The Language of Reason

by Katerina Strani


A café. Once a dedicated space where people gathered to discuss culture and politics. A space of arguing, debating, learning. A space where public opinion was formed and authority was challenged, contested, or at least influenced. A public sphere: a communicative space where people gathered to talk about public matters – politics.
Their aim – to form public opinion and to influence government.

Today, public spheres have evolved into more complex, more sophisticated spaces but also equally more diffuse and more informal. Think of online platforms such as blogs, twitter, facebook. A public sphere does not have to be a physical space waiting to be used, as these online platforms have proved. Instead, public spheres are spaces of communication that emerge with communication and die out when communication stops, when there is nothing left to debate.

Also, nowadays people are constantly bombarded with information and opinions, they have become more knowledgeable, but also more passionate about certain economic and political issues. Political debates are not a privilege of the elite anymore. Again, think of online platforms such as blogs, twitter, facebook. Think of public squares such as Tahrir square during the Arab spring, Syntagma square during the Greek financial crisis, or Taksim square during the demonstrations in Turkey in 2013. Anyone can join the debate, anyone can make themselves heard, anyone can influence public opinion – right???

Well, not really.

In order to participate in online public spheres, for instance, you need to have access to a computer and an internet connection. With this prerequisite, we’ve already narrowed down participation by about half (and having access to technology doesn’t mean you can use it)… But that has always been the case. In ancient public spheres, for example, such as the Forum in Rome or the Agora in Athens, only a tiny proportion of citizens actually participated in the debate. Only free-born male landowners and citizens of Rome or Athens, so no women, no foreigners, no slaves. Fast-forward to the 18th – 19th centuries and the situation hasn’t really changed. An eminent German philosopher with the name Jürgen Habermas writes that the public spheres of that time, such as coffeehouses and salons were composed of male citizens who had property in their name. These people communicated – allegedly – through the public use of reason.

So there has always been some form of gatekeeping – be it gender, financial status, nationality. Today most of these barriers are not relevant anymore, but there is one that still persists : language. It’s funny, language, be it spoken or signed, is at the heart of communication and yet multilingualism seems to be largely ignored in communication studies. An increasingly globalised world means that public spheres are becoming more multilingual, more multicultural. It means that people can participate in public life by speaking a language different from their ‘native’ one, or if that’s not possible, use the medium of translation or interpreting. If you ask me, this has always been the case but it has been largely bracketed, to use Nancy Fraser‘s term.

So what do we see today? A rise in the use of “minority languages” in citizen debates, such as Polish, Urdu or BSL in Britain, for example. With the exception of BSL, these are sometimes called migrant languages, to distinguish them from so-called heritage languages that are also gaining popularity once again, such as Gaelic in Scotland, Breze in Brittany, Cornish in Cornwall etc. I use the terms minority, migrant and heritage languages with caution, as these eventually overlap and their definitions are a bit fuzzy. The point is, multilingualism in political debate is a hard fact and it is here to stay.

The practical issue here, of course, is that historically, common languages (linguae francae) were used for convenience, so there was always a dominant language used in everyday discussions and in national parliaments. But think of national parliaments in Switzerland, Belgium, Canada. In the EU Parliament, interpreters are used and any cases of miscommunication are similar to ones that occur in monolingual environments anyway.

A lingua franca is not always the most practical solution. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Because if we think of the gatekeeping issue, if we impose a lingua franca we are immediately excluding those citizens and taxpayers who choose to speak their own migrant, minority or heritage language, whatever you want to call it. And there are enough exclusions already, don’t you think?

When we speak a different language, we essentially become different people. When we think in a different language, we think in a different way. Languages represent cultures, belief systems, lifeworlds. If we switch to a different language, we switch to a different worldview. Forcing people to speak the same language especially in political debate is to force them to think differently and to have different arguments. Some people consider it as a form of oppression.

Who is to say that English in Britain, French in France etc. is the only accepted language of critical-rational debate? It is arrogant to think that one dominant language is the language of reason and the sole purveyor of truth. This is why we need to embrace multilingualism, we need to foster and encourage it, especially in politics, where it is most vital. It encourages pluralism in thought and expression, which is at the heart of democracy.

