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THE QUEST FOR OPTIMAL RELEVANCE. THE NEED TO EQUIP STUDENTS WITH A PRAGMATIC COMPASS

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THE QUEST FOR OPTIMAL RELEVANCE. THE NEED TO EQUIP STUDENTS WITH A PRAGMATIC COMPASS
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  THE QUEST FOR OPTIMAL RELEVANCE. THE NEED TO EQUIP STUDENTS WITH A PRAGMATIC COMPASS by Sergio Viaggio, United Nations Office at Vienna I have been teaching and participating as a juror at the graduation exams of several schools inEurope and the Americas more or less regularly for the last fifteen years, practising the profession for nearly thirty, and “watching over” it for the last ten as Chief Interpreter with thenited !ations "ffice at #ienna, and I have noticed what to me is an underrating of the pragmatic aspect of communication in conference interpreting $ an underrating that amountsto underrating relevance and, with it, acceptability itself% It is an unavoidable if regrettable factthat students &and more than a few veterans' do not ta(e duly into account the social import of their job) *hey seem to switch on automatically to a default mode of interpretation in whichtexts, though oral, appear suspended in thin air, come from nowhere and no one in particular and going nowhere and to no one in particular% +tudents just, well, translate -hat teachers should attempt, I submit, is to instil the need to understand that peoplecome to meetings with a specific purpose and that they open their mouths with a specific purpose, and that those who are listening to them directly or via an interpreter have also comewith a specific purpose and are now listening with a specific purpose% !ow matter how hardhe try, a mediator is never a pellucid window pane, decoding semantic representations in onelanguage and encoding them in another) he is being paid to ma(e the spea(er relevantlyunderstood by his &the mediator.s' interlocutors% -hatever he needs and does in order toachieve this end matters only to his peers &or teachers' and remains, mostly, between him andhis ma(er% In order to achieve optimal relevant identity between meaning as meant andmeaning as understood under any specific circumstances, it is the interpreter/s first andforemost tas( to ascertain what counts as relevance &for the spea(er, for the interpreter/saddressees and mutually'0 otherwise, he will be interpreting in the pragmatic dar(% Anyinterpretation $$as indeed any tas( at all$$ that is not optimally relevant under thecircumstances leaves that much to be desired% *he very first thing to do, then, even beforeas(ing them to attempt to interpret in any mode, is to e1uip students with a pragmaticcompass solidly inset in an assessment of optimal relevance in the specific virtualcircumstances%Indeed, speech acts &in 2arc3a 4and.s 5667 wider sense' do not happen in a vacuum or for no reason at all% 8ost students do not stop to ponder the pragmatic reasons that ma(e the propositional content of meaning meant relevant in a given situation for a given set of interlocutors) *hey tend to concentrate on propositional content alone and try to convey all of it, regardless of its ad hoc  relevance and, worse, without any conscious effort to convey theright pragmatic attitude% *his is particularly felt in consecutive interpreting, where students attimes fail even to adopt the right body posture% -ithin consecutive interpreting, moreover, thisshortcoming is more sorely apparent in speech acts that stray away from the trite staleness of regular conference speeches into the realm of the humourous, ironic, light$hearted or simplycollo1uial% It is difficult to illustrate paralinguistic and (inetic features in writing, but it ta(esno inordinate imagination so “see ”  what I mean) a student that, for starters, spends the firsthalf of the speech act with his nose all but piercing his noteboo(, scribbling furiously, withouteven loo(ing at the spea(er or his future interlocutors, conveying the wrong pragmaticattitude even before he starts tal(ing% And then, when the moment finally comes to ma(e senseout of all those doodles, they are deciphered modularly, without any sense of direction or  purpose% 9ut even short of this worst$case scenario, I have witnessed a myriad otherwise mostacceptable performances that were sadly lac(ing in pragmatic savvy, as if the student hadnever been aware of the pragmatic attitude evinced by the spea(er% Again, this is especially  true of humour% +uch renditions remind me of what Et(ind &567:' said about a certaintranslation of a ;ussian epigram) “Est-elle vraiment juste, cette traduction ? Oui, our le sens! "e #ui man#ue, c$est une bagatelle % le chant! Et une autre % la blague& '! ()*! </Is this a fair translation= >es, with respect to sense% -hat is missing is a trifle) themusic% And another one) the fun%/?Excessive B $or, rather, exclusive$ B  emphasis on propositional content alone,demanding that it be “ there, ”  all of it, regardless of its pragmatic function, is ill placed% *o mymind, it is but a manifestation of an obsolete concept of the mediator as the spea(er  ’ s alter ego , as if the only  +   mar(ed on the communicative stage were right next to the spea(er% -hynot next to the mediator  ’ s interlocutors, or anywhere in between= I have progressively cometo the conclusion that conference interpreting is a social anomaly both with respect to tenor and field, which tends to blind practitioners to the pragmatics of communication altogether% *oma(e things worse, the social setting is confused with the interpreting modality) consecutiveand simultaneous interpreting need not be conference at all 8edia interpreting, for instance, isa different ball game, and students, that I (now of, are never made aware of the new socialcoordinates demanding a different communicative approach $ which brings pragmaticacceptability by the widest possible audience to the very fore 5 % Conference interpreting tendsto be a relatively staid and rarefied activity0 thus, when it comes to the real trappings of realcommunication between real people, conference interpretation theory and practice stand togain a lot from the insights of dialogue interpreters &community, liaison, etc%') *here ’ s muchabout the real world out there that the humble peasants can teach the gentry $ if only thegentry would deign to stoop and listen A model of communc!"on +tudents &and not only of interpretation, but also those of translation', I submit, must betaught the following truisms)  * On the seaer$s side% a' this spea(er you are about to interpret has come to this meeting with a specificmotivation, which preexists his actually intervening at this given time0 b' this motivation has been further refined now that the time is come for him actuallyto spea(0c' this specific motivation governs his main and secondary pragmatic intentions) whathe actually intends to do by saying what he is about to say or in the process of saying $i%e% to produce certain effects on his listeners &perhaps not in all of them, or not in all of them to an e1ual degree0 and maybe even on some absent addressees, such as aconstituency bac( home'0d' this set of pragmatic intentions actually governs what and how he will say or go onsaying0e' what he actually verbalises is also a function of the relevant (nowledge he activates$ in order to understand him you must activate the #!me  (nowledge0 f' the relevance that the propositional content conveyed by the spea(er/s utterance&s'as for the spea(er himself can only be assessed on the basis and in the light of the 1 At the AIIC meeting with Chief Interpreters in Rome a couple of years ago, therepresentative of the ART T! channel complaine" #itterly a#out the fact that schoolspai" no attention to the speci$c nee"s of me"ia interpreting%   pragmatic intentions behind it $ in order to understand $m , and not simply “ what he issaying officially, ”  you must loo( behind his official discourse0g'the spea(er verbalises his meaning meant as a function of the language !# $e #%e!&#" , not as "  is $ you must therefore try and penetrate $#  language, especially if he isnot articulate0  * .et/een the seaer 'and the mediator* and his addressees% a' in order to communicate meaning meant, the spea(er produces a semiotic stimulusthat is at once linguistic, paralinguistic and (inetic &which aspects are relevant indifferent ways'0 b' in a given social situation governed by certain social practices and relevant world0c' at a given historical time and at a specific place and moment0d' there is no necessary relationship B $let alone isomorphy B $ between meaning and itsverbalisation) if there were, translation would be, by definition, impossible0e' this meaning, meant by this spea(er, is meant to be understood by theseinterlocutors in this situation, not urbi et orbi et er secula seculorum %  * On the addresses0side )a' each interlocutor, including the spea(er/s direct addressees and those of theinterpreter have come to the meeting out of their own specific motivations, which preexist their actually listening to the spea(er0 b' these motivations are further refined when the time comes for them actually to listento the spea(er0c' every interlocutor sieves his comprehension through his own interest or indifferencein, or even resistance to, understanding $ if you want to be optimally relevant to your audience, you must try and elicit or guess where their interest and motivations lie0d' in order for comprehension of the propositional content of meaning meant to obtain,each interlocutor must activate the same (nowledge as the spea(er $ you must beaware that shared (nowledge reduces the need for semantic explicitation0e' this complex interplay of activated (nowledge, motivations, expectations, interests,indifference or resistance actually governs the pragmatic effects of comprehension of the propositional content conveyed by the spea(er $ unless you ta(e them duly intoaccount, you run the ris( or producing uncalled for negative effects0f' the relevance of the propositional content conveyed by the spea(er/s utterance&s' canonly be assessed on the basis and in the light of the contextual &i%e% both pragmatic andcognitive' effects produced by its comprehension on each interlocutor $ so thin( beforeyou say something that may be useless or, worse, counterproductive0In light of the above, the following corollaries are thus clear) i* Successful communication can be defined  )a' cognitively, as propositional identity between meaning as meant by this specificspea(er here and now and as understood by these specific interlocutors here and now $if you achieve that, the spea(er  ’ s propositional meaning will have been fullyunderstood0 b' pragmatically, as a certain correspondence or correlation between the intentions pursued by this spea(er here and now and the effects felt by these specific interlocutorshere and now $ propositional meaning meant, however, may be totally irrelevant toyour interlocutors, therefore sapping their willingness to cooperate with him or you0  c' relevantly, as the closest to optimal mix of propositional identity and pragmaticcorrelation in the specific situation $ which is up to you to decide strategically andtactically at every step% ii* 1here often are, ho/ever, obstacles to successful communication )a' Although among the participants at any institutional event, such as a typicalmultilingual conference, one can reasonably presume enough convergence of motivations, interests and expectations to assume that what is more or less relevant tothe spea(er will be more or less relevant to his addressees, relevance is alwaysindividual and ad hoc , and, with it, overall acceptability $ so you must constantly watchfor such inevitable mismatches and try to “  patch them up ”  in so far as possible or deontologically apt0 b' there may be different degrees of mismatch between what 2arc3a 4anda calls the “ hermeneutic pac(age ”   B $i%e% the linguistic and extralinguistic (nowledge base$ B applied by the spea(er and that which is activable on line for each interlocutor $ soma(e sure that you give your audience enough semantic clues and enough "me  toactivate them0c' there may be different degrees of mismatch between the spea(er  ’ s pragmaticintentions and relevance assessment and relevance assessment by each interlocutor and, therefore, the contextual effects of comprehension upon him% *hese mismatchesmay be of a cultural or cognitive nature $ so beware of any such mismatches and maythe @orce be with youd' successful communication is a direct function of the interlocutors ’ willingness tocooperate) when this subjective predisposition to ma(e oneself understood or tounderstand does not obtain fully, the pragmatic rapids become much more difficult tonegotiate $ so all you can do is play innocent%c'meaning and understanding being, by definition, asymmetrical, most of the time pragmatic success is measured negatively, as the avoidance of negative effects $ so thatis what must you strive for firs and foremost &the “ do no harm ”  maxim so dear toearl'0d' &unnecessary' negative effects can only be avoided by ade1uately assessing relevancefor the specific interlocutor&s' $ so be mindful of it% iii* So that successful mediated communication )a' depends, thus, on the relevant degree of propositional identity between meaning asmeant by the spea(er and as comprehended by his indirect interlocutors, i%e% such anidentity that ensures as ade1uate a pragmatic correspondence as possible between thespea(er/s intentions and the effects that comprehension has on his addressees% It is theinterpreter/s ultimate tas(, therefore, to help achieve such relevant identity betweenmeaning meant and meaning understood &see #iaggio 5666a or b'%' b' *his then becomes the student/s pragmatic !orth, which must govern both his propositional and pragmatic choices as well as the means of their verbalisation : %"nce these objective facts, which are part and parcel of any act of