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:
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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:
- The Culture Bargain (excerpt)
- The Ungishable David Foster Wallace
- Why Theory Matters
- What is Interpreting?