Neutrality in Translation and Interpretation
banner IN DISCUSSIONS of the issue of interpreter neutrality, the anecdotes that interpreters and laypeople share suggest that the traditional perception of the interpreter's role as a neutral conduit of language is at odds with people's real-life experiences. For example, in an interpreted college course, a hearing student described how the class discussion was interrupted by the ASL-English interpreter, who said to the class, "One at a time please. I can't interpret all of you talking at once!" After a lengthy pause, the discussion slowly began again, with an attempt to limit the floor to one speaker at a time.

In another example, a hearing ASL-English interpreter described her exasperation while interpreting an incomprehensible speaker at a professional meeting. She finally admitted to the participants, "Just a minute, I can't understand what you're saying. And if I can't understand you, I'll bet half the people here don't understand you either. I'm sure you don't want to waste your time talking if you're not being understood . . . could you please say that again?"

In yet another account, a Deaf patient describes the behavior of a hearing interpreter at a medical interview. The hearing doctor had just completed an examination and was encouraging the patient to make an appointment for surgery when the interpreter surreptitiously signed, "Don't make the appointment yet. Wait until I talk to you outside for a minute." The Deaf patient told the doctor he would take some time to consider the surgery, then met with the interpreter outside. The interpreter informed the man that there was something about the way the doctor was talking that made the interpreter distrustful, and suggested that the patient get a second opinion. The Deaf man did so, and discovered that he did not, in fact, need the surgery in question.

In each of these stories, the interpreter makes contributions to the discourse that extend beyond mere renditions of other participants' utterances. The interpreters' alleged comments represent attempts to regulate interactions, to change speaker's discourse styles, and to judge people, in part, based on how they speak. More subtly, they represent apparent difficulties faced by the interpreters in attempting to provide access to real-life interactive discourse in which speakers frequently overlap (Tannen 1984), might intentionally speak in ambiguous ways (Kochman 1986), and whose linguistic strategies reveal subtle cues that are identifiable on the basis of cultural information not consciously considered by a native user of the language (Gumperz 1982). Yet, if interpreters really do confront such difficulties and subsequently initiate such contributions to interactive discourse, what is the actual rather than intended interactive relationship between the interpreter (and his or her utterances) and the participants relying on his or her services?

While this question clearly has ramifications regarding an interpreter's relative partiality in an interpreted encounter, it is important to remember that the aforementioned stories are merely anecdotal illustrations of the fact that interpreters contribute in a variety of ways to interactive discourse. As Gile (1990) points out, after many years of theorizing about interpretation on the basis of informal observation, it is necessary to pursue empirical studies of interpretation in order to engage in "a serious discussion of basic issues" (38).

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