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Review of  The Interpreter's Resource

Reviewer: David Wilmsen
Book Title: The Interpreter's Resource
Book Author: Mary Phelan
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 13.244

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Phelan, Mary (2001) The Interpreter's Resource. Multilingual Matters,
paperback ISBN 1-85359-515-2, xiv+217pp, Topics in Translation 19.

David Wilmsen, Director, Arabic and Translation Studies, The American
University in Cairo

Number nineteen in Multilingual Matters' series Topics in Translation, The
Interpreter's Resource is something of a companion volume to the thirteenth in
that series, A Practical Guide for Translators (Samuelson-Brown, 1998). As
its title suggests, the book is basically a list of resources for interpreters
either practicing or aspiring. It comprises ten chapters - some only a few
pages in length, the shortest being one and a half pages long; a bibliography;
a list of internet sites of various organizations of interest to interpreters
(which is curiously not called an appendix); an appendix listing university
interpreting programs, translation associations with affiliation to La
F�d�ration Internationale des Traducteurs (FIT), and information about
international organization (including their official names in three languages:
English, French, and Spanish, along with acronyms); regional maps of the
world; and an index.

Chapter 1 presents a very brief history of interpreting - very brief indeed,
with some two pages and a half of history and another one and a half pages of
a description of the profession as it stands in the nineteen-nineties.

Chapter 2 sets about defining and describing the various types of
interpreting, including the more familiar conference interpreting and
sign-language interpreting and their newer cousins such as telephone
interpreting and videoconference interpreting. By the end of this chapter, the
book embarks in earnest upon its true business: providing reams of practical
information about the field. The author Mary Phelan has collected and collated
particulars about various professional associations, service providers,
governing bodies, and international organizations involved in interpreting.

This she pursues in the succeeding chapters and beyond them into the
appendices. One complete chapter is devoted to interpreter ethics, providing
in their entirety the code of ethics of five organizations. The European Union
is also accorded an entire chapter, giving some of its history; discussing the
nature of EU interpreting; and a listing a catalogue of EU institutions,
agencies, and bodies. Yet another is given to the United Nations, describing
the makeup of that body as well as providing an exhaustive list of its
agencies, courts and tribunals, programs, and autonomous organizations. Two
chapters are devoted to other organizations: one on (mostly European) treaty
organizations and world security bodies such as, among others, the Council of
Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the other on
international organizations as diverse as the Inter American Development Bank,
the Red Cross Movement, and the World Trade Organization. The contact
information of most organizations, including email addresses or websites where
available, is usually provided with each entry. When it is not provided
immediately, contact information can usually be found in one of the

The book is something of a catalogue of annotated lists, such that much of the
content might have been included in appendices to a larger volume, were one to
be written. An example of this comes in Chapter 3, entitled "Hints for
Speakers at Conferences", which comprises a page-and-a-half numbered list of
suggestions and nothing more. At first reading, I mistook it for an appendix
to Chapter 2, coming as it does between the chapter describing the different
types of interpreting, and that treating community, court, and medical
interpreting. Why these latter were given a chapter all their own and were not
included in Chapter 2 can only be guessed at. The blurb on the back cover
identifies them as the author's principal research interest, and in the
introduction she says that community interpreting (which is generally
understood to include court and medical interpreting) is "the next growth
area" (p.5). Perhaps it was reasoned that as such they deserved a chapter unto

This arrangement of the first few chapters also points to a somewhat
disconcerting characteristic of the organization of the book: it mixes
description and prescription, describing both how interpreting is practiced
and suggesting how it should be. For example, Phelan ends her description
of television interpreting by lamenting that "All too often we hear
interpreters' voices on television programmes and sometimes we actually see
them but we rarely see their names. Everyone else involved in making a
programme is credited except for the interpreter, without whom the programme
could not have been made" (p.16). This is a valid observation, but it is
somewhat jarring to find it placed in the midst of otherwise sober
descriptions. Other such normative statements are interwoven with description
in numerous places, especially in chapters two and four, those describing
interpretation itself and not the organizations that use it or support it.
What is more, the writing does not always hang together, especially when the
author moves from description to advocacy: "[W]ithin Europe the provision of
interpreting in the courts varies enormously from one country to another. Yet
it is absolutely essential that court interpreters should be impartial, they
should not take on the role of advocates and they should have an understanding
of legal concepts. But if interpreters are not trained, how can they acquire
these characteristics themselves?" (p. 29).

To be fair, it is difficult to imagine how this might have been handled
differently without producing a very different book, one including sections
about teaching interpreting, for instance. As it is, there is much information
to be catalogued and little room for much else. The normative statements that
Phelan is wont to make on occasion are well taken if not always well
placed. In any case, these few organizational difficulties do not detract from
the overall utility of the book.

