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Standing Order 21—We go in hopeful and come out thankful
(Terminology Update, Volume 18, Number 4, 1985, page 1)
The business of the House of Commons is governed by rules called Standing Orders. Any unsuspecting tourist leafing through the Order Paper of the Commons would probably give no more than a cursory glance at an item scheduled for 2:00 p.m. from Monday to Thursday: “Statements by members pursuant to Standing Order 21,” little appreciating the terror that this bland heading strikes in the heart of the pathetic occupant of the interpretation booth at that fateful hour. Little insight into the cause of such distress is gained from a perusal of the said Standing Order, which reads quite simply: “A member may be recognized. . . to make a statement for not more than one and a half minutes. The Speaker may order a member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order.” So why the fuss? Each member can speak for only ninety seconds, and then it is someone else’s turn. Furthermore, the total duration of such statements is just fifteen minutes, until 2:15 p.m., and then we are into the cut-and-thrust of Question Period. Ah yes, indeed, but just consider for a moment how many words an eager MP can cram into ninety seconds and you will appreciate why the mere mention of SO 21 has even the most experienced interpreter desperately looking up “Trappists” in the telephone directory.
To understand why grown men and women have confessed to lying awake at night depressed and distraught after a bad day of 21s, it might be useful to consider briefly the theory of interpretation and compare it with the dreaded reality. Interpretation has been described as “a form of human information processing involving the perception, storage, retrieval, transformation and transmission of verbal information.”Footnote 1 So far, so good. Interpreters are responsible for rendering one language orally into another. They listen to the speaker, allowing him to lead them by a few seconds, grasp the ideas, and express them as accurately and intelligibly as possible in the target language. The delay, which may range from two to ten seconds, normally depends on the difficulty of the subject or the clarity of the speaker both of which may be affected considerably by one’s familiarity with the speaker and knowledge of the subject.Footnote 2 Obviously, the interpreter is more comfortable if he knows beforehand what the statement will be about. Indeed, some would argue that such preparation is essential to good interpretation. This viewpoint seems persuasive, for nobody would suggest that a lawyer, for example, start to familiarize himself with a case at the time he appears in court, or that a teacher give a course without preparation. Because interpretation requires a rendering of ideas rather than words (since a word-for-word translation would often be meaningless), the interpreter is expected to understand the ideas expressed. This often calls for prior knowledge of the subject. Danica Seleskovitch has said that if the interpreter does not have this minimum level of knowledge “his extralinguistic inadequacy will render obscure, and probably meaningless most of what he hears, even sentences composed of perfectly ordinary words.”Footnote 3
The interpreter can of course acquire knowledge of a subject as the speaker expresses his thoughts. If the speaker is musing or thinking aloud, his speed of delivery will be adjusted to the development of his thoughts, and the interpreter will follow accordingly. This is not possible if a speech or statement is read, however, since in reading words often precede ideas, whereas in a spontaneous address the choice of words will usually be guided by the thoughts. There will normally be “fillers” to avoid silence when searching for the words to express an idea, and some words will undoubtedly be redundant or mere clichés. These “fillers” are very useful to the interpreter, allowing him to analyse the thoughts being expressed and choose the appropriate terms in the target language. When speeches or statements are read, such aids are absent. For that reason, at meetings where interpretation is provided, it is normal to request an advance copy of any speech or document to be read. In theory this should pose no problem for the interpreters in the House of Commons, since reading is allowed only in exceptional cases.
In this consideration of the theory of interpretation, a further point which should be mentioned is the speed of delivery of the source language. Tests have shown that a comfortable rate of delivery is around 90 to 120 words a minute, and that “rates between 150 and 200 words per minute provide an upper limit for effective interpretation.”Footnote 4
A final factor we might take into account in appreciating the interpreter’s task is the effect of stress. There is unquestionably a certain tension involved in the work. People depend on the interpreter to understand what is being said, and he is allowed no second chance. Unlike the newsreader, the interpreter has no prompter; nor can he apologize and offer to read a report again or promise to give it a little later. Motivated by what Marie Curie called the energy of despair, he is careful not to lag too far behind, knowing only too well that it will be very difficult to catch up again. Research in this area has shown that the principal cause of stress is having to interpret speakers reading quickly from a text.Footnote 5 There are other causes of stress which obviously go hand in hand with the job. Interpreters work in very confined surroundings, are subject to a constant stream of information requiring close attention, have no opportunity to participate creatively in a debate, and are seldom recognized unless something goes wrong. There is little point in complaining about these conditions as they are inherent in the work. The interpreter therefore needs a stable personality and strong nerves, or he may be very unhappy. However, as with the tightrope walker, strong nerves are not enough to stop you falling, although they are useful in getting you to take the first step.
