What is interpreting?


When we ask “what is interpreting?”, the answer we often give is in functional terms: we facilitate communication between two languages.

We would all agree that the everyday work of interpreting is complicated by constant interruption, complex social differences (and unexpected similarities), and our own all-too-overwhelming awareness of our incapacity to do what we actually claim to do. No one should be satisfied with a tidy definition of a messy job. Yet if you look across the Internet or flip through interpreting books, one gets the idea that flow charts, bullet points, and Venn diagrams can do justice to what we call interpreting. Whatever we do in practice, we are certainly taught to talk about interpreting as if it weren’t so messy after all.

Is this just the nature of trying to explain interpreting? Do we have to rely on simplifications to talk about our profession? I don’t think we do.

Enter hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation, most commonly the interpreting of texts, but in fact it can be (and has been) applied more generally to any situation where humans have to deal with figuring out what things mean. “Interpret” here is used in the broader sense of the act of assigning or creating meaning. Hermes, the namesake of hermeneutics, was the Greek god of boundaries, and was tasked with (among other things) delivering to humans the divine messages from the gods. Food for thought: he was also the protector of travelers, he symbolized commerce, and was often portrayed as a trickster.

Here’s the important thing. Hermeneutics (or at least one line of hermeneutics) emphasizes that interpretation is not about a simple, rational linguistic analysis. For that to work, you have to start with the idea that language is first and foremost a system of signs that work together. If that’s the case, then interpretation can be done algorithmically, like algebra. Instead, interpretation is only necessary and possible because language doesn’t work that way. Our so-called system of signs is slippery and unreliable, given to wild flirtations with the dynamism of social life. Interpreting isn’t messy because we are inadequate people; interpreting is messy because the process of interpretation is always impossible. When we talk about interpreting as if it were a logical process, we repress the messiness in order to present a pretty picture. You can observe the practical effect of this in the numerous books on best practices, the popularity of interpreting “models” over interpreting theories, and the rituals of horizontal violence that teach us to make fun of those who mess up.

Today, hermeneutics – the theory of interpretation – is an important part of legal theory, literature and the humanities, the social sciences, and the philosophy of human knowledge. It seems to me that interpreting could benefit greatly from this line of thought. If nothing else, it could certainly help us to come up with an explanation of interpreting which does justice to the messiness of daily practice.


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