Figures of Interpretation

This month we published Figures of Interpretation edited by B.A.S.S. Meier-Lorente-Muth-Duchêne. In this post the editors explain how the book came about.

The idea behind this book originated from a research project the four of us conducted collectively. We worked together at the Institute of Multilingualism, University of Fribourg, on the research project “A Web of Care. Linguistic resources and the management of labor in the healthcare industry” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. As part of this project, we collectively conducted fieldwork at a university hospital in Switzerland where we encountered many people who interpreted, ranging from medical doctors, cleaners, professional medical interpreters, technicians, secretaries, mothers, brothers, daughters and sons.

This experience was our inspiration for Figures of Interpretation. We learned how people who interpret came in many guises and were first-hand witnesses to structural oppression, exploitation and disenfranchisement, as well as resilience and hope. We realized that they were figures whose lives revealed larger historical and structural processes through the singularity of their individual trajectories. We wanted to know more about them. We felt that what we experienced was not unique to the particular site and situation we were exploring. We were convinced that such figures have existed for a long time, in various places, with diverse valuation process. We started to think of papers we had read from colleagues who – without framing their analysis in terms of figures of interpretation – provided glimpses of the trajectories of such figures. We recalled conversations with friends and scholars who could have been those figures themselves or who encountered them in their own fieldwork. We imagined situations and moments when people we knew could have met figures of interpretation without necessarily looking at them as such. Progressively, the book took shape in terms of content, and we believed that bringing those experiences together in a volume could allow us to engage in a wider debate about what interpreting does and what it means.

But we also thought a lot about how to grasp these figures, how to talk and write about their lived experiences. The issue of writing about these figures coincided with our own trajectories in academia. We were a bit fed up with the canon we were socialized into, and slightly disillusioned by the limitations we imposed on ourselves and that were imposed to us by academia. We wanted to explore something else without necessarily knowing where it would lead us, nor if this was the right way to do. But we were excited to try it out. The idea of vignettes, of written portraits emerged and we gave it a first go with a couple of figures we encountered in our fieldwork. We realized that writing these short texts was not only challenging, but also forced us to look at the trajectories and the practices of the interpreters in a different way, giving space for a certain type of narration that fully endorses the interpretative dimension of figures of interpretation. Then we envisioned what the book could become if the people we had in mind would participate in such an adventure. We were fortunate enough that most of the colleagues and friends we contacted were enthusiastic about this idea, accepting with joy, excitement, fears and doubts. Many wrote the texts outside of their paid hours, or away from what might be immediately measurable in their professional lives. Many felt happy to have fewer constraints. All were open to doing something different(ly): either by stepping out of the constraints of academic writing, or by engaging with an academic audience for the very first time.

And here we are. Neither the contents nor the format of this book corresponds to academic standards. Instead of showcasing methodological innovations or discussing theoretical paradigms, this collection of 31 portraits invites readers to be conscious of their own interpretations, aware of the editor’s decisions of order and their necessary arbitrariness and attentive to the illustrations that themselves follow their own line of interpretation. This book is also an interpellation on the fundamentally collective dimension of knowledge production. Each portrait constitutes a piece of a complex puzzle. We need Sandra, Quintus, Conrad, Bintou, Ilona, Aïcha and all the other figures to grasp what interpreting is and what it does. And we need Kathleen, Aneta, Carlos, Arnaldo, Biao, and all the other authors of this book to guide us towards a better understanding of the manifold challenges interpretation as a social practice entails. This collection welcomes the readers to participate, see differences and make their own connections.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Decolonising Multilingualism by Alison Phipps.