The Task of the Interpreter and Walter Benjamin


I have always had a nagging feeling that interpreting is one of the most important human activities. Interpreting is valuable not only for the participants immediately involved, but its also a fascinating demonstration of the human capacity to do things with language.

Language is interesting because virtually no part of our human existence can be fully understood or thoroughly appreciated without language. Indeed, over the past 100 years philosophers as different (and in some ways as similar) as Bertrand Russell and Martin Heidegger have spent the better part of their professional lives trying to explain just how language structures the experience of being human. Central to these thinkers – and the many who followed them – was the notion that humans have a unique and extremely flexible capacity to assign meaning to the objects and experiences we encounter in the world. Our individual and collective role in assigning, negotiating, and contesting meaning in the world can be summed up in one word: interpretation.

Loosening the Boundaries of History

Therefore it is likely no accident that interpreting – and sign language interpreting in particular – became a profession in the 20th Century. We tend to focus on the historical events that define our profession (the Ball State meeting in 1964, let’s say) or the individuals who invested their labor into moving us forward (Lou Fant comes to mind). It’s clear why. Their stories are our stories handed down through mentorship or gleaned from the pages of textbooks or from the VHS cassettes we used in my interpreting program.

However, I’d would like to make a very simple suggestion: that we zoom out from our individual profession – if just briefly – to put ourselves and our collective history into a larger context. My is strategic. I am suggesting that we widen the scope of our own history, and in so doing recognize (and advocate for) the larger significance of interpreting in society. My imperfect example is to take a look at an essay written in 1923 by Walter Benjamin.

Walter Benjamin was a German literary critic, philosopher, and translator whose life of influence and tragedy is too dense to tell here. What is important for us is that in 1923, Benjamin wrote an introduction to his translation of a collection of works by the French poet, Charles Baudelaire. The introductory essay was called The Task of the Translator, and in it Benjamin lays out his approach to the nature of translation and some of its main challenges. One caveat: it’s true that the pragmatic considerations of translators appear very different from what we think of as interpreters. But a closer look at Benjamin’s text reveals language issues that transcend practical differences.

Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator

I would like to focus on two main examples that I find especially relevant in Benjamin’s essay.

On the Limits of Fidelity

“…no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original.” – Benjamin

The fundamental principle of translation and interpretation is the notion of fidelity. But Benjamin suggests – and working interpreters know – that strict formal fidelity is part of the problem, not part of the solution. We’ve all seen this, haven’t we? Those moments when we interpret something with undue literalness. We say things like, “that was too English” or “you’re talking in ASL” to indicate this simple concept. Awkward literalness isn’t a result of simply choosing the wrong variable in an otherwise balanced equation, like systematically replacing the red blocks in a Lego house with otherwise identical green blocks. There is something about interpreting which escapes formal calculation. And yet when we see amazing interpreters at work, we feel that “click” that something has come together in an entirely original yet accurate way. We recognize that provisionally – in the moment, in the set of circumstances at the time – a great interpretation performs the function it was intended to have. What Benjamin argues clearly (and more elaborately in his essay) is that fidelity, strictly speaking, is not always the best way to evaluate the success of a translation or an interpretation. This may seem obvious to us now. But remember: he was writing over 40 years before RID was came into existence, and still long before any systematic work had been done in interpreting theory.

On the Impossibility of a Final Interpretation

“…all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages.” – Benjamin

Even the best interpretations are always partial. In the everyday life of interpreters, there is a common (but under-analyzed) practice of commenting on the ways that we would have interpreted something that another interpreter signed or voiced. Yet have we fully appreciated the fact that this common practice is only possible because interpretations are indeed always partial, always “provisional”? Indeed, we always could have signed or voiced something different, and yet there is no need to imply that the first interpretation was inadequate. There are always openings for other interpretations which add something unique or relevant. This is not simply the result of peer violence, where interpreters belittle one another’s work (although it is sad when it stoops to that level). Instead, this is an indication that interpreting is our slippery attempt to make sense of the linguistic and social situations that we find ourselves in. A word of caution: this does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid. Benjamin is very clear that “bad translations” (his words) exist and perhaps dominate the world of translations. But it does suggest that even our best work will need to be refined over time, and that no interpretation can claim a superior finality.

