What does it feel like to translate the words of the Queen or a Prime Minister in front of a live audience? What happens if you make a mistake? How can we convey sayings or proverbs in a target language when an equivalent may not exist? These were just some of the questions that Dr Kevin Lin, one of the most distinguished UK interpreters for English and Chinese, answered at his inaugural lecture at the School of Modern Languages in November, with as much humour as professionalism. As the newly appointed Professor in Practice for Interpreting, his addition to the department is not only an opportunity for translation students to learn about interpreting, but also a significant step in a wider political and linguistic context.
The importance of interpreting in the study of languages remains underestimated. Interpreting, specifically consecutive interpreting, is an invaluable part of business relations and, of course, politics. Despite the ascendancy of English, steadily becoming the lingua franca of international interactions, it still cannot be relied upon for communication in every situation. Especially in the light of events such as Brexit, interpreting and translation studies should receive particular attention and increased focus from universities. Precisely because Britain’s relationship with Europe is about to drastically change, contact and trade with regions outside of it – such as China – could increase in importance and so will the need for interpreters and translators.
As Dr Lin explained, interpreting is something that must be learnt and perfected through thorough study of not only the basic task of translating from one language to another, but also linguistics. There are numerous issues that can arise when translating during a real conversation or conference. For example, the interpreter must overcome several challenges before even beginning to translate, such as failing to hear words or failing to understand them. Although superficially simple, these challenges play a critical role in the tasks of an interpreter. Likewise, there is the problem of implicature, meaning that the interpreter has to not only convey the information conveyed by words, but also their implied meanings. Interpreting thus touches on complex linguistic issues, and during his talk Dr Lin continued to stress the persisting gaps in linguistic and scientific research surrounding interpreting.
What does this appointment now mean for the department? In the UK, only a handful of universities offer interpreting as part of undergraduate degree. More often it is a part of postgraduate study. Durham therefore, is one of a group of prestigious universities that give students the opportunity to explore this fascinating component of translation and language studies. Furthermore, the need for interpreters exists, not only for the aforementioned reasons, but fundamentally because interpreting is a task that cannot, be completed by a machine, at least not effectively. Dr Lin demonstrated throughout his lecture that, as much as interpreting is concerned with languages and linguistic technicalities, human interaction remains an integral part of the discipline – something technology is unable to replace.