Are interpreters real people?

While researching literature on Interpreting Didactics, I read Eva Paneth’s Master’s thesis from 1956, the very first academic paper on Interpreting and Interpreter Training.

I love stumbling upon quotes that make me think or that bring up a point I have never considered before. Eva Paneth’s “investigation into conference interpreting” did not disappoint in this respect.

In the section that caught my eye she revisits the discussion about whether interpreting and translation skills should be a part of undergraduate studies; a question still pertinent for today’s curricular design.

This problem is linked to the question of whether “very young people” should jump headfirst into an interpreting program without having acquired another field-specific education, e.g. as lawyers, doctors or journalists.

Paneth summarizes the dilemma as follows:

“The danger for very young people [is that they] will remain mouthpieces from whom pours vocabulary; and secondly that being mouthpieces so young and so continuously they will not have the chance to develop into real people. “(Paneth, 1957: 137)

“Wait, could that be the problem with me?!” – was my immediate reaction.

Did I just encounter a convenient explanation for any interpreting student’s quarter-life-crisis?

Ultimately, I concluded that Paneth’s notion derived from entirely different premises. In the 1950-s, the professionalization of the interpreter’s profession was still under way.

Nowadays, an interpreting student, no matter how young, having paid attention during theoretical lectures on interpreting studies and communicational theory MUST develop a healthier and more concrete sense of self.

I should hope that interpreting students would identify not only as (future) experts on their working languages, but also on culture, inter-and transcultural communication, mediation and, most importantly, on the complex and demanding interpreting techniques.

In my opinion, it would be nothing but ridiculous and short-sighted to consider a “very young” interpreter exhibiting all these skills merely a “mouthpiece”.

Of course, whether the academic path chosen at a young age corresponds best to one’s talents and visions is another question; but assuming it was an appropriate choice, young interpreters in today’s world surely do not only have the chance to develop into real people, but into nothing short of a multi-faceted superheroes! 😉