Don’t get lost in translation

Judith Kaufman describes some subtleties we should look out for when interpreting Welsh into English

Recent developments in the law courts show that simultaneous interpreting has been accepted as a central part of language policies in Wales. New court centres like the one in Caernarfon have state-of-the-art interpreting booths and equipment incorporated in their chambers. The ongoing consultation on bilingual juries in criminal court cases is also a sign that the use of Welsh in trials is being taken seriously, and that interpreting is a resource people should be able to rely on. Nonetheless it is a resource that should only be used when no better ways of conducting a trial in Welsh are available.

These developments bring us a step closer to recognising an important part of the identity of Welsh speakers. But if we want to get even closer to our ideal of Welsh and English being treated equally we might have to accept that English needs to be de-normalised in some situations. Interpreting can play a role in doing this which means that those who happen not to be able to speak and understand Welsh are not excluded.

A number of linguistic norms become obvious in meetings where the services of an interpreter are sought. People tend to speak more Welsh when the Chair of the meeting does as well. People tend to ask their questions and discuss a presentation or contribution in the language the contribution or presentation was made in. And the smaller and the more personal and familiar a meeting, the likelier it is that people address English speakers in English in order not to lose direct communication with each other.

Interpreting can be an opportunity to question those norms. International studies of translation and interpreting internationally have examined how dominant languages and cultures assimilate lesser-used languages (or languages considered to be subordinate) into their own ideological principles. They have also shown that translation and interpreting can be a focus for resisting such ideologies.

It is an interesting question how interpreting could make a stronger case for the use of Welsh. No-one should be afraid of losing out here. At its best interpreting is an inclusive activity. By establishing new norms for Welsh in a number of social contexts, this is about improving the participation of Welsh speakers rather than reducing the input of English speakers.

Interpreting (and translation) needs to be looked at from the point of view of democracy and ownership, not only in terms of financial cost. If the suggestion to stop translating the Assembly’s Record of Proceedings last summer was acceptable to some, this shows that the close involvement of translation in improving a democratic society has not yet been understood.

For interpreting to be successful in that respect, it is not enough to have accomplished interpreters in all the meetings where potentially someone might be speaking Welsh. We need to make sure that people who can speak Welsh will do so. With the symbolic value attached to the National Assembly, that is the first place where Welsh speakers should be expected to use the language, as a sign of their vision for a bilingual Wales. Organisers and Chairs must be made aware of the requirements of interpreters in terms of preparation and room layout for instance. But even more important than that, they need to be aware of their own role in making meetings more bilingual.

The best encouragement to speak Welsh in a meeting is a Chair who speaks Welsh as much as possible, thus indicating that an interpreter is trustworthy, that bilingual meetings are nothing to be scared of and that Welsh is a language of communication for business and politics. However, to give this message more effect guest speakers and persons holding a role within the group should be encouraged to speak Welsh. This is not always easy. Many Welsh speakers feel it to be a matter of courtesy to ask questions and discuss a point in the language in which that point was made (of course, monolinguals do not have to think about courtesy). If more speakers spoke Welsh, it would then be regarded as polite to respond to them in Welsh.

The relative formality or informality of a meeting might be an indicator of how much Welsh will be spoken. It is generally assumed that interpreting works better in relatively formal meetings, where interchange is not too much disturbed by translation. Such meetings, it is assumed, allow forms of discussion where repetition, rephrasing and generally informal speech are not seen as an obstacles to the flow of discussion.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the more formal a meeting the more difficult it is to rely on the interpreter. When every word had to be weighed and every sentence put together carefully, an interpreter can constitute an additional layer between one speaker and another that inhibits frank discussion. Community meetings, on the other hand,

This viewpoints stress the importance of the overall atmosphere in a group. The atmosphere of a discussion can be influenced by the use of Welsh/bilingual documentation, but more even by people’s habit of using Welsh in other contexts. In meetings where people know each other in Welsh; they will find it easier to continue talking in Welsh in a meeting, even if there are English speakers present. On the other hand, in work-related meetings where Welsh speakers have got used to discussing their work in English, then English will tend to be part of their work-related comfort zones (and of their identities relating to their position at work). Speaking Welsh in a work meeting will be much more of an effort for them, especially if their close colleagues are in the meeting too.

Of course, these are not conscious mental processes. The confidence to speak Welsh publicly is not only a question of fluency in different registers of the language or familiarity with the appropriate terminology. Much more than that, it is a matter of the relationships we form with others when the language we speak is an essential component. Talking of ‘language choice’ does not seem to take into account of the way that relationships grow and develop. In some cases choosing to speak Welsh might profoundly disturb a relationship. Even the thought of having to choose a language each time we communicate can bring a lot of pressure to bear on all but the most assertive Welsh speakers.

It is evident, therefore, that simultaneous translation is about more than ‘merely’ transporting meaning from one language to the other. It is a crossroads where the two cultures of Wales come into direct contact with each other, and where her people are reminded of the fact that language and identity form a close relationship. This relationship is not necessarily one-to-one. We all behave and speak differently according to the different contexts of our lives.

With the language policies of recent decades it has become possible and desirable to give more room to the Welsh-speaking part of our identities, and this is why more meetings are held with the use of an interpreter. It is more democratic to allow Welsh speakers to express themselves in Welsh. But this is only one side of the coin! In Welsh areas the interpreting services are provided not to give a majority of Welsh speakers the right to speak Welsh, but to give those without fluency in Welsh the opportunity to take part in meetings and events. Every area’s linguistic reality is different. Interpretation not only makes people aware of this reality, but it is also a means of coming to terms with it.

Translators’ and interpreters’ experiences must be taken on board in designing language policies. For centuries they have been specialists involved not only in the creation of standard forms of languages and of new terminology, but also in observing relationships between people and cultures. By the nature of their job they have a wealth of social and intercultural insights. Yet too often, translation is a bone of contention within language policies, and its cost is often seen as a safe argument for dismissing it as an undesirable side-effect of bilingual policies.

When people argue that translation should be cut in favour of spending on stronger second language teaching, they do not realise that without translation and interpreting, professionals would find it difficult to get used to new terminology, to writing in Welsh (because translators are also often proofreaders and correctors), and to develop the use of different registers in the language. We need to make sure that the new strategy for a bilingual Wales takes the translating and interpreting profession seriously.

Judith Kaufmann works at Cymdeithas Cyfieithwyr Cymru (the Association of Welsh Translators and Interpreters) in Bangor.

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