For Fidelity as a Core Value in Interpreting Studies


Early on in interpreting and translation studies, the central theoretical discussion was focused on fidelity, defined as likeness to the original. In recent years, the discussion of fidelity has been largely sidelined through a very useful focus on the important mediating effects of language that were ignored in earlier debates. The move away from fidelity, however, is based on a misunderstanding of the enormous importance and richness of what fidelity means.

I am reminded of two related uses of the term fidelity. First, the Marine motto is semper fidelis, a Latin phrase that means “always faithful” or “always loyal”. Faithful to what? Loyal to what? From the outside, it may seem that this loyalty is synonymous with following orders. Any service member knows this is not exactly the case. The point of following orders is not to follow blindly, but to orient one’s being in such a way that the order is simply the verbal recognition of a commitment that precedes the order. In other words, the soldier who gives the order and the soldier that follows the order are, together, fidelis/faithful to something larger than the two. What this “larger” thing is, is precisely the question of fidelity, since it can only be intuited as nationalism, patriotism, soldierly love for one another, etc. Fidelis, therefore, means behaving with discipline as a responsible individual within a regime where individual responsibility is always collective and organized. (Hence the General-Philosopher David Patraeus.)

Second, fidelity is faithfulness in the religious sense. Again, a religious person who is faithful is not one who follows the church commandments to the letter. Such a person may be devout but not necessarily faithful — a central feature of the division between Protestants and Catholics (i.e. Catholics are devout but Protestants are faithful). Faithfulness does not consist in adhering to the known the will of God, but in adhering to the will of God despite the impossibility of either knowing it or adhering to it. And faithfulness especially means adhering to the will of God as a material being “in this world” who is said to have purchase within the next world.

In sum, faithfulness, it seems to me, means holding onto two things which are impossible and yet mutually necessary.

This is why interpreting is so interesting to me. To interpret is to hold onto two separate languages that are mutually unintelligible and create the circumstances for an appearance that they actually are intelligible.

For example, most of us who interpret or translate do a pretty good job, even though we recognize how enormously difficult it is to explain this job to others. We know that interpreting is possible despite the fact that the process itself is complex beyond any practitioner’s understanding. Interpreting proceeds almost as a miracle which we, ourselves, are unable to explain or fully control. And yet, we also know that interpreting is impossible. We often discuss this among ourselves. We know that no matter how good our voicing or signing is, there’s always a certain gap that exists between the two languages which cannot be bridged with even the best interpreter. Interpreting is an impossible task.

Wholly possible. Wholly impossible. And as interpreters, we are motivated and guided by fidelity. We are committed to a task which we are all very qualified to do, and which none of us are fully qualified to do.

Fidelity is a rich concept which allows us to think about our job in this way, and for that reason I think we should include fidelity among our list of core principles in interpreting — albeit by including its richer philosophical valences.


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