communication B $whether mediated or not, both monolingual and interlingual, formal or informal$ B  have beenclearly understood by the student, it becomes immediately apparent that the mediator/s firsttas( is to assess or at least educatedly guess any mismatches in relevance as viewed by the & By the way, the a#ove is #ut a "i'erent ver#alisation of my "evelopment of (arc)a*an"a’s mo"el +see !iaggio 1a or #- minus the o' putting sym#olic notation%  spea(er, his direct addressees and the interpreter/s own% "nce such mismatches are reasonablyestablished, the interpreter must decide which relevance criteria he will cater to strategicallyand then tactically at each turn) the spea(er/s alone, his own interlocutors.alone, or somemiddle point in between% *his choice, or, rather, series of choices, are themselves governed bythe interpreter/s loyalty% Bepending on the specific circumstances, and most especially on thedegree of cooperativeness obtaining between the different participants at a meeting and between the interpreter and his own interlocutors, this loyalty may shift% Even if it does not,relevance criteria do shift all the time, and an interpreter must be aware of them%@or instance, information loses its srcinal relevance with each time it is repeated)delegates who have to listen to the same speech or argumentation or part thereof one hundredtimes over tend not to listen at all after a while%  2d nauseam  repetition of a discourse themealso conspires against relevance and acceptability &see #iaggio 566'% 4ast but most definitelynot least, machine gun speed is the worst enemy of intelligibility, and therefore relevance, andtherefore acceptability% +tudents should be taught to see( an even and poised deliveryregardless of the spea(er/s word$per$minute count% *his can only be achieved by condensingand abstracting &see #iaggio 566:b', which, in turn, can only be effectively done on the basisof relevance for the listener%I thin( that this approach merits more than a simple once$over at the beginning of acourse, and that it must be pursued constantly% As a matter of fact, it would be most useful for students to practice establishing relevance for the different imaginary participants at a meetingand then interpreting the same speech according to different criteria% A %'!c"c!l e(!m%le.   Rele)!n" den""* e#"!+l#$ed on lne I shall analyse a speech delivered at the :nd +ession of the Conference of the arties to the@ramewor( Convention on Climate Change, held in 2eneva in 5667% !ow let me boost your “hermeneutic pac(age,” dear reader% As you most probably (now, climate change is a cause of great concern) the hole in the oDone layer and global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions&i%e% emissions from industrial and consumer use, mainly from those who are industrious andconsummate', are wrea(ing havoc with third$world peoples ’ livelihood and first$world peoples ’ vacations, which concerns both developing and developed countries% +o here comesthe delegate of iribati% *he delegate of what= iribati% Fave you ever heard of it= !either have most people% *his the delegate (nows full well, so that he starts off by presenting his tinycountry% *he wealth of detail that was mostly superfluous with the speech on Antarctica I usedas an example in #iaggio 566:a and 566 is here mostly of the essence) *he delegate is asgenuinely interested in informing his audience as they are in becoming informed%9ut before I proceed, do what I as( my students to do) ta(e a minute to imagine whereiribati may be on the map, what (ind of country it is, what (ind of people inhabit it, whatthey might do for a living and how well they manage% *hin(, also, why would such anun(nown country ta(e the trouble to come all the way to 2eneva% -hat (ind of case will it plead= And thin(, besides, why all the other countries have come to 2eneva for and what theywould be listening for when the floor is given to iribati% Bone= 4ets go on, then% 4et me tellyou that iribati is classified as an 4BC, or “ least developed country% ”  *his is a political andadministrative term &a bit li(e “ disaster area ” ' in that it entails certain rights and privileges thatcountries are entitled to only when they are officially poor% Among such privileges is help fromthe ! so that their delegations can attend specific international gatherings% +o here is thespeech, with all its many infelicities faithfully reproduced)  3r! 4resident,1han you for giving 5iribati delegation this oortunity to sea at this lenary session of the 6nd Sessionof the "onference of the 4arties to the 7rame/or "onvention on "limate "hange!
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