Flotsam and Jetsam of Question Period

David Roberts
(Terminology Update, Volume 21, Number 2, 1988, page 1)

After a shipwreck, various objects may be found floating on the water and eventually washed ashore. When I think of the time spent “doing my turn” interpreting Question Period, vague memories also rise to the surface, probably bearing as little resemblance to the real atmosphere of Question Period as do those sundry objects floating on the water to the vessel that once carried them. However, these somewhat disjointed impressions are what remain of the sometimes amusing and exhilarating, always delicate and challenging task of interpreting Question Period.

Question Period, as it operates in Ottawa, is similar but by no means identical to the procedure in Westminster. It creates an atmosphere which is very different from that of the U.S. Congress where the tendency is to make orations for the Congressional Record. In Canada, the government party faces the opposition across the floor, and the Prime Minister or his representative can be called upon to answer his political rivals every day the House is sitting, whereas the President of the United States appears before the press when he chooses. These are some of the reasons which help explain why Question Period is imbued with an atmosphere of tension and excitement that has attracted the interest not only of political scientists but also of writers of fiction.

Jeffrey Archer, for example, in his novel First Among Equals, describes the embarrassing plight of a British government minister who makes the mistake of coming to Question Period relatively unprepared. The author points out that such a system “might appear wonderfully democratic to onlookers… until you are the Christian facing the 300 hungry lions.”Footnote 1 While allowing for some dramatic exaggeration on the writer’s part, the fact is that Question Period, be it in Westminster or Ottawa, can be intimidating, and the suspense and buzz of excitement created by packed benches and galleries can have both a stimulating and unnerving effect. Despite the protection of the booth, interpreters are far from insensitive to this atmosphere, and although we do not yet have to suffer howls of “Answer, answer,” “Shame,” or “Resign” from our hungry rivals waiting in the wings to take our jobs from us whenever we slip, it should also be remembered that we are not comforted either by hearing an occasional “Hear, hear” or “Right on” from the ranks of our colleagues, just to reassure us that we are not coping too badly. So, like Mr. Archer’s fictional minister, the interpreter, not wishing to be devoured, would be well advised to prepare as carefully as possible for Question Period.

And how should an interpreter prepare? In her article “Documentation and the Freelance Interpreter,”Footnote 2 Janet Altman identifies four stages in the life of an interpreter faced with a variety of subjects. The first is general and unspecific, the second is meeting-specific, the third takes place during the meeting itself, and the fourth involves consolidating for future use the knowledge acquired. The points listed by Ms. Altman constitute excellent general advice in preparing for normal assignments. However, there lies the rub. What distinguishes Question Period from other assignments is its very unpredictability. The interpreter has no warning of the thrust of a question or the content of an answer. It is interesting to note here that this lack of advance notice is one of the differences between the Canadian and United Kingdom Houses of Commons. In Westminster the first question by each MP is placed on the Order Paper, and the House is aware beforehand of the nature of the question to be asked. In Ottawa this is not the case. The second stage of preparation suggested by Ms. Altman (meeting-specific) is therefore impossible for House interpreters since they receive no notice, let alone documents specifically related to Question Period. The third stage is also a luxury unavailable to us since parliamentary interpreters simply do not chat to “participants” during the coffee break or check the accuracy of terms or expressions with them. I mention these points not to question the value of Ms. Altman’s article which, as stated, contains some very useful advice, but rather to indicate some of the special considerations and difficulties affecting the interpreter’s task in Question Period. However, to give a balanced view of the work involved, it should also be noted that Question Period does not usually contain highly specialized vocabulary of the type encountered in scientific meetings. On the other hand, the consequences of misinterpreting are far more embarrassing in Question Period than at a more conventional assignment where there might be a more relaxed atmosphere not only between delegates and interpreters but also among the delegates themselves.

So, how can an interpreter prepare? Obviously, thorough knowledge of current events and of appropriate terminology in both official languages is a prerequisite. In addition, terminology of government departments, rules of procedure and names of parliamentary constituencies must be mastered. Having no wish to render this paragraph even more soporific than it already is, I shall not further dull the reader’s interest with a long list of the tools available to the parliamentary translator or interpreter. However, I think there are two areas deserving particular mention because they contribute to the atmosphere of the House and present a particular challenge to the interpreter. The first concerns the rules of the House, and the second certain techniques used to ask and answer questions.

