Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

9.4. Translation and Ideology
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Nitsa Ben-Ari (Tel Aviv University)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Interpreters and Ideology: From ‘Between’ to ‘Within’

Franz Pöchhacker (Center for Translation Studies, University of Vienna)



Ideology, by any definition, was not an issue in the literature on interpreting until very recently. Indeed, when the subject of ideology emerged more broadly in translation studies in the late 1990s (e.g Calzada Pérez 2003), interpreting researchers had just taken the ‘social turn’; that is, they began to move beyond the traditional concern with the psycholinguistic and cognitive processing skills of conference interpreters and included problems of cross-cultural interaction in their purview. And ‘ideology’ is still far from being a widely discussed topic in interpreting studies. (Not surprisingly, for instance, subsection 6.4 of this Conference, entitled "Innovations in Psycholinguistics", has more than twice the number of papers on interpreting than ours.)

My intention here is to explore some of the reasons why this should be so, and to find out, with reference to a few historical examples, whether the notion of ideology in interpreting merits more attention.

I am of course aware of the current academic usage of ‘ideology’ in the broader sense, as adopted by scholars such as Teun van Dijk (1998) and Ruth Wodak (2001) here in Vienna. According to Critical Discourse Analysis, all language use is ideological, so, as users of language representing other people’s language use, interpreters could not avoid being immersed in ideology. Nevertheless, in most of my paper I will foreground the more limited, pedestrian sense of ideology. For most people in the Interpreting Studies community, of which I claim to be a member, the prevailing understanding of ‘ideology’ is that of its narrow, political, pejorative sense - ‘ideology’ as a system of false, distorted or otherwise misguided beliefs. Professional interpreters will have no truck with it. They have traditionally seen themselves as being ‘beyond’ or, more appropriately perhaps, ‘between’ particular ideologies. Indeed, the position of being in-between seems to be a quintessential characteristic, a defining feature of interpreting, both in its professional practice and its conceptual roots.


Rooted in-between

One of the most impressive and oldest images of the interpreter’s position and status "in between" can be found in the Memphite tomb of General Horemheb, dating from 1546 BC (Gardiner 1953). Depicted as a double-bodied figure, the interpreter stands between the foreign emissaries and the Egyptian ruler’s representative. His stature and appearance resemble neither those of the foreigners nor those of the richly adorned figure of Horemheb; bent in subservience and modestly attired, the interpreter is a necessary link between the two sides without being conspicuous as the center of the interaction.

This essentially intermediate position is also reflected in the Latin expression underlying the term for interpreter in English and many other (Romance) languages. The origins of the word "inter-pres", though not conclusively established, have been associated with "inter partes" or "inter pretium" (Hermann 1956/2002). This relates to the human mediator positioned between two parties or values, and it seems easy to extend the latter term, i.e. ‘values’, to mean value systems, or belief systems. On this understanding, the interpreter mediates between sets and ideas and values, without being associated with them on either side. Hence the interpreter’s ‘inter-mediate’ position is linked up with another quintessential characteristic: the notion of impartiality, of having no part in the intentions or actions of either communicating party.

The notion of impartiality, if not neutrality, has been a cornerstone of the interpreting profession as we know it, which basically dates back to the early twentieth century but has some fascinating historical roots. Interpreters serving the colonial administration of sixteenth-century Spain, for instance, were explicitly advised (in provisions enacted by Governor Mendoza in 1530, and by King Philip II in 1563) to perform their task ‘without acting in favour of any of the parties’. Interpreters were thus expected to be impartial and neutral between such disparate parties as the Spanish Crown’s powerful legal representatives on the one hand and their indigenous subjects on the other. The role and task of modern-day conference interpreters mediating between diplomatic peers would seem rather straightforward by comparison. And this is indeed how it has been viewed ever since the first professionals started working for and between representatives of nations in the 1920s at conferences of the League of Nations and the ILO.

No doubt in the spirit of these and subsequent organizational arrangements to safeguard world peace and promote international cooperation, Jean Herbert, one of the profession’s pioneers, in 1952 characterized the profession of conference interpreting as "one of the fairest and loftiest occupations in the world of to-day" (1952: 3). This clearly puts interpreters beyond nationalist conflict and ideological squabbles; they are tools, or catalysts, facilitating whatever transpires between the communicating parties without becoming involved themselves.


