Facilitators, Mediators, Fixers or Voices of Ordinary People – Community Interpreters in Myanmar

Joanna Dolińska discusses features of community interpreting in Myanmar.

‘Community interpreting’ is a relatively new term in Translation Studies. Its emergence resulted from the cultural paradigm shift in Translation Studies that threw light on the linguistic situation of “ordinary” people of foreign origin in Europe, North America and Australia in administrative, medical and court settings. Soon enough, the eyes of researchers turned towards Asia, and especially China after the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The term, ‘community interpreting’ refers to language services delivered in police stations, courts, hospitals, immigration offices, prisons, city halls and other similar settings, often by untrained or semi-trained interpreters (which does not exclude the possibility that they received a proper training in the past).

So far, there has not been a comprehensive publication on community interpreting in Myanmar. However, there is an interesting article about Chin interpreters in the healthcare sector in Melbourne, Australia by Salai Biak Za Lian Ching and it seems that the topic of community interpreting in Myanmar is worthy of in-depth research, also because of the complex linguistic situation in the country, as I discussed in a previous post, Language Diversity in Myanmar – a blessing in disguise?

The seemingly simple term, community interpreting, covers relatively broad aspects of interpreters’ work: their work environment and customers, their role and responsibilities in the interpreting event, the interpreting techniques they apply, as well as their social status and the way they are perceived by their employers. Work conditions of community interpreters and their mode of work vary depending on where they live, how much attention the authorities pay to the foreigners for whom they interpret in their countries and how the authorities shape their policy towards immigrants.

According to UNDP, the top 4 countries of origin of immigrants who lived in Myanmar in 2013 were: China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the total of international migrant stock in Myanmar in 2013 was 103,117. While it would be interesting to research the community interpreting in the language combination Myanmar-Chinese, or let’s say, Myanmar-Urdu, I had the opportunity to research and present information only about Myanmar-English community interpreting services. Nevertheless, maybe this article will inspire potential linguists to convey other language combinations in their research.

From my point of view, one of the most interesting topics in the research on community interpreting is the asymmetry of power which takes place when one of the partners of the conversation enjoys a higher social status or is wealthier than the other. Another inspiring topic for research is situations in which a community interpreter (sub)consciously supports one of the parties, let’s say a wealthier foreigner or the authorities or a person sharing the same ethnic background. Moreover, the scope of independence of a community interpreter in choosing what to interpret and what not to can also be an interesting, and culturally determined aspect for research. Similarly, the expectations of both parties towards the community interpreter that might exceed language services and include other elements, such as helping around, showing the way to some other location or accompanying someone to some other place can also be tackled in the research on the community interpreting. All these aspects mount up to the question of whether community interpreters are “just” interpreters or maybe they play another role as well?

Community interpreters in Myanmar themselves are undoubtedly the best source of information concerning the development of this profession in this country. I have luckily had the opportunity to carry out a survey among three successful community interpreters from Myanmar who interpret in the language combination English/Myanmar and I had the chance to ask them a series of questions regarding their occupation. Even though thorough research on the community interpreting in Myanmar requires the collection of much more data, the stories of these interpreters might throw some light on the situation of community interpreters in the current period of dynamic socio-political change .

The survey was carried out from September to October 2017 and all respondents who found time and energy to fill in the survey were male. It would be desirable to carry out research on the image of community interpreters in Myanmar only among female interpreters next time in order to see if there are any differences in their self-perception and the way they are treated by their employers. One of the respondents represents the age group 45-50, while the other two respondents are members of the age group 29-35. Two of the three respondents have received previous training in interpreting in Myanmar. All of the interpreters are familiar with the term ‘community interpreting’. One of them defined it as “interpreting that facilitates government agencies, legal institutions and community service centers”. Another respondent identified community interpreting as a service delivered in medical and court setting, as well as service offered on an ad hoc basis in the refugee camp. Based on my own experiences in Myanmar in the translation sector, it seems a rather popular practice to use ad hoc interpreting services in the development aid sector rather than hiring permanent interpreters, which would improve both the quality of services and put interpreters in a financially and socially better position. Another respondent defined interpreting as a service in a specific field or discipline or in a specific place in the administration at the local level. In my view, this local element plays a crucial role in the interpreting sector in Myanmar, which on the other hand, makes the community interpreters feel that they really bring about positive changes through communication within a small group of ordinary people. On the other hand, this local aspect of communication might not be automatically translated into accurate remuneration.

It is not always clear how community interpreters perceive their role. While one respondent suggested that they arefacilitators”, another interpreter pointed towards more non-linguistic aspects of his role, while saying that “community interpreters ensure that the decisions are made with the well-being of locals who are well informed. In Myanmar as well, the government is trying to promote bottom up decision making in development activities and it is important the messages from the grassroots are heard very clearly by the decision makers even in the midst of the difference in local languages.” As a consequence, it can be concluded that community interpreters play an important role in social and political change in Myanmar. Moreover, they guarantee that ordinary people are well heard and that they understand well, in their own languages, what decisions are being made in relation to them.

