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Theory of Interpreting

MAGDALENA BARTŁOMIEJCZYK

Theory of interpreting is a dynamically developing field of study dealing with various


aspects of oral and sign language translation in its several modes and a wide range of
settings. The current output of publications (articles and books) in the field can be estimated
at a few hundred a year. As opposed to the beginnings, when most studies were published
in French or in English, today there is a much more heterogeneous scene, with a lot of
recent studies being published exclusively in Japanese, Korean, or Chinese. Topics related
to interpreting are popular choices for diploma, MA, and PhD theses. Interpreting research
poses a number of challenges, many of which are unique to the field. The aim of this entry
is to briefly present the major investigative approaches which have become established
over time, giving some examples of prominent studies representing them.

Historical Perspective

Gile (1998), whose classification has gained a wide acceptance, enumerates four periods
of research into interpreting. The first three of them are, in fact, limited to conference
interpreting.
The “early writings period” covers literature from the 1950s and early 1960s. Its authors,
such as Jean Herbert, Jean-François Rozan, and Gérard Ilg, mostly did not purport to
write scientific texts, but rather to educate aspiring and beginning interpreters and maybe
also inform the general public about the job of the conference interpreter and raise the
consciousness of delegates making use of interpretation in meetings they attended. The
handbook by Herbert (1956) may serve as a highly representative example. The very sub-
title, How to Become a Conference Interpreter, expresses the purpose and spirit of the book.
Statements were usually made on the basis of authors’ own experience as conference
interpreters and/or interpreting teachers, but the methods and reasoning processes lead-
ing to these statements were not explained.
The “experimental period” (the 1960s and early 1970s) was characterized by much
research done by psychologists and psycholinguists (e.g., David Gerver, Frieda Goldman-
Eisler, Henri Barik), exploring aspects such as ear–voice span, pauses in delivery, the effect
of noise on the interpreter’s performance. Practicing interpreters had a negative attitude
to such studies, considering the experimental conditions too far from real interpreting
experience.
The “practitioner’s period,” lasting from the late 1960s until early 1980s, saw the involve-
ment of numerous interpreters and interpreting teachers into the discipline. Their studies
were mostly not empirical, but speculative and theoretical, based on intuitions or on facts
collected through nonsystematic observation. Prominent examples of works from this
period include the publications of the Paris School, the most important representative of
whom is Danica Seleskovitch. Her very influential book on conference interpreting (1978,
first published 1968) discusses the controversial concepts making up her “théorie du sens,”
such as deverbalization, a stage in the interpreting process between the reception of the
source text and the production of the target text when absolutely no trace of the linguistic
form of the source text is present in the interpreter’s mind. Another widely contested view

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, Edited by Carol A. Chapelle.


© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal1209
2 theory of interpreting

of this theory is that interpreting is language-independent, as both text comprehension


and production happen spontaneously in any language of which the interpreter has the
necessary command.
The “renewal period” started in the mid-1980s. Research is done mainly by practicing
interpreters, who, in opposition to the previous period, are willing to incorporate findings
and methods from other scientific disciplines (see the section on Interdisciplinarity below).
The number of empirical studies is constantly rising. The scope of interest has widened
considerably to include other modes and settings beside conference interpreting, such as
court interpreting (e.g., Berk-Seligson, 1990), community interpreting (e.g., Wadensjö, 1998),
medical interpreting (e.g., Angelelli, 2004b), and sign language interpreting (e.g., Metzger,
1999). One of the most popular theoretical concepts of this period is Gile’s (1995) effort
models of consecutive and simultaneous interpreting, highlighting the problem of the
interpreter’s limited processing capacity, which has to be strategically distributed among
several concurring tasks (e.g., listening and analysis as well as note-taking during the first
phase of consecutive interpreting).

