The name does not matter because, if you are an interpreter or regularly participate in multilingual meetings, you have probably met one version or another of this person in the course of your career. When I think about them, I think about a guy because the majority of people on podiums still tend to be men and maybe also because men are often more eager to venture outside their area of competence. So for the sake of readability, let’s call this multilingual individual Peter but don’t get attached to the name because what matters is ultimately not him but the context that allows for someone like Peter to emerge.
My last encounter with Peter occurred during a bilingual meeting, where I was tasked with interpreting between German and French. As tends to be the case in Switzerland, the overwhelming majority of attendees were German speakers, and French speakers a tiny minority. The language distribution on the podium was even more skewed, since the first language of basically everyone up there was German. The interactivity of the meeting was low, i.e. most participants were not planning or expecting to intervene and had made the journey merely to receive information from their board and vote on different issues by show of hands. From an interpreting perspective, the linguistic setup was thus extremely imbalanced, more than 90% of utterances would have to be translated from German into French, and it was unclear what the distribution for the remaining 10% would be. Peter and his colleagues were sitting on the podium, ready to present an annual report about their different areas of expertise. Our French-speaking clients were sitting in their seats, clutching their headphones in the understanding that they would have to follow the entire meeting through their interpreters. This is where things get interesting.
The minoritized French speakers were very much aware that this was a multilingual meeting with interpretation. That awareness comes with being a minority and losing your communicative independence. The majority German speakers were, however, getting ready to attend a monolingual meeting. Barely any of them carried headphones to their seats, they took part in the meeting with the certainty of those who know that they will understand everything because that is just how the world works. That certainty, however, was shattered when a French speaker unexpectedly decided to take the floor and ask a question. This question was, of course, interpreted simultaneously into German, since that is the job we were recruited to do that day. However, we realized quickly that we were interpreting into the void given that none of the German speakers actually wore headphones, and just exchanged blank stares in horror, realizing all of a sudden that this was actually not a monolingual meeting at all.
Fortunately, Peter came to the rescue, taking the floor from the podium to hastily improvise a summary of the French speaker’s question in German. From an interpreting standpoint, the summary was neither complete nor particularly accurate. The main point the speaker had been trying to make fell flat. But balance had been restored, the German speakers had once again regained control over the situation. Not a single German speaking delegate got up to pick up headphones at the entrance of the room after this incident. They simply had not understood that the interpreters had also translated that part of the meeting, since the whole point of the interpreting provision was to cater for the (special?) needs of the minority.
To take on this task, Peter had to have an understanding of both the minority and the majority language, although he did not necessarily have to be fluent in both. Peters exist everywhere. Peters are a product of power asymmetries between groups of speakers. They exist because implicitly or explicitly, many speakers of the dominant language, whether English in international conferences or German in Switzerland, see interpretation as necessary to get their own message across, but not to hear the messages of the minority. They are surprised when put in a situation where they do not understand another speaker, used to being understood and heard wherever they go.
Peter’s presence points us to the limits of interpretation, and reminds me of what Bourdieu wrote nearly 30 years ago about “legitimate” linguistic competence: being able to make oneself understood is not the same as being able to make oneself heard. A message presented in the “wrong” language might be understood, yet not treated with the same care and not met with the same respect as a message presented in the “right” language. Bourdieu’s argument relates to speakers of the same language whose speech patterns (vocabulary, accent, prosody) do not have the same level of legitimacy, however, his thinking can be applied to multilingual settings as well. By jumping in to provide a consecutive summary, the resident bilingual ensures that a message can potentially be understood (or at least noticed) but this approach also signals to the speaker that their intervention is disruptive and amidst the commotion thus created, very unlikely to be heard.
While solving a communication problem in the short run, these bilinguals ultimately allow for a much bigger communication gap to continue unchallenged and for the majority language speakers to participate in what for them is essentially a monolingual meeting.
Professional interpreters might convince themselves that they see their role as making sure that a message uttered in one language is “understood” in the other language because that is what the principle of impartiality seems to dictate. However, I suspect that just like me, many colleagues have felt frustration or even mild anger when a delegate speaking “their” language makes a highly relevant point that is completely ignored by the other people in the room. So I guess that what we really want is for these messages to be heard, and when this is not the case, we feel poorly about our own performance and the relevance of our contribution.
It’s not Peter’s fault, really. He means well.
But we can probably do a better job of making clients aware of the consequences of his approach, so that next time, he can use his platform to gently remind everyone in the room to just wear their bloody headphones and select the correct channel in advance. So that for once, the burden is on the speakers of the dominant language.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.