Lost in translation? European Parliament interpreters ‘smooth out’ controversial statements
Interpreters working in the European Parliament tend to smooth out controversial (for example, racist or sexist) statements of politicians, says Dr. Magdalena Bartłomiejczyk, a professor at the University of Silesia.
'When interpreting controversial content, interpreters can follow three paths: censor sexism, for example, to avoid its spread and offending recipients; translate faithfully and thus emphasise the speaker's sexist views so that the recipients do not miss them; or distance themselves, for example by using ironic intonation. My research shows that in the European Parliament, among interpreters from Polish and German booths, smoothing out harsh statements is a common phenomenon', Dr. Bartłomiejczyk, a visiting professor at the University of Vienna, tells PAP - Science in Poland.
Her study of the discourse of British Eurosceptics (with particular emphasis on former MEP Nigel Farage) showed that when translated into Polish, over 70 percent of 'rude' statements were softened, including over 10% that were completely neutralized. Recently, the researcher has been focusing on analysing the interpretation of eleven plenary debates of the European Parliament concerning Poland in 2016-2020 (all recordings and interpretations are available on the institution's website).
Bartłomiejczyk explains that existing codes of ethics regarding conference interpreting do not specify how an interpreter should handle controversial content.
'Even 20-30 years ago, the approach was to translate everything literally, and the translator was supposed to be only a transmitter, preferably as invisible as possible. At the turn of the 21st century, this began to change, because researchers of community interpreting (performed in various public institutions, hospitals, courts, etc.) clearly showed that interpreters actually behaved differently and - e.g., in addition to conveying the speakers' statements - also clarified some intercultural misunderstandings and managed the dialogue between the parties. Today it is clear that expecting the interpreter to convey the speaker's words one-to-one and not have any impact on communication is unrealistic,’ the linguist says.
Therefore, she continues, many decisions depend on the interpreter's individual approach. 'The work of a simultaneous interpreter involves listening to the statement while interpreting it orally. It is enough that the speaker speaks very quickly or unclearly and a problem emerges with providing a faithful and complete translation. Moreover, the interpreter has to make decisions on the spot, some of which are not easy,’ she says.
As an example, she mentions a 2014 statement by the then MEP Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who used the word 'niggers' in his speech. 'This is the most racially offensive word. When hearing it, the interpreter used the Polish word +Murzyni+, which is slightly less racially charged and a clear softening of the original. However, I do not know what I would do in this situation,’ says Bartłomiejczyk.
In her latest publication in GEMA Online® Journal of Language Studies, the author looked at sexist discourse in the European Parliament. Janusz Korwin-Mikke's statements made in 2014-2018, when he was an MEP, were analysed.
Also in this case, the results of her research indicate that interpreters tended to smooth out the statements and distance themselves from them.
How? 'If sexism was based solely on the language forms chosen by the speaker, the interpreter usually smoothed out these statements. Instead of the original phrase in reference to Angela Merkel: +a blonde woman from Berlin+, in the English translation we have a fairly accurate equivalent of +this blond woman+, but in German it was simply the word 'woman' (even +a lady+: German +eine Dame+),’ the linguist says.
'When it came to +a few men's words of truth+ addressed to Commissioner Mogherini, the interpreters omitted the sexist adjective or replaced it with the more neutral word +stern+,’ she adds.
In cases of controversial statements, translators often use impersonal forms. 'For example, when someone addresses another person directly with an insult, e.g. +you have stolen+, a translator can translate it as: +it has been stolen+. Or refer in the third person: Mr. X has stolen, which is still a very specific accusation, but a less insulting one than the original. Yet another strategy is to replace a strong word with a euphemism, e.g. +you have misappropriated+ There is a whole range of ways in which an interpreter, to a greater or lesser extent, smoothes out personal attacks,’ the researcher says.
She emphasises that this softening does not necessarily have to result from the interpreter's conscious decision, it may also be a side effect of overcoming problems with understanding the text or keeping up with the speaker's fast pace. 'Sometimes it is also related to systemic differences between the source and target languages. However, this does not change the observation that the tendency to smooth out sexist discourse was clear,’ Bartłomiejczyk adds.
The linguist emphasises that her research is not meant as a criticism of interpreters working in the European Parliament. 'These are top experts, but we need a realistic look at their work as a product created in extreme conditions and subject to different criteria than written translations. I do not want to evaluate individual interpretation solutions, I want to present them, describe them and possibly investigate the factors behind them. My goal is to raise awareness of the issue of interpreting controversial statements and inspire both theoreticians and practitioners to reflect on whether and how to oppose, for example, sexism expressed by the original speaker, Bartłomiejczyk says.
PAP - Science in Poland, Agnieszka Kliks-Pudlik
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