Neutral or not

One of the freelance interpreters working at League of Nations conferences was Paul Schmidt, a graduate in languages from Berlin, who was to become one of Germany’s most famous, or infamous, interpreters. In the late 1930s, Schmidt was the interpreter in Hitler’s talks with British representatives such as prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Schmidt 1949: 401-414). Surprisingly, there was no counterpart on the British side, and Schmidt was apparently fully trusted and held in high esteem by either party to the talks. In a book published in 1940, British Ambassador Sir Neville Henderson spoke of "the reliable interpreter, Dr. Paul Schmidt" (Henderson 1940, cited in Feldweg 1996: 15). Considering the momentous issues dealt with in those high-level talks, the fact that there should have been only one interpreter, appointed by one side, is highly unusual. Nowadays, even talks between the French and German leaders are often conducted in the presence of an interpreter for each side, and the same applies to diplomatic talks with leaders of China, as illustrated repeatedly in news magazines like The Economist.

This practice suggests that interpreters in these diplomatic settings work not so much ‘between’ as ‘for’ one side or another as members of a given delegation or party. This was indeed the case also for Paul Schmidt. From his autobiographical account, with strong apologetic overtones, we learn that he was also doing clerical work and was a trusted member of the team at headquarters until the final stages of the war. He also tells us that he was required to wear an SS uniform and sometimes used Göring’s private plane, but that he joined the party only in 1943. To all appearances, then, a member of the Nazi regime. Not so, as he was to protest after the war, when he was banned from exercising his profession for several years. But not for long. As one of the most experienced interpreters of the day, Schmidt managed an impressive comeback in the 1950s as co-founder and director of an interpreter training school, the Sprachen & Dolmetscher Institut, in Munich. Apparently untainted by his Nazi past, he became an inspiring teacher to many who would later enter the conference interpreting profession in Germany.



I will come back to Paul Schmidt in a minute. First, though, a few further considerations about the training of interpreters, and the institutions set up for this purpose. In the context of Germany under National Socialist rule, it is quite remarkable that the first training school for interpreters and translators, set up in 1930 within a commercial college in Mannheim, was transferred to the University of Heidelberg and thus promoted to university level in 1933 at the behest of none other than the Führer himself (Wilss 1999: 46). It seems that Hitler was quite satisfied with the services of his interpreters, such as Paul Schmidt, and was therefore ready to see their training upgraded to university level. More generally speaking, interpreters were evidently considered highly important to the political purposes of the regime, not least its expansionist policies.

The same political and ideological context applied to the founding of the Interpreter Training School at the University of Vienna in 1943. As established by careful archival research in a recent diploma thesis (Ahamer 2005), this happened on the initiative of philology professors who had asked the Reich Minister to approve new regulations for examinations of foreign language proficiency - and, by extension, interpreting skills. Needless to say, the founders of the Institute openly professed allegiance to the National Socialist regime. Its first director, Friedrich Wild, a professor of English philology, happily bought the stately home of an ousted Jewish professor of Romance languages, Elise Richter, who was murdered at Theresienstadt. Wild’s protegé Louis Paulovsky, who was one of the few staff members with substantial practical experience, headed the regional branch of the Reich Association for Interpreting and variously served as a trainer and examiner. Most of those founding fathers (no founding mothers, apparently) asked - and for the most part succeeded - to be reinstated in their positions after the war. Wild, for one, was reappointed full professor of English philology and taught in that department until his retirement in 1960, and Paulovsky went on to become the Institute’s director from 1948 until his death in 1952 (Ahamer 2005). As this painful recollection goes to show, the issue of ideology must be viewed both at the institutional level, where interpreters’ professional bodies and training institutions can be instrumentalized to serve certain ideological designs, and at the individual level, where a given interpreter must decide for whom and with whom to work.

Exploring yet another dimension of individual responsibility and involvement, let me now return to Paul Schmidt’s Sprachen & Dolmetscher Institut in Munich.



One of the graduates of Schmidt’s training school who went on to become a senior conference interpreter in Germany was Erich Feldweg. In a recent autobiographical essay, Feldweg (2004: 65) merely refers to Schmidt as the ‘long-time Chief Interpreter of the German Foreign Office’ and acknowledges him as a superb practitioner and teacher, with no mention of his role as Hitler’s interpreter. Feldweg’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg was published in 1996 as the most comprehensive German-language monograph on the profession of conference interpreting. In this 500-page volume, Feldweg (1996) mentions Schmidt on a few pages, mainly foregrounding the high esteem and reputation that Schmidt commanded. Not surprisingly, there is no entry for ‘ideology’ in the book’s subject index.