Why Interpreters Should Forget About Quality (and concentrate on value)

by Jonathan Downie

How can we define “quality” in interpreting? What does it mean to be a “good interpreter”? Before I answer that, let me tell you a little story.

I was doing chuchotage interpreting at a wood industry conference. The first plenary talk was given by an economist. This particular economist crammed as many charts as he could on each slide. Added to this was his love of long, complex numbers. Numbers are hard enough when we are in nice booths and have the chance to take notes in advance. When you are doing chuchotage and you have no advance warning, they are practically impossible.

Faced with this task, I decided to concentrate on giving a version that would be useful to the French delegates, even if that meant dropping a few (or more than a few) numbers in the process. I had realised that the purpose of the entire conference was to help people see the economic context they had been in and prepare for the one they were going into. So that’s what I aimed to do in my interpreting.

Now, interpreters have almost universally defined “good interpreting” or “quality” in interpreting as being all about interpreting everything the speaker says, getting terminology perfect, and staying totally neutral. So, following that logic, what I did at that wood conference would count as bad interpreting.

Yet, from the point of view of the people who actually needed my services I did a great job. Actually, the head of the French delegation leaned behind me, while I was working, and said to his colleague “il est bon, cet interprète, n’est-ce pas?” [This interpreter’s good, isn’t he!]

We can now be pretty sure that the reason for such differences in quality judgments is that clients use different criteria from interpreters when judging quality. In fact, even when interpreters and clients seem to be using the same criteria (such as accuracy), it turns out that they are likely to be using completely different definitions.

Now, we could stop at this point, argue that clients are clueless and go on doing what we are already doing. There are two problems with that. The first is that it happens to be clients who are paying our invoices so it is bad manners to call them clueless! The second problem is that, as soon as we assume that we have things right already, we stop learning.

A more useful explanation of the difference between how clients see interpreting and how we see it is that we often talk about “quality” in interpreting in a way that separates it from any context. We describe it in terms of reducing errors, creating standards and maximising productivity. In short, the way we often talk about quality treats interpreting as if it were a product and not a service.

Clients necessarily view interpreting in terms of the contexts in which they receive it and in terms of what they want to achieve in that context. Instead of neutral, depersonalised “quality”, they view interpreting in terms of the value it adds to them. In short, for them, it is a service and not a product.

That knowledge is vital if we are ever going to improve the status of interpreting and stop the relentless drive towards cost-cutting in some circles. For as long as we talk about interpreting as if it were a product that can be described in terms of “quality”, we are actually encouraging clients to look for ways to cut costs and reduce how much they pay for it. If we start talking about interpreting in terms of the value it adds, then we will have a much better platform from which to argue that interpreting is worth investing in. It’s our choice.

Looking for participants for anti-racism and anti-discrimination research project

A few months ago we posted some information on a new research project in LINCS on how racist hate crimes are communicatively constructed. The project is called RADAR  Regulating AntiDiscrimination and AntiRacism – JUST/2013/FRAC/AG/6271. It brings together 9 partners from 6 countries and it is funded by the European Commission Directorate General for Justice.

The overall aim of the project is to  provide law enforcement officials and legal professionals with the necessary tools to facilitate the identification of ‘racial’ hate- motivated and hate-producing communication. This will be achieved through training activities and events, but the project will also provide a handbook, comparative studies and analyses. For more information on the project’s objectives, deliverables and individual work packages, please visit the project website.

The project is still in its initial stages; it started in November 2014 and will end in October 2016.

We are currently looking for victims of racial harassment or racist abuse for the purpose of conducting interviews on their experience(s). If you have been the victim of racist abuse in the UK and you would like to be interviewed for the purposes of this project (your personal details will not be disclosed), please contact Dr. Katerina Strani at

When ‘racially’-motivated hate crimes are not recognised as such, this leads to a violation of fundamental human rights.