Empirical Research

The process of introducing empirical methods into interpreting research was mostly initi-
ated by scholars previously active in other disciplines, who brought with them their own
methodological tools. Empirical research can be divided into two main types: experimental
research and observational research.
The main advantage of experimental research is that it enables relatively high compar-
ability of obtained data; for example, the same source text can be interpreted in the same
booth by dozens of interpreters working under very similar conditions (although some
factors, such as the participants’ motivation or present physical and mental condition, are
beyond the experimenter’s control). The most important disadvantage of experimentation,
however, lies in the fact that experiments take part in an artificial environment, which may
lead to a situation that is not typical at all of the normal work environment. Consequently,
it is important to stress the need to design experiments properly, that is, so as to make the
materials and conditions as close to field reality as possible. It is unacceptable, for example,
to use source texts of a type that is actually never interpreted. Many interpreters report
that an unrealistic situation in an experiment makes for processes which depart consider-
ably from those that occur during actual interpreting. Some practicing interpreters go so
far as to reject all research based on experiments as devoid of ecological validity.
Another crucial problem of experimental research is the availability of participants.
Professional interpreters rarely agree to take part in experiments, especially if they are
offered no remuneration for the time and effort they would have to devote. As a result,
numerous studies are based on data obtained from just a few participants, which makes
any generalizations concerning the results difficult to justify. On the other hand, many
experimenters base their studies on data provided by students of interpreting, who are
much easier to recruit than professionals, especially for interpreter trainers. Such studies
usually do not suffer from scarcity of participants, but the main doubt they raise is to what
extent they actually reflect interpreting as performed on the market. It is not problematic
as long as the researcher admits that the results obtained in such a study apply to inter-
preting trainees at a certain stage of interpreter education (corresponding to that of the
participants); however, sometimes the results are presented as referring to professional
interpreting as well. Bilinguals who are neither professional interpreters nor interpreter
trainees are also sometimes asked to participate in experiments connected with interpreting.
This makes sense in studies on modes of interpreting that are sometimes actually performed
theory of interpreting 3

by ad hoc interpreters (e.g., liaison interpreting by a bilingual child of immigrants in


everyday situations, medical interpreting provided by a bilingual nurse for a foreign patient
at hospital), but not in studies of conference interpreting. Bilinguals (e.g., advanced foreign
language students) can certainly serve as a control group to compare some aspects of their
cognitive processes and so forth with those of conference interpreters, but it is not acceptable
to draw any conclusions concerning conference interpreting on the basis of interpretations
provided by nonprofessionals.
Let us consider an early example of experimental research on interpreting. Gerver (1969)
examined the effects of various presentation rates on the performance of interpreters. A
native speaker recorded a French text (a fragment of a speech originally presented at a
UNESCO conference on human rights) at a rate of approximately 120 words per minute.
The tape was afterwards processed so that the speaking rate changed every 110 words.
The successive fragments of the experimental source text had the speaking rates of 95, 112,
120, 142, and 164 words per minute. The speech was presented to 10 professional conference
interpreters in a language laboratory. Half of them were asked to shadow it (i.e., repeat
in French), and the other half to interpret it into English (their mother tongue). Both tracks
of each recording were transcribed onto pen tracks obtained by means of an EEG pen
recorder. This made it possible to measure speech time, pause time, and ear–voice span
(e.g. the delay between a source text element and its counterpart). Ear–voice span was
calculated for every fifth word. Additionally, the experimenter counted the number of
correctly shadowed or interpreted words (literal translation was not necessary). The ana-
lysis showed marked differences between the performance of “shadowers” and interpreters.
For example, the performance while shadowing deteriorated only at the highest speaking
rate, whereas interpreting showed more omissions after each speaking rate change. Ear–
voice span was longer for interpreting and it increased much more when the speaking
rate rose than in the case of shadowing.
As regards the experimental design, the interpreting task must be evaluated as fairly
realistic. The participants are conference interpreters. The source text is an authentic speech
and it often happens that a speaker who delivers his or her speech quite slowly at the
beginning speeds up as it progresses. Shadowing, however, is not an activity anyone is
required to undertake for any practical reasons. Even as a pre-interpreting exercise it is
highly controversial. Therefore it is not completely clear why it should be useful to com-
pare it with simultaneous interpreting. As for analysis of the recorded material, counting
correctly rendered words has since been replaced, in similar studies, with propositional
accuracy score, a method considered to be better suited to analyze interpreting performance.
The main advantage of observational research is the authentic data it provides, whose
representativeness for processes involved in interpreting cannot be challenged. Data from
a number of case studies conducted in similar field conditions may lead to reliable gener-
alizations. The main problem encountered by researchers engaging in observation, on the
other hand, is access to authentic interpreting data. This is especially true of community
interpreting, which often requires confidentiality. The interlocutors as well as the interpreter
frequently object to recording and analysis of interpreted conversations. Therefore, obser-
vational studies of community interpreting are relatively rare, mostly conducted by experi-
enced researchers, and typically published as a book (e.g., Wadensjö, 1998; Tryuk, 2004).
As for conference interpreting, the number of source and target texts in the public domain,
available for analysis, is constantly rising, as they are nowadays often broadcast on TV
or placed on Web sites (e.g., debates of the European Parliament [EP] as well as their
interpretations into official European Union languages can be found on the EP’s Web sites).
This makes observational studies feasible for students writing their BA or MA theses.
In their most typical manifestation, observational studies analyze recorded material
(source texts and target texts) from an interpreted event. Pöchhacker’s book (1994) can
4 theory of interpreting