Relevance Today

The conclusion I draw from this difficult essay is rather simple. Benjamin remains a significant literary and theoretical figure today – probably more so than when he was alive. There is great value for us in realizing the affinities between our work as interpreters and aspects of Benjamin’s work 100 years ago. Not only do we open up new opportunities for us to think about our own work, we can also open up dialogue with other fields of study. I recognize that this may not be attractive to all interpreters, nor does it make us better skilled or better paid interpreters overnight. But for some of us who are trying to meet new educational requirements for certification or trying to expand our professional knowledge base, this might provide new and useful opportunities.

I believe Benjamin’s essay is relevant today because it shows that the history of our profession is not simply our history. Rather, we exist today in part because of a number of social, political, and – yes – philosophical conditions the 20th century. What is at stake in interpreting is not only the important role of language mediation between the often-marginalized sign language community and the non-signing majority. Interpreting is intimately connected to the most profound and fundamental shifts in economic organization and philosophical thought in the past 100 years. With this recognition in mind, we may be able to argue forcefully that while our numbers may be small, we are nonetheless significant and deserve more than passing attention. It is to the benefit of society at large – not only to working interpreters – to recognize our important place in history.

*This is an incomplete short piece I started writing over a year ago and never quite finished. I present it here so I can just move on.


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.

Deafness on Film: There Will Be Blood

I love movies with well-crafted dialogue, especially those movies where a major theme is the power of language. There Will Be Blood, starring my all-time favorite Daniel Day-Lewis, is one such film. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a demi-sovereign Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector at the turn of the last century whose economic success is paralleled by his moral corruption and paranoia.

When one of his workers dies in a drilling accident, Plainview adopts the worker’s son as his own. When the son, H.W., is about 10, a drilling explosion destroys his hearing. At this moment I can’t help but think of the common motif of “disability” in film. (And at this point in the film, the deafness is treated as a disability.) In film, disability is often the physical manifestation or foreshadowing of flawed character. Ah-ha, you say; just when you think we are past the classical view of disability as sin, it reappears in film. H.W. is the only thing that Plainview seems to love. But Plainview also expects his son to succeed him in continuing the family business. When H.W. becomes a vulnerable, it strikes Plainview as weakness and his incapacity to make his son well again shows Plainview that he isn’t the all-powerful man he believes himself to be. H.W. is tricked into getting on a train and is sent away.

There is no footage of H.W.’s life during the years that he is gone. Plainview does eventually bring his son back after a salvation scene in a rural church – one of the best scenes in American film. However, since H.W. comes back learning sign language and with an interpreter, we can imagine that he went to a Deaf school at some unknown location. The older H.W. is played by Russell Harvard, the Deaf actor who also played Mark Hamill in The Hammer.  In a dramatic encounter between Plainview, H.W. and H.W.’s interpreter, Plainview tells his son that he isn’t really his son. He famously calls him a “bastard from a basket”. Note for a second that H.W. was actually found in a basket, as was Moses in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I can’t help but think that this is an allusion and foreshadowing of H.W.’s eventual emancipatory exodus from Plainview.

It’s at this point I’m not really sure how to interpret the role of deafness in the film. Here are some thoughts.

