What is empiricism? (And why should you care?)


Empiricism. Now that’s academic-speak if I’ve ever seen it. Yet the idea of empiricism – whether we know it’s name or not – is one of the strongest ideas of the 20th century, the century in which, by the way, what we now call “interpreting” and “Deaf studies” became viable fields of study. It is no small matter, therefore, to consider what this terms means and how it might effect us today.

In 1974, economic geographer David Harvey asked, “Why is it that so-called neutral studies of population and resources often end up with such conservative prescriptions?” The answer is one most people would accept today: science is never completely ethically neutral. But that only gives us an assumption to work from. It doesn’t answer our question.

Harvey suggests that part of the answer lies in the methods of 19th Century scholar Thomas Malthus, best known for his claim that (to put it simply) population growth will surpass resource growth. Harvey shows how Malthus’ relies on scientific empiricism to whitewash his own anti-socialist and anti-revolutionary bent.

Here’s how Harvey describes empiricism:

“Empiricism assumes that objects can be understood independently of observing subjects. Truth is therefore assumed to lie in a world external to the observer who job is to record and faithfully reflect the attributes of objects. This logical empiricism is a pragmatic version of that scientific method which goes under the name “logical positivism,” and is founded in a particular and very strict view of language and meaning.”

Skipping over a detailed argument about Ricardo and Marx, Harvey goes on in the conclusion to explain why this empiricism mattered:

“The political consequences that flow from these results can be serious. The projection of a neo-Malthusian view into the politics of the time appears to invite repression at home and neo-colonial policies abroad. The neo-Malthusian view [based on empiricism] often functions to legitimate such polices, and thereby, to preserve the position of the ruling elite.”

I can’t think of a more concise statement about empiricism and its potential consequences.

I point this out for two very simple reasons.

First, I think it is relevant to notice the fundamental relationship between empiricism and language. Interpreters are language professionals, and we cannot help be influenced by ideas about language, even those ideas we don’t know we have. It is worth pondering the relationship between empiricism in the century and the influence of this conceptual framework on the interpreting profession. (See article: Language, Power and Models of Interpreting.)

Second, if Harvey is right that empiricism often justifies repression, then it is important that we understand how our ideas about language and politics may have repressive effects. As Harvey indicates elsewhere, the role of thought in social change is to “formulate concepts and categories…which we can apply in the process of bringing about a humanizing social change.” (See article: All Interpreters are Philosophers.)

This year we celebrate 50 years of RID. We remember, as we should, so many important Deaf and hearing leaders in our history who have helped make this profession a viable — although far from perfect — way for providing language access for Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Alongside that celebration, it might not be a complete waste of time to think about the growth of the interpreting profession within it’s larger historical and conceptual context. (See article: What do sign language interpreters need to accomplish?.)

Some questions for pondering:

  • What ideas – recognized and unrecognized – did/do interpreters bring with them into the profession?
  • Where do we see empiricism today, and does empiricism have the negative political effect that Harvey suggests?
  • Which conceptual frameworks are dominant in research on interpreting and sign language?
  • What positive and negative political effects has research had on the recognition (or repression) of the human rights of Deaf communities?

For my part, I tend to think about how contemporary literary theory and authors such as David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon provide at least some provocation for different ways of thinking about language. See article: The unGishable David Foster Wallace.

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.

All Interpreters are Philosophers

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:

  1. What does this passage mean?
  2. What does it mean to interpreters?
  3. Why is language at the top of the list of things that make us all philosophers?
  4. What belief systems are you encountering today, and how does that influence your interpretation/translation?
  5. What powerful systems of language are beyond your control?
  6. When do you have the ability to transform language? When don’t you?

I’d love to see your thoughts and feedback!

The unGishable David Foster Wallace

We must not get hung up on the fact that David Foster Wallace did not write about interpreters, for he wrote extensively on interpreting.

His first novel, The Broom of the System, sits in my lap bookmarked at Part 2, page 255, just before chapter 12, 1990, section /a/. He is an exhilarating writer. He gives me the same feeling I have when watching a really fluent ASL storyteller: I may not grasp each component, but the affect is pure linguistic elation. Form and content become indistinguishable in spectacularly quotidian prose. Broom is – and this is my favorite part – unGishable.