I would now like to examine some of the points mentioned, such as time lag, the possibility of preparing the subject, speed of delivery and tension, in the context of the interpretation services provided in the House of Commons and particularly during statements pursuant to SO 21. For this purpose I used myself as a guinea pig and analysed the statements made in French under SO 21 during the period November 27-30, 1984. I provided the English interpretation on those days. However, before looking at the statements themselves, one or two observations must be made regarding the interpreter’s lag behind the speaker. First, it should be understood that the term “simultaneous interpretation” is a misnomer. As explained earlier, the interpreter must always hover, not to say lurk, behind the speaker so as to understand and process the message. The interpreter in the House of Commons is in a particularly difficult position in this respect. The proceedings of the House are televized, and when the interpreter switches on his microphone the floor sound is automatically cut on television. Therefore, if the interpreter is working from a statement made in French, he tries in so far as possible to finish at the same time as the French speaker. Otherwise, if he is more than a few seconds behind and the next speaker begins in English, it will be the interpreter’s voice and not the speaker’s which will be heard on the English television channel. The French interpreter is of course subject to the same constraints with respect to the French television channel. This obviously places some strain on the interpreter, and both concentration and a certain nimbleness of expression are needed to follow so closely behind the original without sounding hurried or garbled.
The interpreter must therefore keep an open mouth and, in view of the range of subjects he has to deal with, an open mind also. In this context it might be informative to consider some of the subjects on which statements pursuant to SO 21 were made in French during the period in question. They covered changes in electoral boundaries, toll payments on the Champlain Bridge, the livestock and poultry industry in the Maritimes, the retirement of Guy Lafleur, incentives to the petroleum sector, studies on peripheral regions, the fishing industry in Eastern Quebec, the high price of gasoline in Quebec, the need to create jobs for young people, unemployment in general, the cost of living for the elderly in residences, cuts in French language programs by Radio Canada, the need to help farmers, the status of women, universality of social programs, the attitude of officials in employment centres towards the public, and immigration policy. Some of the subjects are evidently better known than others. The interpreter tries to keep abreast of the news and current events, but clearly he cannot cover everything. If he is familiar with the subject he will be able to locate and use the appropriate vocabulary more easily, group together the semantic units and even predict to some degree the development of the statement. If he is not familiar with the subject he will learn from experience, which usually means, in practice, learning from suffering. His comfort level will be affected by the delivery rate which, as we shall see is rapid and over a short period. It may only be halfway through the statement that the interpreter fully grasps the subject matter. Most people would agree that, when speaking on TV, it is helpful to have at least a vague notion of what one is talking about, but the interpreter often has no such luxury: he must just hang onto the reins for dear life, in the hope that he will not be unseated before the speaker pauses for breath. Hence, the safety belts in the interpretation booth. Will DSS also provide crash helmets in the near future?
We mentioned earlier that a comfortable delivery rate for interpretation purposes was estimated at 90 to 120 words a minute. In the period under discussion the average rate of statements in French was 170 words a minute. The recognized upper limit for interpretation purposes is between 150 and 200 words a minute. It should also be remembered, as regards SO 21 statements, that the interpreter has absolutely no warning of the subject matter and the statements are presented as if read. In some cases the speed reached 210 and even 250 words a minute. In keeping with the scientific and deeply serious nature of this study, it is fitting at this point to quote another highly respected academic source of reference: The Guiness Book of Records. This work states that the maximum speed of articulate speech is 300 words a minute. If a statement is inarticulate at 301 words a minute, the reader will appreciate that it is also very difficult even to repeat a statement at 250 words a minute, let alone assimilate and translate it into another language. At such a speed, the work of the interpreter leaves the realm of the professional and edges closer to that of the contortionist, hurried and harried but manfully seeking to retain the audience’s attention. In this respect, the reference to The Guiness Book of Records, with its accounts of odd and freakish performances, seems particularly apt. Some researchers have suggested that interpreters can reduce the strain of simultaneously listening and speaking by using the speaker’s pauses and silences to give their interpretation.Footnote 6 When working at speeds of 200 wpm such an approach is not encouraged unless the MPs agree in writing to wait until 3:00 p.m. for the interpretation, since pauses are all too few and far between.
