[lg policy] Don ’t get lost in translation

Dave Sayers dave.sayers at CANTAB.NET
Mon Aug 16 15:51:37 UTC 2010

  An opinion(ated) piece on the Institute of Welsh Affairs blog:


Judith Kaufman describes some subtleties we should look out for when 
interpreting Welsh into English

* *

Recent developments in the law courts show that simultaneous 
interpreting has been accepted as a central part of language policies in 
Wales. New court centres like the one in Caernarfon have 
state-of-the-art interpreting booths and equipment incorporated in their 
chambers. The ongoing consultation on bilingual juries in criminal court 
cases is also a sign that the use of Welsh in trials is being taken 
seriously, and that interpreting is a resource people should be able to 
rely on. Nonetheless it is a resource that should only be used when no 
better ways of conducting a trial in Welsh are available.

These developments bring us a step closer to recognising an important 
part of the identity of Welsh speakers. But if we want to get even 
closer to our ideal of Welsh and English being treated equally we might 
have to accept that English needs to be de-normalised in some 
situations. Interpreting can play a role in doing this which means that 
those who happen not to be able to speak and understand Welsh are not 

A number of linguistic norms become obvious in meetings where the 
services of an interpreter are sought. People tend to speak more Welsh 
when the Chair of the meeting does as well. People tend to ask their 
questions and discuss a presentation or contribution in the language the 
contribution or presentation was made in. And the smaller and the more 
personal and familiar a meeting, the likelier it is that people address 
English speakers in English in order not to lose direct communication 
with each other.

Interpreting can be an opportunity to question those norms. 
International studies of translation and interpreting internationally 
have examined how dominant languages and cultures assimilate lesser-used 
languages (or languages considered to be subordinate) into their own 
ideological principles. They have also shown that translation and 
interpreting can be a focus for resisting such ideologies.

It is an interesting question how interpreting could make a stronger 
case for the use of Welsh. No-one should be afraid of losing out here. 
At its best interpreting is an inclusive activity. By establishing new 
norms for Welsh in a number of social contexts, this is about improving 
the participation of Welsh speakers rather than reducing the input of 
English speakers.

Interpreting (and translation) needs to be looked at from the point of 
view of democracy and ownership, not only in terms of financial cost. If 
the suggestion to stop translating the Assembly’s /Record of 
Proceedings/ last summer was acceptable to some, this shows that the 
close involvement of translation in improving a democratic society has 
not yet been understood.

For interpreting to be successful in that respect, it is not enough to 
have accomplished interpreters in all the meetings where potentially 
someone might be speaking Welsh. We need to make sure that people who 
can speak Welsh will do so. With the symbolic value attached to the 
National Assembly, that is the first place where Welsh speakers should 
be expected to use the language, as a sign of their vision for a 
bilingual Wales. Organisers and Chairs must be made aware of the 
requirements of interpreters in terms of preparation and room layout for 
instance. But even more important than that, they need to be aware of 
their own role in making meetings more bilingual.

The best encouragement to speak Welsh in a meeting is a Chair who speaks 
Welsh as much as possible, thus indicating that an interpreter is 
trustworthy, that bilingual meetings are nothing to be scared of and 
that Welsh is a language of communication for business and politics. 
However, to give this message more effect guest speakers and persons 
holding a role within the group should be encouraged to speak Welsh. 
This is not always easy. Many Welsh speakers feel it to be a matter of 
courtesy to ask questions and discuss a point in the language in which 
that point was made (of course, monolinguals do not have to think about 
courtesy). If more speakers spoke Welsh, it would then be regarded as 
polite to respond to them in Welsh.

The relative formality or informality of a meeting might be an indicator 
of how much Welsh will be spoken. It is generally assumed that 
interpreting works better in relatively formal meetings, where 
interchange is not too much disturbed by translation. Such meetings, it 
is assumed, allow forms of discussion where repetition, rephrasing and 
generally informal speech are not seen as an obstacles to the flow of 

On the other hand, it can be argued that the more formal a meeting the 
more difficult it is to rely on the interpreter. When every word had to 
be weighed and every sentence put together carefully, an interpreter can 
constitute an additional layer between one speaker and another that 
inhibits frank discussion. Community meetings, on the other hand,

This viewpoints stress the importance of the overall atmosphere in a 
group. The atmosphere of a discussion can be influenced by the use of 
Welsh/bilingual documentation, but more even by people’s habit of using 
Welsh in other contexts. In meetings where people know each other in 
Welsh; they will find it easier to continue talking in Welsh in a 
meeting, even if there are English speakers present. On the other hand, 
in work-related meetings where Welsh speakers have got used to 
discussing their work in English, then English will tend to be part of 
their work-related comfort zones (and of their identities relating to 
their position at work). Speaking Welsh in a work meeting will be much 
more of an effort for them, especially if their close colleagues are in 
the meeting too.

Of course, these are not conscious mental processes. The confidence to 
speak Welsh publicly is not only a question of fluency in different 
registers of the language or familiarity with the appropriate 
terminology. Much more than that, it is a matter of the relationships we 
form with others when the language we speak is an essential component. 
Talking of ‘language choice’ does not seem to take into account of the 
way that relationships grow and develop. In some cases choosing to speak 
Welsh might profoundly disturb a relationship. Even the thought of 
having to choose a language each time we communicate can bring a lot of 
pressure to bear on all but the most assertive Welsh speakers.

It is evident, therefore, that simultaneous translation is about more 
than ‘merely’ transporting meaning from one language to the other. It is 
a crossroads where the two cultures of Wales come into direct contact 
with each other, and where her people are reminded of the fact that 
language and identity form a close relationship. This relationship is 
not necessarily one-to-one. We all behave and speak differently 
according to the different contexts of our lives.

With the language policies of recent decades it has become possible and 
desirable to give more room to the Welsh-speaking part of our 
identities, and this is why more meetings are held with the use of an 
interpreter. It is more democratic to allow Welsh speakers to express 
themselves in Welsh. But this is only one side of the coin! In Welsh 
areas the interpreting services are provided not to give a majority of 
Welsh speakers the right to speak Welsh, but to give those without 
fluency in Welsh the opportunity to take part in meetings and events. 
Every area’s linguistic reality is different. Interpretation not only 
makes people aware of this reality, but it is also a means of coming to 
terms with it.

Translators’ and interpreters’ experiences must be taken on board in 
designing language policies. For centuries they have been specialists 
involved not only in the creation of standard forms of languages and of 
new terminology, but also in observing relationships between people and 
cultures. By the nature of their job they have a wealth of social and 
intercultural insights. Yet too often, translation is a bone of 
contention within language policies, and its cost is often seen as a 
safe argument for dismissing it as an undesirable side-effect of 
bilingual policies.

When people argue that translation should be cut in favour of spending 
on stronger second language teaching, they do not realise that without 
translation and interpreting, professionals would find it difficult to 
get used to new terminology, to writing in Welsh (because translators 
are also often proofreaders and correctors), and to develop the use of 
different registers in the language. We need to make sure that the new 
strategy for a bilingual Wales takes the translating and interpreting 
profession seriously.

Judith Kaufmann works at Cymdeithas Cyfieithwyr Cymru (the Association 
of Welsh Translators and Interpreters) in Bangor.



Dr. Dave Sayers
Honorary Research Fellow
School of the Environment and Society
Swansea University
dave.sayers at cantab.net

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