serve as a good example of a comprehensive study based on a large corpus of observational


data containing all source and target text for the English–German language pair from an
international congress (over seven hours of original speeches and, correspondingly, of
interpretations). The material enabled a detailed analysis of the interpreting situation (with
features such as intertextuality and interaction between the speaker and the audience taken
into consideration) as well as the interpretations (compared, whenever necessary, with the
original speeches). The latter focused on two aspects: correctness and surface quality of
the text (the profile of the text, speech length, speaking rate, pauses, instances of voiced
hesitation, slips of the tongue, and self-corrections). The book shows the wide range of
research directions and possibilities that a sufficiently large corpus of observational data
can offer. However, many small-scale studies focusing on just one source text and its
rendition (e.g., Pöchhacker, 1997, analyzing a nine-minute-long speech by President Clinton
delivered in Berlin and its German interpretation) or a single interpreted event broadcast
on TV (e.g., Kurz, 1993a, analyzing a US presidential debate) are valuable contributions too.
There are numerous studies employing questionnaires to investigate attitudes to differ-
ent aspects of interpreting (especially quality), started by Bühler (1986), that must also be
seen as examples of observational research (e.g., Kurz, 1993b). Angelelli (2004a) investigated
whether interpreters’ perception of their role depended on their social background and
on the settings they worked in. She used comprehensive surveys (Interpreter’s Interpersonal
Role Inventory, IPRI, designed to measure interpreters’ attitude toward their visibility in
the interpreting process) on a large sample (293 participants) of conference, court, and
medical interpreters from three countries. The book describes in detail the process of
designing IPRI, from the search for similar instruments, through validation by discussing
all the questions with 14 interpreters and pilot studies on 93 participants (trainee and
professional interpreters), to the revision resulting in the final version with 13 background
questions on social factors and 38 questions concerning visibility. The analysis of the
responses to the questions and of additional, unsolicited comments revealed significant
correlations between the interpreters’ perceptions of their own visibility and factors such
as their age, income, ethnicity, and the interpreting setting. Against the ingrained belief
that an interpreter should act as a “ghost” (Kopczyiski, 1994), the respondents working
in all settings perceived themselves as having some visibility through their contribution
to, among other factors, conversation management, cultural mediation, facilitating mutual
respect and trust between the interacting parties. Medical interpreters claimed to have
more visibility than court or conference interpreters.

Interdisciplinarity

A large portion, and probably even the majority, of interpreting research is closely linked,
in one way or another, to other scientific disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, lin-
guistics, or neurophysiology. Toury attributes this interdisciplinarity (or “multidisciplinarity,”
as some prefer to call it) primarily to the involvement of scholars whose original field of
scientific interest was not translation studies, but who saw translation and interpreting as
“new, intriguing areas of application for tools they already had at their disposal; areas
which would be close enough to their ‘mother’ disciplines as well as sufficiently unexplored
to warrant research with the help of these tools” (Toury, 1991, p. 45). Some of these scholars
made a foray into interpreting research with one or two studies, and some have continued
to regularly provide very valuable input over many years. A prominent example of the
latter is Ingrid Kurz (formerly Pinter) from the University of Vienna, who started out in
psychology, and was one of the first scholars to write a PhD on interpreting (in 1969).
Appreciating the crucial role other scientific disciplines play for translation studies,
Malmkjær (2000) also notes some potential problems resulting from this phenomenon.
theory of interpreting 5