Interpretation is not simply a matter of words. The good interpreter is not a parrot: he tries to render the ideas or units of meaning. For our purposes, I have taken as units of meaning all words or phrases which could answer such questions as: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? The number of units ranged from 22 (in 64 seconds) to 42 (in 60 seconds). The greatest number I omitted or mistranslated was seven units (of a total of 39). The types of mistakes made could be an interesting subject for research. It might be expected that omissions or mistakes would increase with the speaker’s speed of delivery. This was not always the case. My personal weakness proved to be numbers, apparently regardless of the speed. On some occasions I was able hurriedly to remedy the mistake, but once the speed exceeded 150 words a minute a strangled gasp was the best I could muster to correct myself. At less than 150 words per minute, I was still hesitant over numbers but could stammer and stutter my way to something approximating reality. This is not, of course, intended to be a statistical study of interpreters’ mistakes, but such a project might be useful in the preparation of training programs. As mentioned, the number of mistakes did not consistently increase with speed: at 250 wpm, 3 units of a total of 39 were missing; at 212 wpm, 4 units of a total of 25 were missing.
However, in both cases, the interpretation sounded so hurried and breathless that it was both difficult and unpleasant to follow.
From what we have seen, it is clear that the House interpreters are called upon to work outside normally established practices of interpretation, particularly when working pursuant to SO 21. They can allow themselves little time lag because of television demands, have no warning of the subject matter and must work from extremely fast statements which appear to be read and are often accompanied by considerable background noise. Legend has it that a television viewer, sitting in the comfort of his living room, once telephoned to complain because the interpreter was alleged to have an irritating habit of sniffing. Dear Sir or Madam, such sniffing was probably a prelude to sobbing, so please be gentle with us. In Parliament the interpreter will never intervene in the debate to ask the speaker to slow down or provide him with a copy of the text being read, as he might in a private meeting. A strange mixture of tradition, shyness and professional and personal pride prevents him from doing so during a TV program which is being broadcast live from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Well, what can he do other than go down gallantly with the ship? As is the case with conjurors, we interpreters are sworn never to reveal the secrets of colleagues. However, I shall divulge some techniques which have proven useful to this perspiring wreck when he realizes that he has lost the thread and is desperately trying to link up with the next sentence. First, don’t knock over your glass of water. Second, always keep in mind that listening to your disastrous performance is probably the greatest fun some of your colleagues have had this year. Rest assured that your mistakes will become the stuff of legend, since history shows that men’s errors outlive them. You may even be ranked alongside that poor soul who had to interpret for Jimmy Carter in Poland. Remember him? Of course you do. Who doesn’t? And he wasn’t even on TV. You are! As we warned you earlier, you cannot follow the example of the newscaster and say: “Sorry, we shall have that film/report/interview for you in a moment.” Just try saying: “I’m sorry, I’ll give you that question/figure/date in ten minutes/tomorrow/next week” and wait for the reaction! It’s now or never, comrade. So, just cough delicately, apologize coolly and then play your trump card. From a hidden pocket you pull out any Hansard prior to 1955 and start reading in your best suave CBC voice. Failing that, bring a copy of the Ottawa Citizen and do likewise. You will lose your job of course once you are found out, but that is surely a small price to pay to avoid the nightmarish agony of the strangled gasp where two or three seconds seem like eternity and everything is moving away out of your control. The dream of all interpreters is that technology may one day provide a solution: we may avoid the problem of dead air by having buttons we can push, allowing us to decide when we want to break for commercials or to play a little muzak or our theme music (something dignified but typically unobtrusive and self-effacing). Until then we shall continue perceiving, storing, retrieving, transforming and transmitting verbal information. Oh, and one last promise—we’ll try not to sniff.
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