Interpreting for Judith Butler

Interpreting can mean to facilitate communication between two languages, and to analyze a text to produce a useful and appropriate reading. In reality, these two activities are one and the same. Today I will rely on the second meaning of interpret to see what Judith Butler might add to the field of interpreting captured in the first meaning of the word.

Interpreting is both unteachable and teachable. It is unteachable in the sense that  all language work depends on a dialectic relationship between understanding and misunderstanding that cannot be formally outlined in advance of the communicative event. It is teachable in the sense that though normative models of language we can transform this dialectic into an apparently stable object of study that can be taught to students. In the attempt to make interpreting intelligible, however, we always run the risk of treating our methodological distinctions and actual distinctions, of treating our contingent identities as transhistorical identities. [Footnote: this is not specific to interpreting, but is a general problem of teaching language, identity, culture, etc.] For that reason, my contribution to interpreting, if I ever have one, will be to incorporate theories of instability, misrecognition, and indeterminacy into the field of interpreting.

Let’s look at identity. We live in an age of demographic surveys, victim interviews, and narrative non-fiction where we are encouraged to discover or to create the truth about ourselves. We feel – or are made to feel – anxious over the ambiguity of our own identities, and we try to stabilize that by developing coherent narratives. I do this all the time. But we should also tarry (a great Middle English word if there ever was one) on the topic of our own incoherence and learn to accept our inconsistencies rather than gloss over them. In doing so for ourselves, we learn to do so for others.

Judith Butler wrote this helpful thought (Giving an Account of Oneself 42):

Suspending the demand for self-identity or, more particularly, for complete coherence seems to me to counter a certain ethical violence, which demands that we manifest and maintain a self-identity at all times and require that others do the same.


What does this mean for interpreters? I suggest the following:

  1. It means that there are times when we must question our assumptions about identity. Not just that we think someone is identity A, but they are really identity B. Rather, we have to embrace the idea that we may never know how identity is operating in a given space.
  2. We must remember that the desire to see identity as coherent and stable is itself a historical product. Insofar as interpreters have depended on stable assumptions of identity to interpret the meaning of words and signs, interpreters are also part of making that partial history into an accepted reality.
  3. “Ethical violence” includes both the act of, say, pejorative gatekeepers to screen out your (Deaf, Somali, Jewish, low-income) client, AND the act of interpreters assuming that we know what Deaf, Somali, Jewish, low-income means for that person if anything at all. When we act on behalf of a client as a “Deaf” client (and not a Somali, Jewish, low-income client, etc.), we are making a strategic choice, which we must account for, and not an objective one, which we can simply assume is correct.
  4. Finally, interpreters may be in one of the best possible social positions to analyze and extend Butler’s analysis, given how much language, identity, and social space is a part of our daily experience. In short, interpreters already know Butler. We just haven’t read her yet.

I suspect that this is all rather obvious to working interpreters, and you can find examples of this in some working models of interpreting. But I would suggest that even when we recognize the ambiguity of social identity, we haven’t been able to fully theorize that ambiguity. It should bring us some excitement that so much recent work in philosophy and critical theory are in the area of ambiguity, identity, subjectivity, and language. I think if we incorporate these ideas into the most current research on interpreting, we will find that we are better able to understand interpreting and better able to talk about our profession with others.

For more on this, I invite you to read related blog posts:


6 thoughts on “Interpreting for Judith Butler”

  1. I’m totally in the ‘don’t assume’ boat… but that’s all fine for us academics who have all day to sit around being critically resistant to categorical identities.

    But in a situation like interpreting, particularly SL interpreting where you have to quickly make decisions about the kind of cultural, linguistic, and all kind of other background knowledge the person might have, to ensure that you give them the best interpretation possible… is it detrimental to your accomplishment of the task to not assume?

    You don’t have 15 mins of self-exploration time (sadly) at the beginning of a job… particularly in a larger setting where you’re not dealing with an individual, but an audience with assumed skills and knowledge.

    How do you hold to that commitment to counter the ethical violence of assumption, when the very expediency of interpreting relies upon it?

    Part of me loves the idea that there’s no real answer to that except to reconfigure all of interpreting: all it is, how it works, how it’s paid for, the limits it imposes on time… and the only way to avoid that, and still be interpreters is to sit in a never ending tension… perhaps it’s that awareness of the irresolvable that Butler’s really after?

    I’d be interested in what you think?

    1. I begin by assuming that everyone has a responsibility to think critically about their assumptions – not just “academics”. Butler has been very helpful for me, first and foremost, for thinking about my daily work as an interpreter. After all, most interpreters have lots of time to process their work! Between assignments, while in the supporting seat, waiting for an assignment to start. Hopefully that’s when people are reading my blog. 🙂

      I think Butler is trying to be quite practical actually. She’s just saying, look, don’t get too caught up with trying to “identify” the “authentic” core of who someone is. I can never completely know who I am or who you are. But sure, we have to communicate anyways. So have the courage to make a decision, but also have the courage to critique your own decisions and evaluate your own assumptions. Life is about growing, not arriving at a solution. I think that’s what she would say. Do I ultimately agree with Butler? Well, that’s another story. But I do find her helpful.

    2. Hey, Mike. Would you like to do a guest post on here? You can respond to a post – positively or critically, it doesn’t matter to me. Actually, I would love it if you disagreed with something in one my posts, and then showed how you would think about differently. That would be awesome. Or post on whatever you want. Maybe the US readership would like to know about differences and similarities between the US and UK interpreting market. Or whatever. What do you think?

      1. I’d be honoured.

        I’m not sure I can speak for the interpreting market, but if you have something in a post that you would particularly like me to ‘pick on’, or a post that it would be useful for me to respond to, then I could for sure.

        Alternatively, I can go looking 😉

      2. Go looking! Really. Or even summarize your dissertation research. Or anything. You are my partner in Deaf geography, so mi casa, tu casa.

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