First of all, the level of knowledge may be insufficient, which applies equally to a trans-
lation scholar’s knowledge of another discipline and to knowledge of translation studies
acquired by a scholar from another discipline. Second, wholesale borrowing of a complete
theory rather than just a research tool may lead to explaining translation in the service of
the discipline from which the theory has been adapted rather than in the service of trans-
lation studies. Third, there is a danger that another discipline comes into the foreground
to such an extent that translation is lost from sight. And, last but not least, the question
of prestige can be considered, and a discipline providing insight for other disciplines will
normally be seen as stronger than a discipline drawing from other disciplines. This section
will discuss some examples of studies combining interpreting research with elements
imported from other fields (for which Malmkjær’s term “feeder disciplines” is used).
Psychology was the point of departure for the studies of conference interpreting in the
“experimental period.” This is not surprising, as most authors of these studies were trained
psychologists. This wave of research is not without some serious shortcomings, but it
launched empirical research into interpreting and probably represents the only period in
its history when so many noninterpreters took an interest in interpreting. What attracted
psychologists the most were the “mysterious” mental processes underlying listening and
speaking at the same time in simultaneous interpreting. However, many of them failed to
understand the strategic dimension of interpreting, for example the fact that an interpreter
may choose to omit some portions of source text as redundant or having minor importance,
or add something by way of explaining some culture-bound concepts.
Oléron and Nanpon’s study (2002) was based on both observational and experimental
data, although the second type was clearly given priority. The authors applied a quantita-
tive analysis to their experimental material to determine, among other things, the delivery
rate (number of words per minute) of speakers and interpreters. The most important part of
their findings, however, concerns ear–voice span. Although the average ear–voice span lay
somewhere between two and three seconds, it was discovered that its distribution was very
asymmetrical, ranging from 0.5 to 11.1 seconds, and probably depended on many variables
such as the speed of delivery or length and frequency of pauses in the original speech.
Valuable as this study is, due to the fact that it raised interest in interpreting as a research
object and posed numerous important questions, it must be noted that it suffers from many
methodological weaknesses, some of them typical of interpreting research done by non-
interpreters. First of all, the number of participants was very small—only three professional
interpreters. Second, the interpreting situation was unrealistic. In some parts of the
experiments, the participants were requested to interpret strings of disconnected words
and sentences, which never happens in practice. In the part in which they did interpret
coherent texts, the texts were not of the type that would appear in conferences: fragments
of Saint-Exupéry’s book The Little Prince and the UNESCO Courier, chosen because they
existed in a number of different language versions and thus enabled interpreting in several
different language combinations.
Another popular feeder discipline for interpreting research is neurophysiology. For
example, Fabbro, Gran, Basso, and Bava (1990) describe an experiment where simultaneous
interpreting was studied by means of an experimental procedure known as verbal–manual
interference paradigm. Fourteen advanced interpreting students with Italian as first language
and English as second language were asked to interpret, while tapping a key connected
to a counter, proverbs (which involves the meaning-based approach) and lists of words
(which involves the form-based approach) in English and in Italian. The resulting interfer-
ence did not show any pronounced difference between right and left hand, which suggests
that simultaneous interpreting requires the involvement of both hemispheres. There was,
however, a very considerable difference between interpreting with the meaning-based
approach and with the form-based approach, the percentage of disruption for both hands
6 theory of interpreting

