Sunday, April 20, 2008


Fluency in cynicism

A not entirely recent article in the Guardian entitled Wanted: English speakers with fluency in sarcasm reports on a "critical shortage" of up-and-coming conference interpreters working into English.

Of all the lubricants of international affairs, interpreting is most crucial, which makes the shortage of people who can do it is so serious. A proliferation of post-war international organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union fuelled a demand for multilingual interpreters, says Dr Svetlana Carsten, director of the interpreting postgraduate programme at Leeds. A decent flow of applicants emerged to take up these jobs from the earliest university interpreting courses set up in the 1960s.

Retirement is looming for this generation but latterly there simply haven't been the numbers coming through to replace them. The average age of the interpreters working at the European commission in Brussels, for instance, is now over 58, and this at a time when the numbers of languages spoken at meetings there has reached 23.
The experts consulted place much of the blame on lack of mother-tongue competence in would-be interpreters.

One of the prime reasons has been their inadequate command of their own language, English. For whatever reasons - they haven't read enough, they have spent too much time in front of screens, they don't converse discursively with their families as a matter of course, or have not been taught English adequately at school - the graduates coming on to the interpreting courses lack vocabulary, accuracy, fluency and verbal dexterity in their mother tongue.

"What young people wanting to work as interpreters don't realise is that we judge them on their mother tongue," says Carsten. Their other languages, which they will be listening to rather than speaking in their professional work, can be improved. Though the unit spends a lot of time trying to remedy deficiencies in English, in many cases it is too late.

Many of the young hopefuls cannot speak in the appropriate "register" for the event they would be interpreting. Their only modes of speech are informal, peppered with "like", for instance, she says. They misuse words and don't know the subtle differences between synonyms.

No doubt. What isn't mentioned is the fact that the EU institutions are in the process of making a career in conference interpreting less attractive financially for newcomers. Beginners are currently paid at a reduced rate for the first 100 days worked. This is now to be increased to 250 days (i.e. several years).

One suspects that if they were to start paying more rather than less some invisible hand might mysteriously procure them a greater intake of candidates whose English had somehow not been irredeemably blighted by texting, TV, and constantly saying 'like'.

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