Last week I was invited to take part in a day-long international workshop on the importance of ethics committees in nursing research. The workshop was hosted by the Ministry of Health in Rome and took place on Wednesday 8th May. Among the many illustrious guests were professors and lecturers from the UK who came to share their extensive expertise in nursing and publishing. Because they couldn't speak a word of Italian, two interpreters were called in by the Italian Ministry to help. One of them, unfortunately, turned out to be not particularly good. Although she got on well with the task of conveying the right information to the British guests present, she made several mistakes: I noticed, for example, that her English syntax was at points very unidiomatic and her pronunciation somewhat 'debatable'. Here are some of the notes I jotted down during the conference:
- poor command of weak forms
- she mis-stressed in lots of words and compounds, including reports which she very often pronounced as *ˈɹɛpɚts
- basically she always pronounced as four syllables rather than
(the usual) three, and used z instead of s: thus ˈbeɪzɪkəli (Please note that ˈbeɪz- is possible, though probably not so common, in AmE.)
- basis, like basically, also had z rather than the normal s: ˈbeɪzɪz
- radiology she said as *ɹadiˈɒlədʒi
- wrong distribution of r: nurses, for instance, was sometimes pronounced with r and sometimes not (Please note that the interpreter had a (mainly) standard British English accent.).
A colleague of mine, who is an interpreter, tells me that Italian interpreters don't study English phonetics, university courses preferring to focus their attention on matters such as vocabulary and syntax instead. I wonder what interpreters from Italy would do, then, in the rather unfortunate event of having to translate into Italian a speech delivered by an English native speaker whose accent they found particularly difficult to understand…
Pronunce di un'interprete
Lo scorso mercoledì sono stato invitato a partecipare ad un workshop internazionale sull'importanza dei comitati etici nella ricerca infermieristica. Il workshop si è tenuto presso il Ministero della Salute a Roma. Tra i molti ospiti illustri sono intervenuti professori ed esperti dal Regno Unito i quali hanno condiviso il proprio sapere ed esperienza nell'ambito del nursing e della pubblicazione in riviste scientifiche specializzate. Poiché questi studiosi non sapevano esprimersi in italiano, il Ministero ha messo a disposizione due interpreti (donne), una delle quali purtroppo non è risultata essere tanto all'altezza. Sebbene sia riuscita comunque a trasmettere le giuste informazioni agli ospiti stranieri presenti, la sua sintassi inglese è parsa essere a tratti poco autenticamente idiomatica e la pronuncia di alcuni termini, tra l'altro molto comuni, abbastanza 'discutibile'. Ecco alcuni degli appunti che ho preso durante la conferenza:
padronanza delle forme deboli o 'weak forms'
- scorretta accentazione in molte parole composte e non, tra cui reports, spesso pronunciato *ˈɹɛpɚts
- basically, invece di avere la pronuncia comune (compressa) con
tre sillabe ne aveva sempre quattro, e al posto di s aveva z: ˈbeɪzɪkəli (Si noti che ˈbeɪz- è possibile, sebbene probabilmente non tanto comune, in americano.)
- basis, come basically, aveva z piuttosto che s: ˈbeɪzɪz
- radiology è stato varie volto pronunciato *ɹadiˈɒlədʒi
- scorretta distribuzione di r: nurses, per esempio, è stato a volte pronunciato con r e a volte no (Si noti che l'interprete aveva un accento essenzialmente britannico standard.).
Una mia collega inteprete mi ha riferito che coloro che lavorano nel suo campo in Italia non studiano fonetica inglese poiché i corsi offerti nelle maggiori università o scuole d'interpretariato preferiscono focalizzare la propria attenzione generalmente sul vocabolario e la sintassi della lingua. Mi chiedo cosa succederebbe, allora, se questi interpreti si trovassero nella sfortunata posizione di dover tradurre simultaneamente in italiano il discorso di un madrelingua inglese il cui accento fosse per loro di difficile comprensione...
It's very sad. I'm 24 and English is only a passion to me, but I wouldn't have made any of the mistakes this so-called professionist has made.ReplyDelete
Well, pronouncing the word basically with four syllables is a mark of deliberate speech rather than a mistake. John Wells gives four syllables as a possible pronunciation for both British Received Pronunciation and the accent called General American in his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary 3 (the third syllable being either a syllabic l or əl), and Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary also reports a variant pronunciation of the word with -z-, besides all of Wells’s variants. Sometimes it is a mistake to mark mistakes, and a basic mistake to call them basic mistakes.ReplyDelete
Moreover if English is to be a global language a lot of variation in pronunciation must be permissible. There are now many millions of native speakers in countries like Nigeria or Liberia who speak no language other than English, but whose accents depart considerably from those of ‘inner circle’ native speakers. And of course English is an official and/or commonly used language in way over 100 countries and is spoken with a huge variety of accents, none of which can reasonably be judged better or more correct than any other. A steadily increasing number of countries seek national pride in recognizing their own standard English, and now there are no longer only half a dozen standard English accents, as was the case only two decades ago. This has to be borne in mind when commenting on English accents other than those used by educated native English speakers from the British Isles, North America, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa.