The rules of the House of Commons are set out in Beauchesne’s Rules and Forms of the House of Commons.Footnote 3 Sections 358 to 371 explain the rules with respect to the form and content of oral questions. It would be excessively optimistic to suggest that these rules are followed stringently at all times, but the interpreter preparing for Question Period would be well advised to study carefully the appropriate sections of Beauchesne’s, for he would then fully appreciate why a question has been disallowed, or why a minister was interrupted by the Speaker when answering. But what is the point of having rules about questions? Surely, a question is a question! True, but the way in which an MP may put a question is quite different from that of a television interviewer or a lawyer in court. The rules of the House require that the question be brief, with a preamble not exceeding one sentence. From the interpreter’s point of view, this makes life a little tricky for he will often count on a preamble to feel his way into a question. In this respect, the interpreter’s dilemma is clearly explained by Glemet:

… as you start a sentence, you are taking a leap in the dark, you are mortgaging your grammatical future; the original sentence may be turned in such a way that your translation at its end cannot be easily recognized with your translation at its start… Listening intently, translating half-unconsciously, consciously intervening to redress the forms and balances of syntax, touching up, putting in fillers—these are some of the demands of simultaneous interpretation.Footnote 4

A preamble is therefore often welcomed by the interpreter as it gives him a few precious seconds to appreciate the tone and part of the content of a question before committing himself. I think it is true to say that the Speaker may allow a reasonably brief preamble, but he will not let the questioner make statement after statement under the guise of a preamble. An interesting view of this problem is provided by George Thomas, who was Speaker at Westminster from 1976 to 1983. On one occasion, a member kept repeating the beginning of his question and found great difficulty in coming to the point. The Speaker rose and with a smile said: “The Honourable gentleman is taking almost as long as I used to take and that’s very unreasonable, so he must come to the point.”Footnote 5 Members who constantly repeat themselves are, of course, a problem for the Speaker but they are the interpreter’s delight for they give him time—a rare and valuable commodity in Question Period. The severe limitation of time is one of the most important features distinguishing Question Period from interviews by journalists or cross-examinations in court. To put it quite simply, Question Period is fast. The questioner is allowed only his principal question and perhaps one or two supplementaries. A member does not have twenty or thirty minutes as do some television interviewers, and he also has far less time than a lawyer questioning a witness in court. The effective questioner will be precise in his principal question and consistent in his supplementary. As Speaker Jerome explained: “Properly used, there is hope of progression—first, to set the scene; second, to set the Minister up; third, to deliver the knock-out punch.”Footnote 6 When working within such a tight framework, every word counts, and the interpreter is under considerable pressure to ensure that he also “gets it right” the first time, for it is highly unlikely that much goodwill might be felt by a member whose knock-out punch loses its effect because of an unclear or inaccurate interpretation. A slightly hesitant interpretation may be tolerated for a short time at other assignments where we may presume the delegates have other purposes than knocking one another out but it is quite inappropriate when political foes meet at Question Period.

As we have seen, there are certain practices in the style of asking questions. But what about answers? Again they are different from those demanded in, for example, a court of law. A witness under oath must tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Clearly, a minister may not lie to the House, but he may simply refuse to answer a question; he may choose to pick up on a verbal slip or an ill-judged phrase by the questioner; or he may decide to move onto the attack by turning his attention to some other issue, such as the record of the questioner’s party on a particular point. In short, the variety of possible responses to a question seems greater than in a court of law or in most journalistic interviews. Interpreters are again faced with the problem of unpredictability, of adapting to the unknown or unexpected. In view of this difficulty, the drama of the occasion, the importance of the subjects discussed and of the people discussing them, the fact that the proceedings are all live on television, the need to phrase one’s questions and answers as carefully, accurately and impartially as possible in the circumstances despite considerable background noise, it is not surprising that many interpreters sometimes feel that being assigned to Question Period is rather like walking a tightrope. Whatever happens, don’t look down, just keep walking!

