06 Jul A Linguist Particle?
This week, physicists revealed to the world that they’ve all but confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, called the “God Particle” in layman’s terms. The discovery is said to answer the riddle of how subatomic particles were formed, and what gives them their mass. As an interpreter and translator who’s dabbled in more than one specialty within the scope of being a linguist, and in the shadow of such an exciting moment for mankind, I started exploring what makes us tick, a “Linguist Particle,” if you will.
Beyond the necessary trait of bilingualism and the basic role of bridging communication gaps, I pondered what traits seem to appear in the interpreters and translators I’ve encountered in my career. Commonly, I’ve noticed they have a creative streak that manifests itself in former or second careers as musicians, painters, singers, poets, lyricists, writers and graphic artists, among other right-brained qualities. As a subdivision of these, many are the entrepreneurial, business-minded people, who are very good at marketing their professional services. The academic subgroup’s passion lies in sharing knowledge and developing others. Life experience seems to be a big factor for professional success, providing not only broad knowledge but the maturity needed to excel. Hmm… maybe another line of thinking was in order. By this point it started looking like there was just too much variety to name just one common thread.
Rather than traits, I thought perhaps what was common were principles we have all agreed to abide by. Codes of ethics, standards of practice and good practice recommendations abound, and most generally have the same sort of list ranging from the fundamentals of faithful renditions to the broad-reaching implications of client relations and professional behavior. Still, with the great variety of environments, purposes and subject matters, the ways that professionals apply such guidelines can vary, albeit only slightly in some cases.
My next leg in the journey was to check whether the professions themselves have identified specific traits. Resources abound from a variety of sources that seek to name the ideals, what makes a good interpreter or translator. The more I looked, the more I found, but the “ah-ha” moment came when I found a study by Nancy Schweda Nicholson called Personality Characteristics of Interpreter Trainees: The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I encourage you to read it because it’s much more detailed and complex than what I seek to explore here, and it cites many other very interesting sources.
Schweda Nicholson described that the study sought to identify traits of interpreter and translator trainees. She found that the traits that could be elicited from interpreters themselves would be highly subjective, explaining that “…interpreters have often examined their own personalities and attempted to generalize based on their own personal assessments… if one asks an interpreter what he or she believes to be the perfect temperament and personality for a new trainee, the interpreter will, almost without exception, describe his or her own personality.” Because interpreter and translator training programs are often led and taught by practicing industry professionals, it makes sense that some objective data would be an excellent supplement to the anecdotal descriptions that a seasoned trainer might offer.
Work by Henderson (1980) cited in the study says that the “typical” interpreter is “A self-reliant, articulate extrovert, quick and intelligent, a jack of all trades and something of an actor, superficial, arrogant, liking variety and at times anxious and frustrated…” going on to say that these are only major features of a picture that is much more complex. Interesting! Schweda Nicholson concludes that “personality may definitely have an effect on that person’s comfort level in different situations as well as on processing and organizational behavior.” Fascinating, I think, because the only entrance exams I have ever heard of for training programs focus almost exclusively on skills and abilities that tend to be limited to the performance, rather than any predictors for how a trainee might fare in the professional setting. Recognizing work such as that of Schweda Nicholson might assist programs to develop the other characteristics in trainees in conjunction with the specifics of the industry.
Perhaps intuitively, I’ve always been frustrated to hear professionals kindly encourage bilinguals to become linguists without knowing much about them. Research tells us there is so much more to interpreting and translating than language skills and the right vocabulary, and although many of the ideal traits can be developed, I’m not convinced that all of them are necessarily attainable to their fullest. The information contained in the Schweda Nicholson study seems to explain why some perfectly talented bilinguals have difficulty getting into or succeeding in the interpreting and translation industries. As a profession, when linguists seek to prepare for “the next generation” of interpreters and translators, it makes sense that people considering these careers are made aware that research and experience strongly suggests that certain personality traits may be better suited for success.
In the end, perhaps there is no such thing as a “Linguist Particle,” but instead a personality profile that is much more complex and intricate, with features that are both subjective and objective. As Schweda Nicholson puts it, “…the personality profiles of interpreters can be as varied as the topics with which they work.”
For additional background on the Myers-Brigg topic visit: https://sites.google.com/site/interpretjc/home/archive and look for the first session of the Interpreters Journal Club twitter meeting. Myers-Brigg was discussed and several interpreters from around the world chimed in.