As for that, this book should prove especially useful to students of
interpreting, recent graduates, or freelancers, who would surely benefit from
a short reference book that collects between two covers all or most of the
essential information about major employers of interpreters and various
support organizations. While that in itself is useful, the book fails to
address in great detail the avenues by which aspiring interpreters might to
break into the field, which, by Phelan's own description (p. 3) "can
demand a great deal of persistence" if they are to find work. The only place
where entry points are discussed in any detail at all is in the chapter on the
European Union (Chapter 6) - as it happens the largest employer of
interpreters of those treated by the book. Here an aspiring interpreter can
gain an idea of the qualifications and characteristics sought by the three
bodies within the EU concerned directly with interpreting: The Joint
Interpreting and Conference Service of the European Commission, the
Interpretation Directorate of the European Parliament, and the Interpretation
Division of the European Court of Justice. The first two of these bodies have
programs for young interpreters (meaning those under 45!), graduate
interpreters, and freelancers. The third, while it will employ freelancers on
a trial basis, will not take absolute beginners owing to the sensitivity of
its work.

This information should be of some encouragement to those aspiring to become
interpreters and even those who are already working as freelancers. For, while
the author makes very little of the point, it is difficult for a newcomer to
enter the field. We learn that "university qualification is essential to a
career in interpreting" And yet, "even those who successfully complete an
interpreting course my not find employment as interpreters" (p.3). Why is
this? The book does not say. Indeed, it poses something of a dilemma, for in
order to find work, an interpreter must "build up experience". But it is not
made clear how this experience is to be built up without finding work.
Phelan acknowledges that there is a "temptation for new interpreters to cut
prices in order to be able to work." And she admonishes that "[t]his is not
really a good idea in the long term" (p.3) . Again she does not say why.

It happens that most interpreters spend long portions of their careers working
in the grey market, and many of the institutions upon which Phelan reports,
especially the professional organizations, are unhappy about this. For one
reason, it creates downward pressure on the earning power of their members,
and for another, there is thereby less control over quality, leading to the
potential for compromise of professional standards. In that regard, it is
encouraging to know that the EU does offer new interpreters an entry. And it
is good that Phelan points this out. For, as Europe integrates and more
countries join the Union, the demand will increase for interpreters with
expertise in languages other than the major languages of Europe.

In the end, the severest shortcoming of the book is its institutional bias
leading precisely to its failure to discuss the issue of the grey market head
on. Early in the book we learn that there are some 4,400 full-time and
freelance interpreters working in the major international organizations. Most
or all of these must be conference interpreters, which Phelan describes as
having attained to the most prestigious and remunerative form of interpreting.
They must have done so after having "built up" long experience interpreting in
lower-tier organizations and in local markets. This is where most interpreters
will spend their entire careers. That is, of course, unless the profession is
no larger than those few thousand who are counted in the book. In that case,
it scarcely seems worth the bother to track their activities at all, not only
in this book, but also in the burgeoning discipline of translation studies, an
active subset of which addresses itself to the process of interpreting.
Interpreters would gain work the way they always have done; accident of birth,
upbringing, or education will have equipped them with the requisite skills.

But the profession can no longer be approached in this manner, as Phelan
will occasionally note in passing. Locally-based interpreters are the very
professionals who would benefit from a guidebook such as this and from support
of the professional organizations listed therein. These include those dealing
in less-commonly-translated-languages (LCTs) of EU members (e.g., Finnish and
Greek); those of the new entries into the European Union, (such as, among
others, Polish, Magyar, and Turkish); and those of the Canadian First Nations.
All of these are mentioned briefly, but little detail is provided. The
languages of Asian and other emerging market countries are never addressed,
with the exception of Chinese. Arabic is accorded similar treatment (but China
is given two entries in the index and no Arab country is). We never learn much
about interpreters working in these languages, of their problems in gaining
adequate training or access to work in their local markets nor indeed their
numbers. This is unfortunate. Arabic and Chinese are, after all, official
languages of the United Nations.

Phelan is not entirely to be blamed for this omission. She gathered her
information by searching the web for and submitting questionnaires to
institutions involved in interpreting, reporting in greatest detail on those
who took the time to answer. And yet, even those institutions will soon be
compelled to accommodate interpreters working in the lower tiers of the
profession. Phelan mentions this in her discussion of the European Union,
when she observes that interpreters with expertise in the
less-commonly-translated languages of Europe are often compelled by need to
interpret both into and out of their mother tongues (pp. 60 and 61). This
practice is not generally sanctioned by any of the organizations represented
in this book. And yet, there are far more native speakers of
less-commonly-translated languages who have studied the major languages of
Europe than the opposite. This problem looms even larger with the languages of
the Middle East and Asia. It hardly ever occurs, for instance, that a
non-native speaker of Arabic gains the proficiency in Arabic required of an

Later editions of the book would be greatly enhanced by a treatment of these
issues. Chapters on the practical aspects of free-lance work, such as appear
in Samuelson-Brown (1998) would be very welcome. Nonetheless, this book
represents an encouraging beginning, and, even as it is, it will be a valuable
tool for practicing interpreters and those who hope to become so. This, after
all, is what the book has set out to be.

Samuelson-Brown, Geoffrey, (1998) A Practical Guide for Translators.
Clevendon, England: Multilingual Matters, Topics in Translation 13.

David Wilmsen is director of the Arabic and Translation Studies Division at
The American University in Cairo. His interests include Arabic dialectology;
Arabic technical terminology and Arabization; Arabic translation and
interpreting theory, practice, and pedagogy; and Arab media and popular
culture. He holds a Ph.D. in Arabic language and linguistics at the
University of Michigan.


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