One further detail might be added here to put this apparently ‘ideology-free’ account of the (German) conference interpreting profession into perspective. The supervisor of Feldweg’s doctoral thesis was a German professor of communication studies by the name of Franz Ronneberger - the same Franz Ronneberger who, as head of the Vienna Office for press coverage of Southeastern Europe, was crucial to the information gathering and propaganda effort of the German Reich in the late 1930s and 1940s. In a recent book (Duchkowitsch 2004), Ronneberger is portrayed as a leading mass media specialist for the Nazi regime who managed to rise to a highly influential position in the German communication studies community after the war. Fifty years after his distinguished service in the Third Reich, Ronneberger still held professorial honors and supervised Feldweg’s doctoral thesis when he was over eighty years old.

In highlighting these connections between Feldweg, Schmidt and Ronneberger, I am not trying to accuse or make a case against the interpreters in question; rather, this example merely demonstrates that it is certainly worthwhile and warranted to think harder about the relationship between interpreters and ideology, even in the narrow political sense.


East-West - ‘North-South’

One of the recent historical contexts in which the role of ideology in interpreting might be studied at greater depth is the former divide, by the so-called Iron Curtain, between East and West. Aside from social and political factors, such as restricted travel and contact, the interpreting community did not seem to make an issue out of ideology. There was the hotly debated technical issue of directionality, with the practice of relay interpreting via Russian as the pivot language challenging the dominant Western standards of practice, which required simultaneous interpreters to always work into their A (i.e. native or strongest) language). Other than that, we find little reference to the interpreter’s ideological position.

One significant exception in the literature on interpreting can be found in a 1963 paper by Otto Kade, who included a rather striking comment in his early discussion of note-taking in consecutive interpreting. Foregrounding the central role of conceptual content processing, Kade asserts that this stage in the interpreting process is also decisive for the interpreter’s "partiality", and goes on to explain:

Partiality in interpreting means processing the text to be interpreted from the point of view of the working class, on the basis of the Marxist-Leninist worldview.

(...) conceptual processing and logical organization, e.g. the assessment of what is important and unimportant, is not possible outside a class-based perspective and independent of a basic political-ideological stance. (Kade 1963: 15)

This view is in striking contrast with the professional ideology of "Western" conference interpreting (cf. Diriker 2004), as represented by AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters founded in 1953. One of the key principles in the AIIC’s Code of Ethics, adopted in the late 1950s, was the interpreter’s impartiality.

Geopolitical developments since the late 1980s have made this a matter of historical interest rather than a burning issue of our time. The triumph of Western democratic and capitalist values, often summed up in the buzzword of ‘globalization’, is said to have taken us beyond the East-West divide. And yet, we know that there is plenty of ideological division left in this world. To interpreters working for US forces in Iraq, for instance, working ‘with’ or ‘between’ is in fact a potentially deadly issue.

But globalization as such - of business, media, and, not least, of language - is of course a phenomenon that carries a high ideological load. In a perceptive comment on the implications of English as a lingua franca, conference interpreter Vincent Buck (2002) has pointed to the fact that most interpreting in international settings is done from English, and that users of that language stand a better chance of representing and articulating their belief systems and goals. This poses the risk, as Buck puts it, of interpreters being "relegated to mere localisers of dominant ideologies". This would be a far cry from the conference interpreters’ lofty status and mission as articulated fifty years earlier by Jean Herbert (1952: 3), that is, "to help individuals and communities to acquire a fuller knowledge and a deeper understanding of one another, and, what is still more important, a greater respect for one another." Anecdotal evidence would suggest, to me at least, that some aspects of the vision suggested by Buck may already becoming a reality. In the field of media interpreting, for one, interpreters hired by TV stations for celebrity shows or live US news coverage, not least in war time, appear indeed to be instrumentalized to serve dominant ideologies, be it mass entertainment or US imperialism.

A powerful reminder that conference interpreters working within the machinery of globalization - e.g. at G8 summits - are indeed ‘working within’, and for, a particular ideology comes from Babels, an association of volunteer interpreters and translators set up in support of the anti-capitalist events known as the Social Forum. According to its Charter, Babels affirms the right of everybody - "including those who don’t speak a colonial language" - to express themselves in the language of their choice in contributing to the anti-capitalist movement. The key mission of individual network members is therefore the provision of volunteer interpreting services to enable international communication in various social and citizens’ movements.

Given the emphasis in the field of Interpreting Studies on interpreting as a professional practice carried out on a fee-for-service basis, Babels represents a challenge to the conference interpreting profession’s prevailing stance. That stance has implied the acceptance of - and some would say: acquiescence in - the use of interpreting mainly in the service of the First World and of geopolitically powerful industrialized nations. And from this close intertwining with economic interests resulted a position of considerable strength for the conference interpreting profession. Given this strong position, it seems doubtful that Babels can succeed in sustaining its challenge to the ideology - or supposed lack thereof - of the conference interpreting profession.

