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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 rangeĀ  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?