Interpreters deal with language everyday, and are therefore in an exceptional position to analyze how people think about the world. This is why I love interpreting. And since we are translating and interpreting between two languages, we can’t help but create meanings that reflect our own worldview.
Take gender, for instance. Many forms ask the applicant to fill in gender. Speakers may often say gender. How do we interpret this? In ASL, there is no superordinate word for gender. I suspect that is true for many other languages. The textbook way of signing this is probably to sign: “MALE FEMALE WHICH?” But there’s the problem. Is gender really a question of male or female? From a normative perspective, yes, most people probably think that gender is about male or female. So the interpretation does meet a general dynamic equivalence. But on the other hand, if you recognize that gender is a social category (not a biological one) you may also recognize that the male-female choice is reductive and incomplete. To sign MALE FEMALE WHICH? is a way of perpetuating the heteronormative myth, a myth that gains validity each time we repeat it through language as if it were objectively reality. What a lot to think about!
Interpreters, therefore, can’t help but make language choices that have philosophical baggage. Is there any way to theorize the role of interpreters as philosophers? Enter Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian Marxist who was imprisoned and later died for his protest of the Italian fascist regime. Here’s an often-circulated picture of him.
In his best-known work, the prison notebooks (literally a bunch of notebooks he wrote in prison), he says this about philosophy:
“It is essential to destroy the widespread prejudice that philosophy is a strange and difficult thing just because it is the specific intellectual activity of a particular category of specialists or of professional and systematic philosophers. It must first be shown that all men are “philosophers”, by defining the limits and characteristics of the the “spontaneous philosophy” which is proper to everybody. This philosophy is contained in: 1. language itself, which is a totality of determined notions and concepts and not just words grammatically devoid of content; 2. “common sense” and “good sense”; 3. popular religion and, therefore, also in the entire system of beliefs, superstitions, opinions, ways of seeing things and of acting, which are collectively bundled together under the name of “folklore” (SPN 1971, 33).
Rather than do the work of explaining what I think about this passage, I simply leave it to you, dear interpreters, to think about this passage today. Some questions to ponder:
- What does this passage mean?
- What does it mean to interpreters?
- Why is language at the top of the list of things that make us all philosophers?
- What belief systems are you encountering today, and how does that influence your interpretation/translation?
- What powerful systems of language are beyond your control?
- When do you have the ability to transform language? When don’t you?
I’d love to see your thoughts and feedback!