Why Interpreting Studies needs Silo Breakers

by Jonathan Downie

Academics are as much followers of fashion as any lover of Dior or Calvin Klein. Sure, it might not be the latest fragrances or the newest haute couture but research tends to be concentrated around a few themes.

In Interpreting Studies, the 70s and 80s were the age of cognitive research, mostly related on conference interpreting. Psychologists flocked to the discipline and those interpreters brave enough to row out into the deep water of academia were happy enough to follow them. In those days, we learned about ear-voice-span, modelling, and error triggers. The foundations would be set for the creation of the effort models by Daniel Gile in the 1990s, models which are still used today, even if there is still debate about their accuracy.

In the 90s, Interpreting Studies suddenly found itself moving away from conference interpreting towards practices that, depending on your particular cultural bent are variously called “community interpreting” or “public service interpreting”.  Barring the semantic debate on whether court interpreting is a different kind of thing altogether, these terms roughly mean “anything that isn’t business or conference interpreting”.

Largely, the growth of research in PSI (as I will call it for speed) continues unabated, which is no bad thing. Through research in PSI we have learned that interpreters are social beings, that their work is affected by many more factors than our previous lists of error triggers would have suggested and that the idea that interpreters can and should be all but invisible and default to doing nothing when faced with ethical decisions is a load of nonsense.

So far, so good. But, the sad thing is that these welcome advances in knowledge have taken time to filter down to other areas of interpreting. If it wasn’t for Ebru Diriker, Seyda Eraslan and Morven Beaton-Thome, we might never have realised that conference interpreters and political interpreters are as visible and contextually-driven as their PSI compatriots. If it wasn’t for scholars in sign language interpreting, we wouldn’t have realised that the same norms work in that area of interpreting too. (Actually, one could make a good argument that sign language interpreting scholars figured it all out before anyone else but that is another debate.)

What is becoming increasingly obvious is that the separation of Interpreting Studies into silos – PSI people here, sign language people there, conference people wondering what is going on over there, cognitivists trying to shovel everyone into labs in the corner – is actually damaging to the field and to practice. While we can’t always say empirically that findings from sign language interpreting apply directly to conference interpreting or court interpreting, we can at least argue that people in other areas of interpreting should be paying attention. We might actually want to suggest that the next logical step of most research is to try answering the same questions in a different setting.

But instead of better collaboration, silo thinking is entering even into the realm of industry conferences. The first call for papers of the FIT conference in 2017 included tracks for sign language interpreting and community interpreting only, wiping out any chance for experts in other areas of interpreting to contribute, at least initially.

Yes, yes, conferences have to set themes and have to limit participation somehow but does dividing contributions along the lines of different interpreting settings (and even languages) actually make any sense? Does it not simply reproduce in the conference hall the same divisions and inability to communicate with each other that already dogs our profession? Can’t we do better?

To cite Bob the Builder and President Barack Obama, “yes we can”. What if we had conference themes that dealt with our shared concerns, such as PR, client relationships, safety, and professional status instead of on PSI, conference interpreting and the like? What if researchers worked across sub-disciplinary boundaries to examine whether PSIs use different cognitive strategies than business interpreters or whether some of the work on performance in church interpreting might equally apply to conference interpreting?

It doesn’t take too much imagination to think of ways of breaking out of our current silos and working together. The next big idea for conference interpreting might well come from sign language interpreting. Court interpreters might learn PR and self-presentation ideas from mental health interpreters. Let’s interpret and research together and end our self-imposed divisions. It’s exactly what interpreting needs.


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