Looking back in time: does the past encourage a Community of Practice model for the world of Interpreting?

Whilst researching Communities of Practice (CoP) as a model for interpreting studies, I increasingly realised, even though I was already aware of it, that interpreters have often been considered to be rare souls and as such quite unique. Rare and unique are not the first two features that come to mind when considering Community of Practice (CoP) as a possible framework for interpreting studies or indeed the interpreting profession.

Rare and unique
But let's take a leap back in time and explore who interpreters were in Antiquity.

Interpreters were found where there was a need to solve or avoid conflicts, negotiate business or public relations or indeed, in courts where 'foreigners' were tried. As such their status varied.
The Greeks considered interpreters as semi gods; they used the words 'translator' or 'interpreter' indifferently which meant 'a human being who performs one of this god's numerous activities (including linguistic ones)', Hermann (1956, 2002). I wonder what the other 'non linguistic activities' covered... If you ask an interpreter working in the health and social fields today, I am sure they will have some suggestions to make. Thinking about it,  I am sure they have not felt like semi gods for a while.

The Greeks thought their language was superior and that other languages were barbarian. As such they had to depend on interpreters whereas the Romans who spoke at least two languages felt more at ease conducting their business in the language required. It looks as if the Romans had already understood the advantages of multilingualism even though they often complained the interpreters used by the Greeks were often overzealous and negotiated in favour of their client. They had not yet thought of the Code of Conduct, or at least, there is no trace of it.

Still we can see that interpreters were selected, chosen for certain duties but they hardly came together as a profession. They were valued but also criticised. They were to be found in the highest sphere of power.

Was this always the case? 

Hermann (1956) reports that in AD 400, the Chancellery of the Interior Ministry recorded interpreters required for the barbaric languages spoken by the non-classical peoples; there were 130 interpreters in the region of Pontus where 300 languages were spoken. We can imagine the needs for interpreters in administration, health, justice, education and politics.  It looks as if  we have finally found some traces of public service interpreters, also called community interpreters. At the time, invasions were the main force behind cultural and linguistic melting pots. 

Could we imagine that these interpreters met as professionals, discussed and exchanged views about their profession or even created opportunities to enhance their career as we try to do today, or as a Community of Practice would try to do? Were they simply considered civil servants and as such carried on their daily tasks like anyone else?  Difficult to say. 

Discussions and exchanges
Photo from Interdisciplinary Community of Practice

If we transpose what happened in antiquity to present times, we can recognise some similarities. 
Conference Interpreters are found in political spheres such as the European Institutions or the United Nations. They are unique and rare for their qualities and level of expertise. World leaders and CEOs try to speak different languages but tend to travel with their own trusted interpreters for key negotiations. 
On the other hand, public service interpreters or community interpreters still help 'normal' people communicate for administrative purposes when  in different countries. It is a fact that a search for a better life, a safe life, or simply a holiday or a professional trip tend to be the reasons why people travel today as opposed to the invasions of the past.

Are they any signs however of the emergence of Communities of Practice for conference interpreting or for public service interpreting/community interpreting?

Networks and partnerships have been created in all interpreting fields. The European Master's for Conference Interpreting (EMCI) is a very good example. Not to mention the professional organisations, such as the Association Internationale des Interprètes de ConfĂ©rence (AIIC), the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI), the Chartered Institute of Linguists (CIOL), Critical Link International, to name a few but the list could go on for ever. 

However, do these networks or partnerships work as Communities of Practice? Is it understood what a Community of Practice is? Would these networks/partnerships benefit if they were built on the Community of Practice model? Do they act like a Community of Practice without realising it?  

In my next post, I shall explore what a Community of Practice is as currently defined by Etienne Wenger.

Looking forward to your comments.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s own and should not be taken to represent the official positions of universities, networks or associations. 


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