Language is not only a means of data transfer, but also serves a social, group (incl. nation) constituting function, amongst many others. I learned this role accents, too, play long ago when I majored in phonetics at our university. Having grown up in, for instance, Lagos, Nigeria but speaking with an ‘inner circle’ English accent is not only not required, but socially unacceptable. And teaching people a certain accent usually means detaching them from their environment, as happened to My Fair Lady.
@Anonymous (first commentator):
So-called what? — Well, Londoners and Mancunians often use completely different words and don’t understand one another, so why should your English be like mine? I think I know what you mean though. I call them professionals or simply pros.
"...if English is to be a global language a lot of variation in pronunciation must be permissible."Delete
Only in pronunciation? Is pronunciation less arbitrary than vocabulary or grammar?
Thanks very much for your thoughts!
"Well, pronouncing the word basically with four syllables is a mark of deliberate speech rather than a mistake. John Wells gives four syllables as a possible pronunciation for both British Received Pronunciation and the accent called General American in his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary 3 (the third syllable being either a syllabic l or əl), and Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary also reports a variant pronunciation of the word with -z-, besides all of Wells’s variants. Sometimes it is a mistake to mark mistakes, and a basic mistake to call them basic mistakes."
I'm perfectly aware that an uncompressed variant (with /-s-/ or /-z-/) is possible. Maybe I should have made it clear in point 3 that this wasn't a real mistake on her part, just a very unusual pronunciation. It's a variant, anyway, I would never recommend to an interpreter with a mainly British English accent, as was the case here.
PS: I've decided to rephrase some of my previous statements. Many thanks to Jack Windsor Lewis for his invaluable comments!Delete
No wonder that she had no phonetics classes. I remember my phonetics classes as the most demanding and... boring.ReplyDelete
Hello Alex, I am an argentinian student of english interpretation and let me tell you that while doing an interpretation there is a lot of pressure involved, more than you can imagine. You have to listen to the speaker, understand what is being said, translate the thoughts in your mind an then reproduce it in a completely different language with different structures, all at the same time ! not to mention that you also have to choose the correct and specific terms. there are also external problems that may arise such as external noises that do not allow you to listen well or problems with the audio. Moreover, the pronunciation mistakes that you have mentioned are irrelevant since you were able to understand everything. Maybe you don´t know but the interpreter job is considered to be an insalubrious one for the reasons i mentioned before and it is also considered the second most stressful job in the world (the first one is air-traffic controller.)ReplyDelete
So, please, next time you attend a conference, remember this and try not to be so demanding. :)
Thank you for commenting.Delete
I'm afraid pressure as you put it cannot be an excuse. There are excellent interpreters around who manage to do an outstanding job no matter how 'pressurising' the context that they work in is.
For a similar case to the one I discuss in this post, see here:
Yes, I understand what you say, there are many excellent interpreters that inspire admiration. However, according to the pronunciation mistakes you have mentioned it is like going to a restaurant, having an excellent meal and service but complaining because the waitress dropped a plate. We are humans after all :)Delete
btw, my name is Angie Nowacki.
Hi Alex, I'm from Argentina, and I'm studying to be an interpreter as well. I understand that as a phonetician you focus on pronunciation. However, I don't think that in this particular case the interpreter's pronunciation mistakes where critical, since they did not affect meaning. In my opinion, before writing an entire article criticizing the work of an interpreter (and as someone already said, it is extremely hard and it implies much more than just perfect pronunciation) you should actually KNOW about the interpreting profession and interpreters' work. Maybe next time you can swap places with the interpreter and see how it goes. Believe me, being an interpreter is not only about mastering a second language properly. Cheers.ReplyDelete
Thank you for commenting.Delete
As I said to your colleague above, there are excellent interpreters around who manage to do an outstanding job no matter how 'pressurising' the context that they work in is. This lady just turned out to be not so good, I'm afraid.
For a similar case to the one I discuss in this post, see here:
Hey! I'm an Argentinian student as well. Perhaps those interpreters you're talking about, that can do their job flawlessly, are very well experienced interpreters. When interpreting, you must be thinking of many things and your pronunciation might be affected. Besides, as my partner already said, the mistakes she did did not affect the meaning, which, actually, is the job of an interpreter. Besides that, there are certain features of English pronunciation that are really difficult for other people to produce because of the marked differences in pronunciation between languages.ReplyDelete
I see your point and I think that one, as an interpreter, should do his or her best to master this complex profession. But people should not be so harsh when criticising such a complex job.
I think the problem lies in the way languages are taught and in the misconceptions that some teachers pass on to their pupils. Here are some basic facts, consistently ignored, about the pronunciation of English and the Spanish-speaking learner:ReplyDelete
1) Of all the aspects concerning the English language, pronunciation is the easiest to master in a relatively short period of time.
2) It is perfectly possible for ANY native speaker of Spanish to acquire at least a near native-like pronunciation of English.
3) To have mastered a specific type of English pronunciation means simply to be able to bring it out without conscious control, and even to be unable to bring out anything else.
4) The secret of "good" pronunciation is systematic training, which should be offered to students (if they are not young children) BEFORE they concentrate on grammar or vocabulary.