In 2002 when I first took a fancy to interpreting the Gish model was hot. Still is, come to think of it, and for good reason. It’s a handy, flexible, easy-to-teach approach to interpreter processing that is grounded by well-know theories of language. So far, so good. But one has the responsibility to ask: is there anything that the Gish model doesn’t apply to?

As I’ve already implied, “yes”. The assumption behind the Gish model – or rather, the assumption behind the theories of language that the Gish model depends on – is that language is used by people to achieve something specific, calculated and intentional. These “goals”, we come to learn, are hidden by language. The interpreter’s function is to wade into the Mardi Gras of language and pull back the masks of words to reveal the meaning behind them. We often say “let go of the English” and we sign it that way, too, as if the words themselves get in the way.

I am committed to the idea that every word presents us with a problem – a kind of mask, you might say. Yet I think we must, for this very reason, stay committed to words rather than try to let go of them. As the wacky dialogue in The Broom of the System seems to suggest, there is no overarching structure behind language, no conscious set of strategic goals that works its way down the Gish tree into words. In fact, people don’t seem to know what the hell they’re doing with language most if the time. If this seems hard to grasp, just take chapter 2 of Broom and try to Gish it. (If you actually attempt this, I’d love to see examples below.)

It’s this slipperiness of language that makes interpreting so interesting and fundamentally important. And I think as long as we try to present interpreting as a logical process, we miss some of the most exciting aspects of our work. The implication for the Gish model is not the standard reactionary one: throw it out. Instead, think about this: how is it possible for the Gish model to be flawed at an absolutely fundamental level, and yet still be extremely, practically useful?

My affection for Wallace and Gish mean more posts on both. For now, I recommend to you the following interview of DFW by Charlie Rose on YouTube, along with any of his essays and books.

What is interpreting?


When we ask “what is interpreting?”, the answer we often give is in functional terms: we facilitate communication between two languages.

We would all agree that the everyday work of interpreting is complicated by constant interruption, complex social differences (and unexpected similarities), and our own all-too-overwhelming awareness of our incapacity to do what we actually claim to do. No one should be satisfied with a tidy definition of a messy job. Yet if you look across the Internet or flip through interpreting books, one gets the idea that flow charts, bullet points, and Venn diagrams can do justice to what we call interpreting. Whatever we do in practice, we are certainly taught to talk about interpreting as if it weren’t so messy after all.

Is this just the nature of trying to explain interpreting? Do we have to rely on simplifications to talk about our profession? I don’t think we do.

Enter hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation, most commonly the interpreting of texts, but in fact it can be (and has been) applied more generally to any situation where humans have to deal with figuring out what things mean. “Interpret” here is used in the broader sense of the act of assigning or creating meaning. Hermes, the namesake of hermeneutics, was the Greek god of boundaries, and was tasked with (among other things) delivering to humans the divine messages from the gods. Food for thought: he was also the protector of travelers, he symbolized commerce, and was often portrayed as a trickster.

Here’s the important thing. Hermeneutics (or at least one line of hermeneutics) emphasizes that interpretation is not about a simple, rational linguistic analysis. For that to work, you have to start with the idea that language is first and foremost a system of signs that work together. If that’s the case, then interpretation can be done algorithmically, like algebra. Instead, interpretation is only necessary and possible because language doesn’t work that way. Our so-called system of signs is slippery and unreliable, given to wild flirtations with the dynamism of social life. Interpreting isn’t messy because we are inadequate people; interpreting is messy because the process of interpretation is always impossible. When we talk about interpreting as if it were a logical process, we repress the messiness in order to present a pretty picture. You can observe the practical effect of this in the numerous books on best practices, the popularity of interpreting “models” over interpreting theories, and the rituals of horizontal violence that teach us to make fun of those who mess up.

Today, hermeneutics – the theory of interpretation – is an important part of legal theory, literature and the humanities, the social sciences, and the philosophy of human knowledge. It seems to me that interpreting could benefit greatly from this line of thought. If nothing else, it could certainly help us to come up with an explanation of interpreting which does justice to the messiness of daily practice.