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Hi there, I'm studying a masters in interpreting and I have to write an essay about the subject. I have chosen an essay on the idea that an interpreter is a 'power figure'

This was an idea by Anderson in 1976. He stated that interpreter “is a power figure, exercising power as a result of monopolization of the means of communication” which results in them, in some cases, having “an unusually great impact on the structure of the entire situation".

I was interested in knowing what your thoughts are on this, from personal experience. I'm not asking for people to write my essay for me, but I was looking for some real-life examples not just taken from an academic journal or a text book.

Thanks, Jack

asked 10 Nov '15, 08:48

Jack%20Taylor's gravatar image

Jack Taylor

thanks very much for your replies. i do believe Anderson was actually referring to the dialogue interpreter specifically, and i guess that makes things different.

(11 Nov '15, 16:20) Jack Taylor

Hi Jack,

It is a very interesting topic indeed.

I do not think interpreters have any power that works as a license allowing them to have an impact on any given situation. It is true that we somehow have the monopoly of the means of communication, but I would not understand that as interpreters being a 'power figure'.

Are pilots a 'power figure' when they are at the controls of a plane? I would say they aren't. They have a mission, which is safely carrying passengers from point A to point B following the guidelines given by the control tower. Let's say interpreters are like pilots who instead of having control towers have speakers and instead of having passengers to carry from A to B have listeners to whom they need to convey a message. Interpreters are at the controls (communication-wise), but they cannot change route or ignore the control tower. If they did, they would be failing to their job as communicators and thus as interpreters.

Having said that, there are some moments in which we can use the fact that we have the monopoly of communication. For instance, when telling clients about the conditions we are willing to work in. We have the power to refuse an assignment if AIIC conditions are not respected, for example. If the client really needs us, he/she will want to make sure those conditions are met. So, yes, we can be demanding towards our clients for the sake of communication. In that sense, we do have some kind of (negotiating) power, prior to the actual assignment.

However, when in the booth or before a notepad, rather than a power, I would say we have a (great) responsibility.

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answered 10 Nov '15, 10:24

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edited 10 Nov '15, 10:25

This statement was made at a time when interpreting was a very different world than it is now. The EU had 6 languages (now it's 24). AIIC had a few hundred members, now its 3000. Consecutive was the norm, now it is the rarest of exceptions.

I would say that statement applies only to the single interpreter working in liaison, e.g. between two high-ranking individuals who are high-ranking enough to have a personal interpreter; or in consecutive for a small number of clients. In that format the interpreter is both visible and unavoidable, and, importantly in the same space as the client. Also the speaker has to stop in consec and everyone has to listen to the interpreter.

It doesn't sound like it applies to simultaneous interpreting at all, where the interpreters are at the back of the room in booths. And certainly not to interpreting in the EU where you have not 2 or 3 booths, but 10 to 20 booths at the back of the room (all around the room, and on two levels. ) Also in SIM you are separated by a glass wall from the client, which reduces the clients awareness of you and therefore any supposed influence. Also the interpreter speaks at the same time as the speaker, therefore making the interpreter less obvious, and their influence weaker.

If that's what interests you, then you can find lots of information about the former group, and from that era, in the auto-biographies here...

Modern interpreters are less likely to write an auto-biography 1) because they would be pilloried for breaking confidentiality and 2) because interpreting is not as glamorous as it once was (or once was perceived to be!) and no one would want to read it.

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answered 10 Nov '15, 10:28

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edited 11 Nov '15, 05:14

Vincent%20Buck's gravatar image

Vincent Buck ♦♦

This does have the possibility of happening more often in the US or the private market, anywhere where smaller teams and consecutive gets used more often than simultaneous. The international conference scene - especially in the EU institutions - is as Andy describes it, with its built-in redundancies and checks on our work.

The most powerful I have felt as a conference interpreter doesn't have anything to do with changing the course of world events during treaty negotiations, or what have you, but happened when a speaker paused 7 times after making a joke, and I gave him a laugh 7 times. So a different idea of power altogether!

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answered 11 Nov '15, 12:38

JuliaP's gravatar image


Interpreters enjoy significant power because they are in a situation when they can control communication flows and sometimes are the only people who understand what is going on. The power trip can be used by the ego and result in the "interpreter diva" phenomenon. See more in

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answered 16 Nov '15, 20:48

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Cyril Flerov

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question asked: 10 Nov '15, 08:48

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last updated: 16 Nov '15, 20:48

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