If we accept that the interpreter cannot always predict accurately the content of questions or answers—for they are sometimes inspired by knowledge not yet available to the interpreters or to the general public—can he at least do something to anticipate the style or method of presentation? Can he penetrate what Mariano Garcia Landa terms the “mundillo sensico”Footnote 7 of the speaker, grasping not only the language but also the thought patterns which influence one approach rather than another? I don’t think this is consistently possible unless one is very familiar with a speaker’s style. However, what the interpreter can do is to examine certain characteristics displayed by questioners and, as his experience increases, adapt more comfortably to these different approaches. The examples I have chosen transcend party lines and are taken from various periods of interpreting at the House. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that some of the categories in which questioners may be placed are the following:

  1. The explainers. These are people who feel compelled to explain at length why they are asking a particular question, as if the question itself was not adequate justification for taking the time of the House. They are sometimes so eager to show how eminently reasonable and fair they are that they have been known to agree with an answer, but then they remember just in time where they are and throw in defiantly that, for the good of the country, the minister should resign anyway.
  2. The non-explainers. These are first cousins of (a.). The questioner may begin by explaining what he is not asking. Evidently, the interpreter must possess astounding intellectual flexibility and encyclopedic knowledge just to follow along. The questioner might then explain just what he is asking and conclude by vigorously demanding “Is this the case?.” The essential point any interpreter interested in a long career and a fully indexed pension should remember here is to speak with respectful interest but to finish with a bold flourish in the hope that those listening will have deciphered the main point of the question.
  3. The conciliators. To be approached with caution! They often begin sweetly by proclaiming how sure they are that the minister would agree with them that…. Their sting comes later in the supplementary, perhaps by lying in wait with a disclosure of some inconsistency between the minister and a colleague.
  4. The inconsequent arguers. The characteristic of these questioners is the speed with which they slide from one point to another, and yet give the impression of creating a logical connection between points. A member may say, for example: “The government has decided to reduce the number of pilots (or sailors, drivers, etc.), which clearly shows that it is more interested in money than in safety (or comfort, convenience, etc.) of Canadians.” In fact, there is no logical or necessary link between the two points, but a strong attack accompanied by an appropriate level of volume and desk-thumping can create the illusion of such cause and effect.
  5. The question beggars. These are very similar to (d.). For example: “The Minister has not asked the opposition (or an outside body, the private sector, etc.) to carry out the inquiry. It is obvious that the inquiry cannot be considered objective or fair.” In fact they are assuming what is to be proven, and the tell-tale sign of question-begging may come in the words: “It is obvious that….”
  6. The planted question. This might contain fulsome praise of the government’s achievements, with a question thrown in so as to comply with the rules of the House. The minister answering will of course congratulate the questioner on his keen judgment and sharp insight, while the members opposite bay, jeer and howl with laughter. Fortunately or unfortunately, Canada has nobody in this area as determined as Mr. William Molloy, a Labour member of the British House of Commons. He was “ready to do his duty at any time without hope of reward…. In Mr. Molloy’s case, the question usually concealed a scented bouquet for the Prime Minister, and the Tories stirred with obvious pleasure as he rose…. A few Tories, slow to enjoy the joke, protested. The rest dissolved in happy mirth.”Footnote 8

These are but a very small sample of the methods used in asking questions. In fact, most questions are straightforward requests for information or clarification, but there are tricks of suggestion such as choosing only examples favourable to one’s case, simply repeating an affirmation, forcing analogies or attributing motives to one’s opponents. I think it is of value for the interpreter to appreciate these techniques of argument, for he can then more easily go beyond the mere rendering of words, which is at best laboured and at worst meaningless, and he can better anticipate and retain what he hears. This is not to suggest that the words can be disregarded in favour of an abridged version of the message, as I hope to show.

