The unGishable David Foster Wallace


We must not get hung up on the fact that David Foster Wallace did not write about interpreters, for he wrote extensively on interpreting.

His first novel, The Broom of the System, sits in my lap bookmarked at Part 2, page 255, just before chapter 12, 1990, section /a/. He is an exhilarating writer. He gives me the same feeling I have when watching a really fluent ASL storyteller: I may not grasp each component, but the affect is pure linguistic elation. Form and content become indistinguishable in spectacularly quotidian prose. Broom is – and this is my favorite part – unGishable.

In 2002 when I first took a fancy to interpreting the Gish model was hot. Still is, come to think of it, and for good reason. It’s a handy, flexible, easy-to-teach approach to interpreter processing that is grounded by well-know theories of language. So far, so good. But one has the responsibility to ask: is there anything that the Gish model doesn’t apply to?

As I’ve already implied, “yes”. The assumption behind the Gish model – or rather, the assumption behind the theories of language that the Gish model depends on – is that language is used by people to achieve something specific, calculated and intentional. These “goals”, we come to learn, are hidden by language. The interpreter’s function is to wade into the Mardi Gras of language and pull back the masks of words to reveal the meaning behind them. We often say “let go of the English” and we sign it that way, too, as if the words themselves get in the way.

I am committed to the idea that every word presents us with a problem – a kind of mask, you might say. Yet I think we must, for this very reason, stay committed to words rather than try to let go of them. As the wacky dialogue in The Broom of the System seems to suggest, there is no overarching structure behind language, no conscious set of strategic goals that works its way down the Gish tree into words. In fact, people don’t seem to know what the hell they’re doing with language most if the time. If this seems hard to grasp, just take chapter 2 of Broom and try to Gish it. (If you actually attempt this, I’d love to see examples below.)

It’s this slipperiness of language that makes interpreting so interesting and fundamentally important. And I think as long as we try to present interpreting as a logical process, we miss some of the most exciting aspects of our work. The implication for the Gish model is not the standard reactionary one: throw it out. Instead, think about this: how is it possible for the Gish model to be flawed at an absolutely fundamental level, and yet still be extremely, practically useful?

My affection for Wallace and Gish mean more posts on both. For now, I recommend to you the following interview of DFW by Charlie Rose on YouTube, along with any of his essays and books.

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