  1. It is uncommon to have such well-casted parts with well-signed dialogue. I can only commend the studio for (rightly) giving Harvard the acting work he deserves.
  2. The incidental nature of H.W.’s deafness (it was the result of drilling) forms a linkage between Daniel’s ruthless, greedy drilling, and H.W.’s incapacity (from Daniel’s view) to follow in his father’s footsteps. This makes the deaf H.W. into the expression of the weakness in the world that Daniel hates, and is a symbol of his incapacity to have a relationship.
  3. But H.W.’s deafness – and later Deafhood, I suggest – is what allows H.W. to create space between him and his father. Being sent away is a blessing. H.W. ends up being the most authentically compassionate character in the film. Yet, somehow without becoming a saintly figure, for which I’m thankful. It’s only too bad that H.W. doesn’t have more screen time. But then again, with Day-Lewis as lead that would be difficult.
  4. You could read parts of the film as repeating the stereotype that hearing parents can’t have authentic relationships with their Deaf children. That theme is there. We really don’t get to see a lot of healthy hearing parent/deaf child relationships on screen. (Think of how much all this corresponds with Mr. Holland’s Opus.) But I don’t think this message is the main one.
  5. Could one read Plainview, H.W., and the preacher as each filling a position a trinity motif? Plainview=father. H.W.=son. Preacher=holy spirit. (???) It wouldn’t be totally out of the question given the deeply religious nature of the film.
  6. If you’ve seen the movie, what else stick out to you?

I really think this film is about is the power of spoken language to control, persuade, and corrupt. Both Plainview and the preacher have lengthly, arresting monologues in the film. And both of them – in their own way – use their oratory gifts to manipulate, overpower, cajole, swindle, defile, and pervert people around them. And both Plainview and the preacher are examples of sovereign power: Plainview’s raw, human sovereignty to dominate nature, and the preacher’s metaphysical sovereignty over salvation. In this way, the film says something remarkable and profound about language through the character of H.W. It seems to suggest that a break with sovereign authority requires a break with the form of language that sovereignty takes. This doesn’t mean that ASL is the way out of issues of power. But it calls our attention to the powerful role that language has in making us who we are.

I dunno. That’s what I’ve been thinking about since I watched There Will Be Blood. See for yourself below.

Participating in Language

Ever since I read Arthur Rimbaud in the library at Thomas Worthington High School, I’ve wanted to participate in language.

Nothing excites me as much as the bare, explosive prose of Cormac McCarthy, the devout dialogues of Victor Hugo, the Escheresque phenomenon that one experiences through Franz Kafka. Though I have never fancied myself a writer by trade or discipline, I cannot help but consider myself an enthusiast of human language. Real-world dialogue is no less intriguing despite the loathsome banality that we tolerate as everyday speech. As Goffman and Pinker remind us, it’s often within the banal desert that we find oasis of complexity overlooked by misguided pretension.

Perhaps this drive to participate in language explains why some of us end up interpreting despite our best intentions to avoid it. This is rather fabulous conjecture. I know full well that it has more to do with economics than with preference. Yet, many interpreters I know – not all, but many – exhibit a similar passion for language and at least a little excitement for the task of interpreting what other people say and sign.

Whether motivated by fervor or whimsy, we are participating in language. Isn’t that sublime?

The Interpreter’s Library – An Introduction

This is the first post in a series I’m calling the interpreter’s library. The purpose is to put important interpreting resources together in one place. (Check out the new resource page.)

Strangely, no such online resources exists at this time. When I first became interested in interpreting in 2002, David Bar-Tzur ran a website called The Interpreter’s Friend, which is as close as we’ve ever come to a comprehensive online resource center. Sadly, David passed away in 2009, and his website, while still active, is starting to age. has some professional resources. But by no means have they tried to be a clearinghouse for resources. StreetLeverage has done a terrific job of getting a variety of contributors to share their thoughts on current issues. The Interpreting Diaries blog is also a great resource, but light on sign language-related materials.

To date, no summary and critical review of interpreting research and literature exists.

One excellent anthology exists: Introduction to Interpreting Studies and the corresponding Interpreting Studies Reader assembled by Franz Pöchhacker, professor of interpreting studies at the University of Vienna, Austria, and Miriam Shlesinger, professor of interpreting in Israel and recipient of the Danica Seleskovitch award in 2011. (Miriam passed away in 2012.) These two books provide the most comprehensive introduction to interpreting studies available. The Reader is especially terrific because it includes seminal articles and chapters from key researchers from spoken and sign language interpreting research.

I can’t claim to fill this void completely. But I want to get started by creating a page devoted to interpreting resources. And to add to the quality, my plan is to review each item that goes on the resource page so you have some context for it. If there’s something you’d like to see, let me know.

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.