If there are some patterns of asking questions, we might also consider whether there are preferred techniques of answering. I would suggest that some answerers can also be placed in categories. For example:

  1. The analyst. He will start by examining any premiss contained in the question and will probably refuse it. However, it is not very dynamic simply to refuse a point, and a good, vigorous answerer might well amplify by a rousing assurance of his own intellectual honesty and a profession of frankness and integrity. This is sure to have his supporters cheering enthusiastically, while the interpreter (who by this time usually cannot hear the answer because of the background noise) seeks to adopt a tone of energetic conviction while studiously avoiding non sequiturs.
  2. The challenger. He favours answering a question with a question. The interpreter should not be unduly concerned about retaining the question in his mind because the answer might well bear only a passing reference to it. The challenger might, for example, begin by saying: “If the Hon. Member is accusing me of…, then I wish he would have the courage to say so.” Of course, the member may not be suggesting anything of the sort, but it makes for a very forthright defence and puts the onus on the questioner to explain himself.
  3. The unsurprised. Another user of strong, dynamic techniques. The answerer rises and declares: “It doesn’t surprise me that the Hon. Member would ask such a question because his party…” and then rips into the member’s party (leader, record, etc.). Again, the interpreter might find that the original question can be safely shelved for the moment.

Generally, however, the minister will simply give the information requested. Yet this is not always the case since, while not having the luxury of the card player to simply say “pass” (as tempting as it may appear to a harried minister, it is not a recommended technique for keeping the opposition at bay), the minister may field the question by saying that it has already been answered by his colleague, the Minister of…. He may accuse the member of selectively quoting in his favour, he may say the matter is under consideration and a statement will be made later, or he may pick up on a word heckled from the other side. The last possibility is the interpreter’s bane, for generally he can hear clearly only one voice at a time as just one microphone is switched on at a time. It can be readily understood that the interpreter is at somewhat of a disadvantage if the speaker suddenly changes direction to respond to a comment from the other side of which the interpreter is totally unaware.

If it is felt that the previous points are not sufficient to exercise the interpreter’s mind, it might be of use to look briefly at the area of supplementary questions. At section 371, Beauchesne states:

Although there may be no debate on an answer, further questions, as may be necessary for the elucidation of the answers that have been given, within due limits, may be addressed to a minister. The extent to which supplementary questions may be asked is in the discretion of the Speaker.Footnote 9

In some cases, the supplementary appears to be no more than a repetition or reinforcement of the main question. The effect is rather like that of listening to an echo. In fact, the questioner may even say “I shall repeat my question” and then proceed to do so. This is likely to provoke the same answer as the original question, but the answerer may increase the effectiveness of his reply by conveying an impression of studied boredom as if dealing with a rather slow pupil, or he may strengthen his position by appealing to the prestige of other authorities who agree with him, thus suggesting that the questioner’s view is merely that of an ill-informed fringe minority. This technique has seemed effective in defusing the power of an attack launched with a challenging “The Minister has not answered my question….”

There are some brilliant exponents of the supplementary question. John Warren, in his article “Commons Sense” (The Citizen, April 8, 1985), described the suspense and excitement created by John Diefenbaker. His victims “even when they knew they were being coaxed closer to some awful admission… could not deny or deceive for very long. They feared Dief would reveal the dreaded secrets in his possession and compound them with the accusation that the minister had misled the House and the public.” In order to set such a trap, the questioner would expect to have a good idea of the eventual answer before asking the question. There is probably a certain amount of bluffing involved, for neither side knows just what cards the other is holding, and there is always the risk of being put sharply in one’s place as a result of basing a question on information which has suddenly become out of date.

