Language, Power, and Models of Interpreting

This post brings together Sandra Gish’s model of interpreting and Normal Fairclough’s critical discourse analysis.

In 2002 I took an online class through Gallaudet University called Introduction to Interpreting for Multicultural Interpreters. I learned my first interpreting model: the Gish Model of Interpreting. The Gish Model of interpreting in a nutshell works like this. If you try to focus on interpreting every word that’s coming at you, you are bound to miss things. And when you miss things, you don’t have any way to compensate for that “miss” in your interpreting. Instead of focusing on the surface of the language, focus on the intent, goals, and themes of the situation and use that knowledge to create a better-quality interpretation that actually makes sense. (See the diagram below courtesy of TheInterpretersFriend.) In my opinion, the Gish Model is the best information processing model we have in interpreting. So far, so good. (I think Sandra is still teaching at Western Oregon University, but I can’t find a page to link to.)


Now enter Norman Fairclough and his book Critical Discourse Analysis (1995). Quick aside: I came to this book because it was published in a series by Pearson Educational Press called “Language in Social Life Series”. Cecilia Wadensjö’s book Interpreting as Interaction was published in this series, too, which is how I found out about Fairclough. In any case, in Critical Discourse Analysis, Fairclough explains his approach to discourse analysis as being committed to careful interpretation of the “text” (which can mean spoken texts, too), but also being attentive to power relationships, ideology, and inequality. He criticizes theories of discourse analysis that ignore power and presume neutrality. Here’s how he describes it:

“I also criticize the concept of ‘background knowledge’ as an obfuscation of ideological processes in discourse, the preoccupation with ‘goals’ as based upon an untenable theory of the subject, and the neglect of relations of power manifested for instance in the elevation of conversation between equals to the status of idealized archetype for linguistic interaction in general.” (23)

If that sounds like gobbledygook, here’s what Fairclough is saying: It is extremely rare that two people of perfectly equal or neutral status communicate with one another. Yet when we study language, we pretend like this is the norm. When we do this, we are hiding the power relationships that actually exist. These “neutralized” models of language are part of what make us blind to power. Here’s an image of the kinds of models Fairclough is talking about. You’ve probably seen this before, right?


Okay, so far, so good. But now we have to ask ourselves a tough question: how would Fairclough view the Gish Model?

If work with Fairclough’s framework of analysis, we might come to the following conclusion. The Gish Model supposes that communication is about goals, when in fact (as Freud said), we don’t know why we do what we do (see post on Judith Butler). We don’t have overarching goals which filter down into specific sentences and words, and therefore, interpreters can’t work their way back up the tree to arrive at the speaker’s goal. Even when we have goals, because language is so fidgety, we can’t enact those goals through language in any straightforward way. If we accept Fairclough’s analysis in his book, we have to acknowledge that – at some level – the premises of the Gish Model obscure power relations. It’s not something that we need to “add back in” to the Gish Model. The model itself starts from the premise that communication is a power-neutral process, when, at least according to Fairclough, it isn’t.

But isn’t the Gish Model super helpful? Didn’t I say that I love it? Yes, and yes. So what’s going on? The utility of the Gish Model isn’t that it helps interpreters grasp the goals of the speaker. Instead, it’s that Gish helps us to imagine goals, and these imagined goals (true or false, it doesn’t matter) helps us to organize our interpretation in a more coherent fashion. In other words, the Gish Model isn’t about the speaker – it’s about us. And insofar as the Gish Model teaches us to “think like the speaker” in recognizing goals, it is powerful and should be included in workshops all the time.

But we haven’t escaped Fairclough, yet. We are still stuck with the fact that the goals that are guiding are own interpretation are of our own making. Which means that our interpretation is tainted with our unrecognized, unacknowledged, unknown ideologies. This is just a fancy way of saying that interpreters influence the message; we all know that. But I think if we put Fairclough and Gish together we can get a better idea of precisely how interpreters influence the message.

If this seems like an anti-climactic conclusion, let’s look at the most thorough analysis of interpreter errors in our profession: Marty Taylor’s pink and blue skills books (1993). They list all possible types of linguistic errors. And Marty is absolutely right: we need this kind of careful analysis. Just take note that if we are talking about how ideology influences language, no such typology is possible since human subjectivity is not a standardized, rule-based process. In short, with Fairclough’s analysis it gets more complicated than tracking more-or-less objective signing errors.

If we incorporate Fairclough into the field of interpreting, we will have to recognize that many of our assumptions about language contain false premises of “power-neutral” communication. I think this is the contribution of Fairclough. But it shouldn’t cause us to despair, or lead us to react against existing models. Instead, we should draw upon our own scholarship and move it forward carefully and thoughtfully.


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