Another interesting topic is the self-awareness of community interpreters in Myanmar. When asked to rate on the scale from 1 to 5 whether people/organizations that hire them as community interpreters appreciate their work (where 1=not at all, 5= extremely), one respondent chose 5, which is a good sign. Another respondent chose the answer 3.5 and explained an interesting paradox. As funny as it sounds, when community interpreters flawlessly facilitate the communication process, they become almost invisible. Hence, if they seem invisible, the employers overlook the value they added to the communication process.

Invisibility is also a big topic in Translation Studies. Should interpreters be invisible? How autonomous can they be at work? All respondents replied “yes” to the question Are good interpreters invisible interpreters?, while one interpreter mentioned that it is more difficult for an interpreter to become invisible than to be a very good interpreter.

What gave a boost to Community Interpreting studies is also the comparison of similarities and differences between community interpreting and conference interpreting. One of the respondents highlighted the difference in the meaning and function of the community interpreters while saying that “community interpreters are closer to grassroots people”. Another respondent pointed towards the technical difference that lies in the fact that “community interpreters provide consecutive interpretation service, while conference interpreters provide simultaneous interpretation service”. An interesting account was provided by the third interpreter who calls conference interpreters “mainstream interpreters” who work in a formal setting. He mentions as well that community interpreting is often carried out by “random staff members available with some level of proficiency in both languages”. They are sometimes called “local fixers” and speak local dialects as well as the official languages.

It is usually expected that community interpreters are cultural mediators. The results of this survey show that in Myanmar, it is also the case. All of the respondents agreed that interpreters need to explain cultural elements during an interpreting event, but if possible, it should take place before or after the interpreting event. As one interpreter said, “some things are best interpreted in context”, andthe contextual information should be given by the interpreter”. They added, however, there is a fine line between providing context to the translation and overwhelming the listeners, confusing them about who’s saying what”. Therefore, cultural explanation is welcome, but it should not overshadow the main message.

The autonomy of community interpreters was tackled in the question, “When is it allowed to change the original meaning of what someone said or not to interpret a part of what someone said?” While two respondents agreed that it is allowed to change the original meaning of someone’s expression, it is allowed to do so if there is a cultural misunderstanding between the speakers. Another view was that some remarks can be altered for an easier reception or omitted, if they are rude and expressed by foreigners to local people. What might be an original remark is that an interpreter may omit some parts of translation if one of the listeners wishes so in case the other side talks about (obviously subjective) “irrelevant things”.

Last but not least, interpreters answered the question whether they have ever been discriminated against because of their age, gender, ethnic background or religion. One interpreter felt discriminated against due to his gender during an empowerment program for sex workers. Following his story, after the first session, the participants were happy with his interpreting performance and the proper approach towards the content of the training. However, before the next meeting, the organizers suggested that it would be more suitable for a woman to interpret the training, even though the trainer himself was male. Moreover, another respondent was rejected for an important interpreting event, because he was told that his long hair looked inappropriate. The last example shows that community interpreters are, indeed, expected to be invisible. It turns out that their hairstyle plays some role in their workplace and maybe it carries some values that their employer does not like or accept. Here, in the eyes of his employer, the interpreter was not going to be invisible and maybe this was the reason for his rejection.

To sum up, based on a few responses to the survey The general picture and definition of Community Interpreters in Myanmar that I designed on the basis of my previous research carried out in the Free State of Saxony in Germany (2010/2011), it seems that Myanmar community interpreters are aware of the importance of their role, even though they see the differences in the approach towards conference interpreters. Moreover, they all agree that interpreters are also cultural mediators and are allowed to influence the content of the conversation if it would be otherwise impolite/inappropriate, apart from one interpreter who thinks that one should also translate swear words. All of the respondents think that the best interpreters should be invisible in the communication, which might at the same time contradict a bit the view that the interpreters should explain cultural context too. I found it very interesting to call conference interpreters “mainstream interpreters”, as I believe that this term does not exist in Translation Studies and maybe it could emerge in this field. In my view, community interpreting is an extremely interesting topic for research especially in Myanmar, because it might include both interpretation in the combination of local languages vs. Myanmar language, as well as local languages vs. English language. In-depth research on this topic will certainly enrich the development of Translation Studies in Southeast Asia and potentially improve the social perception of training of community interpreters in Myanmar.

*I would like to thank all three respondents for their time and energy to fill in my survey. I am very impressed by their achievements and personalities, as well as their constant drive to perfection.

Author: Joanna Dolińska

Hello! I am a PhD student from the University of Warsaw where I carry out research on the Altaic languages. My research interests also include linguistic variety in Myanmar, the development of language profesisonals in Myanmar, as well as the development of education in Myanmar. I love learning foreign languages from distant language families and currently I speak Polish, German, English, Mongolian and French. I am about to start learning Myanmar language too! Please connect with me if you are interested in having a chat about Myanmar and Mongolian languages and education, I am always thrilled to meet new people interested in Inner Asia and Southeast Asia!