being much higher for the former condition. This suggests that meaning-based interpreting
is a more demanding cognitive task.
The third crucial feeder discipline for interpreting studies is linguistics, or rather various
branches of it. Cohesion studies, for example, have been of great interest to scholars engaged
in research on interpreting. Shlesinger (1995) set out to validate empirically the hypothesis
that a simultaneously interpreted text differs in the types and density of cohesive ties from
the source text. In the experiment she conducted, 13 advanced interpreting students were
asked to interpret from English into Hebrew an authentic impromptu speech in English.
They did it twice in succession in a standard laboratory used for teaching simultaneous
interpreting. The purpose of the second interpretation was to establish whether participants
would make any nonrandom changes in the cohesive links due to the prior knowledge of
the source text. Their interpretations were recorded and transcribed. The source text made
extensive use of cohesion and contained cohesive links of four types: lexical cohesion,
reference, substitution, and conjunction. The results of the experiment confirmed the initial
hypothesis by revealing extensive shifts in each type of examined cohesive devices,
particularly those which were seen as not indispensable to comprehend the informational
content and those whose understanding required prior knowledge that the subjects did
not have.
Another branch of linguistics particularly relevant for interpreting research is pragmatics.
In Setton’s highly technical book meant as “a bridge between interpretation studies and
mainstream linguistics” (1999, p. xiv), Setton relied to a great extent on the findings of
pragmatics, describing the effect of context rather than just source text on the target text.
On the basis of a corpus of German–English and Chinese–English interpretations (obtained
partly under real conference conditions and partly experimentally), he showed how the
extralinguistic information available to the interpreters helped disambiguate and sometimes
enrich the informational content present in the source message. World knowledge and
situational knowledge both had a role to play in this aspect.
The 1990s and the 2000s saw the emergence of sociology and sociolinguistics as crucial
feeder disciplines for interpreting research. Wadensjö (1998), for example, explored com-
munity interpreting as a special case of interaction, significantly different from conversa-
tions between two individuals. On the basis of observational data collected in authentic
medical and legal settings involving interpreting between Swedish and Russian, she looked
at interpreters as social actors and interpreting as “a matter of both linguistic and social
competence” (1998, p. 14). She was among the first to challenge the prescribed nonpar-
ticipatory role of interpreters, which has since become the focus of a number of socially
oriented studies dealing with the roles played by interpreters working in a wide range of
settings such as police stations, courts, hospitals, and universities (e.g. Metzger, 1999; Roy,
2000; Angelelli, 2004a, 2004b).
Other fairly popular feeder disciplines include history (e.g., Bowen, Bowen, Kaufmann,
& Kurz, 1995, discussing the role of interpreters in various historic events on the basis of
information obtained from primary and secondary sources), and physiology (e.g., Klonowicz,
1994, investigating the management of energy resources in simultaneous interpreting by
measuring blood pressure and heart rate of interpreters, as cardiovascular activity reflects
effort and stress).

Conclusion

Interpreting research nowadays has many facets. It moves away from prescriptivism. It
seeks to describe all interpreting modes and settings and all aspects of interpreting, includ-
ing long-standing issues such as interpreter education or directionality (interpreting from
theory of interpreting 7

or into one’s native language), as well as new topics such as performance of interpreters
having no formal education in the profession. The proportion of empirical studies is on
the rise, as is the interest in modes other than conference interpreting, the traditional
domain of interpreting research. However, interpreting theory is divided, mainly into the
psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic approaches, which look at different aspects of inter-
preting (information processing vs. interpersonal relations during interpreted interactions),
and do not merge. Angelelli suggests the need for “an integrative theory of interpreting”
that “will include and account for the discourse features of an interaction and the social
context in which it is embedded, as well as the information processing aspect of the task”
(2004a, p. 89).

SEE ALSO: Community Interpreting; Conference Interpreting; Interpreting Techniques


and Modes; Liaison Interpreting; Media Interpreting; Models of Interpreting; Neurolinguistic
and Cognitive Aspects of Interpreting; Quality in Interpreting; Teaching and Learning of
Interpreting

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Suggested Readings

Gile, D. (2001). Interpreting research: What you never wanted to ask but may like to know.
Retrieved October 6, 2011 from http://www.aiic.net/ViewPage.cfm/article229.htm
Gile, D., Dam, H. V., Dubslaff, F., Martinsen, B., & Schjoldager, A. (Eds.) (2001). Getting started
in interpreting research: Methodological reflections, personal accounts and advice for beginners.
Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.
Pöchhacker, F. (2004). Introducing interpreting studies. London, England: Routledge.
Pöchhacker, F. (2009). The turns of interpreting studies. In G. Hansen, A. Chesterman, &
H. Gerzymisch-Arbogast (Eds.), Efforts and models in interpreting and translation research
(pp. 25–46). Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.
Pöchhacker, F., & Shlesinger, M. (Eds.) (2002). The interpreting studies reader. London, England:
Routledge.