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Interpreting and Accent-shaming

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: October 9, 2018

I would not normally tell this story. This blog is usually aimed at clients and so I rarely write about issues like this. But since this one directly affects clients, I think it needs to be discussed.

The Day I was Accent-Shamed

It’s more than ten years since I was a trainee interpreter, working towards my masters at Heriot-Watt University. The course was great, the support was fantastic and I met people there with whom I still work. But one day was not OK.

From the second semester, we had a weekly mock conference. This, for me, was the most valuable part of the entire course. A few times, the university would being in practising interpreters too.

One of these “professionals” nearly ended my career before it started. He was sent as pedagogical assistance from one of the European international organisations. He was smartly dressed, with impeccable English and he knew he was good.

During the mock conference he heard, I had a really bad day. I hadn’t prepared properly, the speeches seemed harder than usual and it just all went wrong. When I saw the guy at the end of the lesson, he shot me a haughty look and said.

“I don’t think you’re cut out for interpreting. Your performance wasn’t good enough. Oh and that accent has to go.”

Three sentences, three blows to my confidence, three reasons to give up then and there. Honestly, if it hadn’t been for the amazing Lila Guha coming and encouraging us a few weeks later, I would have quit. I am glad I didn’t. But it was heart-breakingly close.

The Truth About Accents

I know I am not the only interpreter who has been told that they needed a more “neutral accent” to survive. It probably comes from the right place. Everyone wants conference interpreters to sound professional and be easy to understand. It’s probably what clients want too, right?.

Contrary to the advice I often received, my accent has proven to be a boon. Not many people who grow up a short bus ride from Glasgow ever make to interpreting school. For jobs on fisheries policy, for example, where pretty much all the delegates arrive with strong accent of their own, having a booth full of people who aren’t scared of Aberdonian English or Northern French helps to settle the organiser’s nerves.

For clients, the interpreters’ accents rarely seem to be an issue. Perhaps it’s because their world is full of accents already.

Being Easy to Understand does not Require a “Neutral Accent”

Go into any tradeshow and you will hear a plethora of accents. Attend any international confernece and Geordie will rub shoulders with Mexican Spanish, while North African French mingles with Chinese-flavoured German. The events at which we work are incredibly diverse. Shouldn’t the interpreters be too?

The whole “neutral accent” issue seems to boils down to two problems.

The first is whether your accent is so strong that it impedes understanding. For interpreters, that is actually an issue. Clients do need to be able to follow us, after all.

When clients are incomprehensible, it is usually more to do with using an unfamiliar lingua franca or reading from a typed manuscript. We never tire of advising speakers to speak from notes and use their native language.

It is doubtful that incomprehensible interpreters would ever make it through training. Gaps in language skills, pronunciation errors and articulation problems will be caught be careful tutors. Being able to express yourself clearly, no matter your home region, is a basic skill.

Yet being comprehensible and losing your native regional accent are two entirely different things. By all means, let’s encourage Glaswegians to slow down a bit and replace their glottal stops for the consonants that were originally there. But let’s not tell them that they have to sound like Eton graduates if they want to get work.

The Need to Reflect Diversity

The second problem with our push for “neutral accents” is that it hides the diversity of modern international events.

If the conference hall is home to a range  accents, surely the interpreting booth should be too. What does it say to clients if make it a mark of professionalism to turn a diverse speaking lineup into a parade of soundalikes? If the conference is for slang-using lumberjacks, isn’t it a bit weird for the interpreters’ voices to make them sound like yuppies?

So where do we go?

If event managers are facing the need to think more carefully about the messages they send when they choose speakers and panel members, then interpreters need to think more carefully about the messages we send to our clients and to new interpreters.

We can, and indeed should, continue to hang on to the requirement that interpreters are easy to understand for everyone listening. But, in a world increasingly aware of the benefits of diversity and the problems of privilege, we really do need to drop the “neutral accent” thing.

No modern linguist would see “neutral accents” as anything more than linguistic discrimination. Received Pronunciation and Midland American English are two specific accents among many. When we ask interpreters to strip off their accents, we are asking them to distance themselves from an important part of their identity, while attempting to create an interpreting profession full of soundalike clones.

If even the big national broadcasters can see the benefit of letting people hear a variety of voices, shouldn’t we?

Sure, some clients will prefer some accents, just as some interpreters prefer certain kinds of speakers. But the market is big enough and varied enough for the world of interpreting to reflect the diverse, multi-accented world in which we work.

Over to you:

If you are an events manager or interpreting buyer, do you have a preference for certain accents?

If you are an interpreter, have you ever been told to drop your accent? Did you?
Would you ever advise an interpreter to drop their accent?

The Problem with “Merely Beginning”: A Response to Seth Godin

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 15, 2016

training wheels

There comes a time in everyone’s career where they will disagree with those who have inspired them. I am a big fan of the short, pithy posts from marketing maestro, Seth Godin but yesterday, he slipped up. Or rather, he missed an important detail.

 

His post, “Without Training Wheels” is, on the face of it, a masterful piece of motivational thinking. His argument is that the best way to learn a skill is to do it. If we want to learn marketing “You don’t need to go to school for four years. You need to do marketing.” Following the metaphor of learning to ride a bike, he argues that “All training wheels do is confuse, distract or stall.” In other words, real-life is a better teacher than the classroom and any sandbox environments will just get in the way of your development. Far better to be let loose on the world promoting “a worthy charity” or a “micro business” than to sit in a library reading a book about how to do it.

 

Convincing? Yes. Accurate? It depends.

 

While it is true that we are learning that children learn to ride bicycles better when they start with bikes with no wheels, that doesn’t mean that no-one ever learned with training wheels. Similarly, while there is no argument that we will learn more in our careers out in the world, that doesn’t mean that a little time in the classroom (or doing one of Seth’s courses?) can’t give us a helpful boost or even help us avoid some embarrassing falls.

 

There are few better examples than the world of interpreting. There are definitely talented interpreters who came into the profession having never set foot in an interpreting classroom. Many of those, however, have found it helpful to do courses later in their career to sharpen precisely the kinds of skills that are now taught in a good interpreting degree course.

 

There is a reason why most organisations ask for you to have trained as an interpreter before you bang on their door looking for a job. Interpreter training will not make you a perfect interpreter but, if it is delivered well, it can give you the basic techniques you need and, more importantly, the crucial skills of effective learning and critical thinking.

 

In the past few years, researchers like Elisabet Tiselius have started to argue that, if interpreters are to keep on improving, they need both the initial academic training and close mentoring from other colleagues. In other words, just doing interpreting is not enough to actually improve at it. We need to be able to think about our practice and learn to work with others to improve it. And, without the critical thinking skills that a good interpreting school should teach, it is all too easy for interpreters to get side-tracked with bad advice.

 

In the world of marketing, I absolutely defer to Seth’s wisdom. Perhaps there it is much better for people to dive right into the pool than to learn in the classroom and then jump in after learning a few strokes. But in interpreting, the most effective route to excellence still seems to be to get solid training from practising experts and challenging theorists, and then to take your first few strokes, knowing where the sharks are knowing where to find ongoing mentors.

 

Do you need to spend four years in school before interpreting professionally? Probably not. Will it help to get training from the pros first? Absolutely!