ON THE FRONTLINE: The politics of interpreting affect

ON THE FRONTLINE: The politics of interpreting affect

Deborah Giustini 

You need to be able to catch the spirit to communicate this person’s words to another person. It’s like a meaning industry. There are always feelings when people communicate.”

In 2015-2017, I immersed myself in the professional world of interpreters in a variety of high-stake settings in the UK and in Japan. My mixed-method study explored how these highly-skilled communication professionals performed expertise within the knowledge economy by managing disruptions and adjustments on the job, negotiating their role within socio-economic arrangements of the glo(c)al labour market, and amidst tensions of recognition and failure.

But, more intensely, my fieldwork also entailed a multisensory experiential process of engaging with the affective dimension of interpreting, and how this impacts both interpreters and users who benefit from their services. Sensoriality is indeed pivotal to representing affective understandings of knowledge, values, experiences, and social ties, and for recording the bodily and skilful choreography that accomplishes human practices (Pink 2009).

I pursued sensoriality to tune my immersion among interpreters to get closer to the political implications of being and feeling with the world (Heidegger 1962/1927) – meaning observing the workings of affect within the interpreting profession. In all the settings they operate, interpreters have a critical impact: the facilitation of mutual understanding “affects” all those involved – from parties who benefit from the interpreters’ work, to the interpreters’ performances themselves, which interpreters expertly monitor and adjust to guarantee high-quality service.

The expertise required to be an interpreter is a set of collectively shared and mutually intelligible skills, techniques, and qualities such as knowing how to perform a simultaneous interpretation, knowing how to identify cultural references in a speech, knowing how to respond to fast speakers, etc. On top, in interpreting there are also codes of ethics and professional conduct, which set out rules of behaviour for interpreters, such as maintaining an impartial stance (sometimes referred to in professional discourse as “neutrality”), though not without controversies and varying significantly between sub-branches of the profession.

Neutrality means that the interpreter must perform without letting personal views or emotions interfere with the communication, remaining unbiased and not siding ideologically with any party, thus it can also be construed as providing equal service to all participants. Interpreters’ neutrality ought to be reflected in linguistic renditions, which should remain accurate to the original regardless of the interpreters’ judgment of the speakers’ utterances. This is aimed at guaranteeing a high-quality interpretation “in terms of the discursive construction of reality in a given act of communication” (Prunč and Setton 2015, 346).

But of course, as in any situated social practice, interpreters are human beings, and experience feelings and emotions, and it cannot be disregarded that they affect and are affected. Indeed, interpreters cannot abstract themselves entirely from their own biases, background, values and beliefs – but nonetheless the requirement for neutrality is continuously and expertly negotiated as part of their ethical disposition. In some cases, other normative and affective criteria may override neutrality. For instance, in military encounters interpreters might privilege respect for human rights rather than not siding with any party; or in a medical encounter, they may favour a patient’s understanding by simplifying a doctor’s medical jargon.

Although I investigated the setting of conference interpreting (used for multilingual communication at technical, political, scientific and other meetings), where “neutrality is largely taken for granted” (Prunč and Setton 2015, 347) on fieldwork I constantly observed how the interpreters managed the complexity of their situated role through their affective practices. These are entangled in everyday social and cultural life and emerging in discourse, and were attuned in the corporeal-affective reactions of interpreters’ professional engagements.

Complete affect neutrality and absence of emotions is hardly conceivable, even if collectively organised by codified norms. Interpreters’ neutrality cannot equate to an affect-less interpretation, as interpretation necessarily requires the rendition of the affective aspects of communication, which are inescapably bound up with spoken discourse (Wetherell 2012). Thus, to convey and produce meaning between two languages, interpreters must take into account both discourse and affect.

However, interpreters do not only hold together the affective aspects of communication. They also carry out an affective engagement with the goals of their professional practice, that has to be negotiated with the task at hand. Arguably, this negotiation is itself part of their professional ethic and expertise. It is exactly by capturing interpreters’ orchestration of communication – including emotions and feelings – that I found how these skilled professionals are able, in their performances, to manage ethical positionings of neutrality, re-connecting in discourse performances what Sara Ahmed (2013) called the normative Western imposition that reason and emotions are separated. By attuning to the circumstances – including stakeholders’ understanding of their role, their own professional and collegial judgment, and their embodied orientation to provide effective communication – the interpreters re-sutured the fracture of reason and emotion in discourse thanks to their affective and linguistic skills.

