Liaisons with 'living dictionaries'

Interpreting German
November 30, 2001

Modern-language graduates may well find themselves called upon to liaise between speakers unable to communicate in each other's language. This is not an activity commonly practised in our university language departments, but the authors of this meticulously structured course, spanning three years of university study, make an appealing case for liaison interpreting to supplement and perhaps replace the traditional oral class, which often seems to operate on Trappist principles. Structure and rigorous preparation are indeed the key to transforming the silent majority into enthusiastic participants.

Ideally six students are seated around a table, following the conversation of two tutors facing each other - each a native speaker of one of the languages involved - who select students to interpret only after making their statements. Because the speakers develop each other's points, they are in effect "living dictionaries". Meanwhile, in language booths, the other half of the class record their rendering of each statement; afterwards they discuss the tapes in pairs and submit them for tutor feedback to the entire class.

Alternatively, a German-speaking exchange student can be enlisted and briefed on intonation and gestures, pre-arranged script or spontaneously generated dialogue using agreed keywords. Or two students, a German and an English speaker (perhaps one from another language department who does not understand German), would provide a real-life scenario. Interpreters must extract the core meaning from the deliberate redundancies and linguistic flaws of natural speech.

Besides the finely nuanced logistics of teaching the exercise, we are given a profusion of useful tips for practitioners: on reformulating speech using different constructions, perhaps to tone down rudeness; on how to impose explicit structure, especially when cutting through verbiage or improving on a speaker's monotonous delivery. There is advice on the layout of notes, with personalised link words and symbols; on whether to use first or third-person speech (generally the latter); on anticipating that the seller will use the subjunctive more often than the buyer in a negotiation; on when to seek clarification and when to follow the gist.

Liaison interpreting can be readily integrated within today's increasingly topic-based approach to language teaching. With forward planning, students can learn to anticipate a speaker's turns of phrase and likely attitudes on a scheduled topic. Consider the broad range of skills covered in, say, a business negotiation: from a case study of product information (reading skills), discussion of product (spoken skills) and formulation of a marketing concept (writing skills), to the presentation of the product (spoken skills) and subsequent negotiations (interpreting skills, minute-writing).

The six taped dialogues offered at level three, which cover exposition, negotiation and argumentation, have scope for expansion into a third-year project. Like the initial elementary exchanges, they sound authentic and are transcribed in the tutor's book. Nicely judged, too, are the increasingly sophisticated linguistic points and incidental background knowledge of Germany and the Germans. Exercises are imaginative and challenging. One relishes the complications that might ensue when two students feign ignorance of the other's language, for instance, but recognise misunderstandings on the part of the student interpreter while pursuing their conversation on the basis of what the interpreter has said.

This is a well thought-out and executed package, its levels of difficulty plausibly graded, its language refreshingly jargon-free and up to date. It could transform oral-language acquisition - but at a price that may give even institutions pause for thought.

Fred Bridgham is senior lecturer in German, University of Leeds.

Interpreting German: Advanced Language Skills. First edition (includes 6 audio cassettes)

Author - Ursula Boser and Hugh Keith
ISBN - 0 415 12562 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £150.00
Pages - Tutor's book 156, student handouts 1

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