And yet, the challenge has been mounted not only by anti-globalization-minded interpreters but also by academics, such as Irish translation scholar Michael Cronin. In the final chapter of The Interpreting Studies Reader, a collection of seminal texts on interpreting research, Cronin (2002) charges that the field of interpreting has been shaped by "the material inequalities that universalize First World experience":

The professional concerns of the First World thus become the theoretical concerns of humanity and the theoretic paradigm of interpreting is restricted to reflect the market and institutional realities of wealthier nations. (Cronin 2002: 390)

The increasing focus in Interpreting Studies on community-based domains of interpreting goes some way toward redressing that imbalance and has indeed accelerated a ‘social turn’ in the discipline, which makes discussions such as the present one less arcane than they may have seemed twenty years ago. I started out and focused on the role of ideology in conference interpreting. Having identified it as an issue in this traditional domain, it would be easy to pursue it with a focus on community-based interpreting. Based on some of the work I have done in domains such as healthcare interpreting or interpreting in asylum hearings, it seems unavoidable to foreground the notion of ideology in practice as well as research. This broader scope of the discipline, moving from models of psycholinguistic processing skills towards a view of interpreting as co-constructed interaction situated in a particular social and institutional context, will no doubt help interpreting scholars become "critical scientists" in the sense of van Dijk (1986) and Wodak (2001) - going beyond description and simple application to ask probing questions, such as those of responsibility, power and ideology.



With selective reference to a few noteworthy facts and phenomena I have attempted to show that a closer examination of the relationship between interpreters and ideology is worthwhile and warranted, even on a narrow political understanding of the term. Both historical examples and current controversies have interpreters actively involved in, rather than merely mediating between, powerful ideologies. The discipline of Interpreting Studies, which has been shaped by a particular conception of professional interpreting, is thus challenged to examine its role and positionality in an ideological perspective. The recent shift in the way the discipline conceptualizes interpreting opens up promising pathways in this direction.

© Franz Pöchhacker (Center for Translation Studies, University of Vienna)


Ahamer, Vera S. (2005) Die Gründung des Instituts für Dolmetschausbildung an der Universität Wien 1943. Diplomarbeit, Universität Wien.

Buck, Vincent (2002) One World, One Language? Communicate! April-May 2002. (accessed 16 November 2005).

Calzada Pérez, María (ed.) (2003) Apropos of Ideology: Translation Studies on Ideology - Ideologies in Translation Studies. Manchester/Northampton: St. Jerome.

Cronin, Michael (2002) The Empire Talks Back: Orality, Heteronomy and the Cultural Turn in Interpreting Studies. In F. Pöchhacker & M. Shlesinger (eds.) The Interpreting Studies Reader. London/New York: Routledge, 387-397.

Diriker, Ebru (2004) De-/Re-Contextualising Conference Interpreting. Interpreters in the Ivory Tower? Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Duchkowitsch, Wolfgang (ed.) (2004) Die Spirale des Schweigens. Münster: LIT-Verlag.

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Feldweg, Erich (2004) Über Umwege in die Dolmetschwissenschaft. In W. Pöckl (ed.) Übersetzungswissenschaft. Dolmetschwissenschaft. Wege in eine neue Disziplin. Wien: Edition Praesens, 65-71.

Gardiner, Sir Alan (1953) The Memphite Tomb of the General Haremhab. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 39, 3-12.

Herbert, Jean (1952) The Interpreter’s Handbook. Geneva: Georg.

Hermann, Alfred (1956/2002) Interpreting in Antiquity. In F. Pöchhacker & M. Shlesinger (eds.) The Interpreting Studies Reader. London/New York: Routledge, 15-22.

Kade, Otto (1963) Der Dolmetschvorgang und die Notation. Fremdsprachen 1963/1, 12-20.

Schmidt, Paul (1949) Statist auf diplomatischer Bühne. 1923-1945 . Bonn: Athenäum-Verlag.

van Dijk, Teun A. (1986) Racism in the Press. London: Arnold.

van Dijk, Teun A. (1998) Ideology: A Multidisciplinary Approach. London: Sage.

Wilss, Wolfram (1999) Translation and Interpreting in the 20th Century. Focus on German. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Wodak, Ruth (2001) What CDA is About - a Summary of Its History, Important Concepts and Its Developments. In R Wodak & M. Meyer (eds.) Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. London/Thousand Oaks/New Delhi: Sage, 1-13.

9.4. Translation and Ideology

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For quotation purposes:
Franz Pöchhacker (Center for Translation Studies, University of Vienna): Interpreters and Ideology: From ‘Between’ to ‘Within’. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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