A closer reading of such everyday entanglements of interpreting showed that the interpreters in my study are immersed in affective acts that also mediate the political nature of the reason/emotion split. Accounting for the “cultural politics of emotions,” Ahmed (2013) argues that emotionality about subjects and collectives is clearly dependent on power relations. Individuals competently oriented in terms of affective skills can effectively exercise and manage power. The tension between attending the politics of affect and the norm of neutrality emerged forcefully in the narratives of a small group of informants, who have been collaborating since 2011 with various stakeholders to meet Fukushima prefecture’s residents’ needs after the tsunami and nuclear plant disaster. The discursive production of interpreters shows that affect is entangled with the material (the contaminated land), the social (as produced within relations with individuals involved), and the discursive (parties’ utterances).

Particularly, my data shows that interpreters need to experience the affective impact of the event in order to adequately affect the individuals involved – acting with power within the limits of the interpreting practice. In retrieving interpreters’ recollections through interviews, the interpreters discussed how they negotiate power by using their professional skills, aiming to untangle the political dimension of affect to help Fukushima residents. This dimension is complex to manage. For instance, one informant, Kiriko, told me the difficulties that interpreters have in negotiating the re-union of emotions and reason in their discursive renditions vis-a-vis their internalized normative positioning:

I do a lot of nuclear-power-related meetings…because of the accident that occurred in Fukushima…These meetings…cover…how to help the residents in those affected areas…these residents were given the opportunity to speak about …their own experiences and emotions. To listen to their voices: how they were affected, how their farmland had been contaminated … People would always be like … full of criticism, towards nuclear power and all these things that the government had done to them… they are desperate. They burst into tears, always. They shout at those elected people who they feel should take care of them … From an interpreting perspective, this is very challenging. This doesn’t mean that we have to be ready to cry with them, but you need to empathize with them, while being calm and digesting all their words. It is difficult to find the proper linguistic nuance, and the best attitude for us. The emotional side, you cannot really find anywhere, how to do it; I could easily just shut it off. But interpreters have to understand other people’s feelings to convey them in another language. It’s not just words, it’s the feeling, the passion, the emotions.

Interpreters manage the necessity to balance between two divergent factors, because they are psychologically, emotionally, and physically affected by the surroundings and residents’ testimony, and at the same time committed to fairly represent the residents’ political stances and outer display of emotion in another language. The contingent nature of affect reveals interpreters as engaged in a form of cognitive and emotional battling, and their mediation of the cultural politics of emotions in the post-disaster setting.

Another interesting dimension sees interpreters’ professional assistance to individuals who are suffering from the post-disaster governmental impasse. As recollected by Naoko, interpreters’ affective skills serve to readdress imbalances in the presentation of individuals affected by the disaster who seemed to embody, in public perception, the unreasonableness of emotions:

You interpret for people affected … It’s heart-breaking … They have nothing but problems, and the government obscured it, saying these people are crazy, overemotional, don’t want to collaborate, don’t want to accept alternative offers. I want to help portray these people fairly.

The dualistic hierarchy that emotion is incompatible with reason, and that reason is superior to emotion was erased by interpreters, who convey the intensity of desperation in Fukushima’s testifying residents and reshape it through their affective skills, capturing not only the interconnection between the affected environment and the emotions of the local population, but also the interpreters’ role in re-framing such emotions. Through their linguistic restoration, interpreters offer victims the chance to impact the situation with their feelings, and offered institutions the chance to reconsider their aid role towards the victims, both matters of affectivity – and both matters of “restorative justice” (Ahmed 2013, 197).

By attuning professionally to the affectivity of each job and the human beings involved, interpreters channel emotions as social, relational, and rational; they participate in a form of communication and world-making that enables parties to find meaning. As such, interpreters are pivotal professional figures, enmeshed into the politics of affect, helping to linguistically manage emotions as a pervasive social force that helps to constitute both individual and collective ways of being, feeling, and acting in the global realm.

Ahmed, Sara. 2013. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. London: Routledge.
Heidegger, Martin. 1962 [1927]. Being and Time, translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Pink, Sarah. 2009. Doing Sensory Ethnography. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Schatzki, Theodore R. 1996. Social Practices: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Human Activity and the Social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wetherell, Margaret. 2012. Affect and Emotion: A New Social Science Understanding. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


Deborah Giustini is an early career researcher from the University of Manchester, Visiting Professor at the University of Leuven, and a freelance interpreter. Her work focuses on expertise, work arrangements, communication and cultural values in professional practices in the European and East-Asian contexts, with a particular focus on the language industry. She tweets at: @DeborahGiustini

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