainstay of the book -- in a conference setting would also
be questioned by some. Both Fairclough's (1995) and Van Dijk's later
work is based on representation in media or institutional discourse
where there is an ostensible power relation. The applicability of this
approach to court and community interpreting can therefore be
immediately seen; what is less clear is the ostensible power relation in
a conference setting, where a guest speaker is usually regarded as
a 'primer inter pares', and where debate can be vigorous and robust,
indicating parity rather than disparity.

Some of the conclusions do not seem to flow naturally from the
analyses carried out in body the book. Especially, the idea that the
meta-discursive self-representation of the interpreting profession is
self-serving for commercial purposes is a perfectly valid point, but
equally true of all liberal professions.

Finally, this study also raises important theoretical and ethical issues.
The main one is the Bahktin-inspired quote which claims "Receivers
cannot access authorial intentions completely because each instance
of language use contains more meanings, intentions and accents that
its formulator may have intended and any single receiver can purport
to have accessed" (p 23). This concept runs counter to those who
claim that the interpreter's delivery transfers the 'intended meaning' of
the speaker, suggesting that there is only one meaning, and that the
interpreter is privy to it. The fascinating aspect of the Bahktinian
approach is that it implies that the interpreter's version is only one of
several possibilities(and perhaps not even the best, in view of the fact
that lack of knowledge in many cases impedes access to full 'speaker
meaning', whether intended or not), providing further support for the
current study's hypotheses.

Finally, the issue of norms. In the meta-discourse of self-
representation in simultaneous interpreting, emphasis is laid on
objectivity and faithfulness. Filtering out what is
considered 'unessential information' (mainly paralinguistic) is not seen
as interference by the interpreter, but rather implicitly accepted as
ethical in order to get to the 'intended meaning'. This notwithstanding,
the very fact that the interpreter chooses to omit what is deemed to
be 'unessential information' implies choice, and choice entails power.
This would argue against the long-held view requiring fidelity, and
suggests that the interpreter is in fact a much more active participant
than is generally accepted, not only by making an obviously clear
break by 'shifting the speaking subject', -- the object of the present
study -- but probably in many more subtle ways, as is hinted at by the
writer of this very welcome addition to interpreting studies.

One final comment on meta-discourse representation of interpreters in
the Turkish media. There is a curiously intriguing comment in this
section, describing interpreters as "Nice and virtuous ladies who
smoke fags inside the booths" (writer's translation from the Turkish
publication 'Milliyet', p. 40). No comment is made in the study on this,
and none is offered here, except for the fact that the conference
interpreting profession is predominantly female.


Fairclough, N. (1995) Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of
Language. London & New York: Longman.

Lambert, S. & Moser-Mercer, B. (Eds.) (1994) Bridging the Gap.
Empirical Research in Simultaneous Interpretation, Amsterdam, John

Pöchhacker, (2004). Introducing Interpreting Studies. London/New
York: Routledge.

Pöchhacker, F., & Shlesinger, M. (2002). The Interpreting Studies
Reader. London/New York: Routledge.


John Matthews is 'Profesor Titular' of Conference Interpreting at the
Facultat de Traducció i d'Interpretaciò, Universitat Autònoma de
Barcelona, Spain. He is also a professional interpreter and member of
AIIC. He holds an M.A. from the UAB, and has published articles on
consecutive interpreting, and theoretical approaches to the study of
interpreting. His academic interests are interpreter training, cognitive
psychology and interpreting, with a special interest in the relationship
between knowledge structures and interpreting performance,
particularly in the medical field. He is currently on sabbatical leave.