As I have tried to explain, a good interpreter will seek to grasp both the content and the method of argument presented by questioners and answerers. Given the circumstances, the unpredictability of the subject matter, the background noise and other factors we have mentioned, there is a certain strain involved in the work. But if it is true that the secret of success is the ability to survive failure, or at least to limit its consequences, the following suggestions may be useful in overcoming a bad day: even if the interpreter cannot give the whole truth, he must at least ensure that he gives nothing but the truth. In other words, be very cautious and never give a translation distinguished by its verve rather than its accuracy. I remember on one occasion having difficulty making coherent sentences during Question Period, and deciding that I would seek to express myself in more “natural” English. Although at the time I thought things were as bad as they could get, they very quickly got worse. Seeking to appear relaxed, imperturbable and in control, I rendered “II est fort probable que… by “There is a strong danger that….” It was neither an inspired nor a greatly appreciated burst of creativity, as I quickly learned. I suppose I was trying to follow the theory of translation and render the spirit or flavour of the exchange rather than hang onto words. As is said of so many disasters, it seemed like a good idea at the time since the thrust of the question was clearly negative and pessimistic about the nation’s prospects unless the questioner’s party took over, and the term “danger” emerged quite naturally and naively. In fact the choice of words was not only unnecessary but also incorrect. Hardly able to believe his luck, the person answering latched immediately onto the word “danger” and tore into the questioner for his presumed obsession with peril and risk, while the questioner looked understandably bemused by the sudden angle of attack. Really there was only one honourable course of action for any interpreter with a shred of respect for the standards of his profession: to switch on the mike immediately, assume full responsibility and apologize for the confusion. I, of course, chose the dishonourable course and, with what I hoped was an enigmatic smile, passed the mike to my innocent colleague who obligingly had just arrived, and skulked off to the refuge of the cafeteria. I am still grateful to those MPs sitting near the interpreters’ booth for being so gracious as to refrain from cheering aloud when witnessing my departure. What was particularly galling about the whole episode was the interpretation was tellingly and convincingly delivered, apart from that little matter of being completely misleading. Well the lesson is now seared into my psyche: in Question Period, even if problems of speed or sound force you to omit, never “over-translate”, explain or give anything that is not scrupulously accurate even if it might sound inelegant. I think that form and content are so closely related in Question Period that fidelity not only to the message but also to the words themselves is strongly advised. In a work on translation, Peter Newmark states: “The more important the text, the more literal the translation.”Footnote 10 Although translation and interpretation are different exercises requiring different skills, I think this advice can be usefully applied to such assignments as Question Period where a tendency to paraphrase unnecessarily or resort systematically to synonyms can lead to complications. In any event, nobody will thank you for them and they may cause more trouble than they are worth. The fact is that, generally, an interpreter working smoothly and efficiently goes unnoticed; it is only when something goes wrong that a dyspeptic rumbling is heard, that heads turn irately toward the booth, earpieces are snatched from ears and tapped impatiently, and the ominous words that all interpreters dread are uttered “There’s something wrong with my translator, it’s not working properly!.”

As I have tried to illustrate, the interpretation of Question Period does offer particular challenges. The interpreter, whatever his level of experience or preparation, can never feel completely relaxed for new facts may have emerged since reading the latest newspaper or hearing the most recent news bulletin. Surprise, urgency and speed are intrinsic to Question Period. ‘Twas always thus, and the interpreter simply has to adapt to these demands. Indeed, the lively confrontation between the government and its political rivals suggests that the interpreters do not cope too badly in rendering the arguments, the tone and also the wit of Question Period. It can be exhilarating, it can be nerve-wracking. When things become tense, I try to comfort myself with the thought that life could be worse for my colleagues and myself if we were working in some other assemblies. We could, for example, be working in the Indian Parliament which sets aside a special period of twenty minutes each day for members to let off steam and bawl at each other. As George Thomas explains: “The Speaker sits there with his arms folded, and then at the end of twenty minutes calls for order and they sit down and behave themselves.”Footnote 11 I do not know if the microphones are switched on during this period, but if they are and everything is recorded, the diligent compiler of glossaries might find here a very fertile area of research. But we might also find that connoisseurs of the subtleties of insults need not go as far as India to satisfy their propensity for offensive remarks, for the mother of parliaments at Westminster has been described by Bernard Levin as a “mob of roaring, boring, jabbering, gibbering, bawling, squalling, perfectly appalling hooligans.”Footnote 12 In comparison with these reprobates, any fair-minded person would have to conclude that our representatives in Ottawa are the very models of good taste and fair play, and their exchanges the epitome of orderliness and reasoned argument, often instructive when followed carefully, satisfying when rendered accurately but oh! so unforgiving when misinterpreted.


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