Interpreting for National Taiwan Museum

3rd Year Interpreting Track Student, Rachel Kung

Earlier in July this year, I had the opportunity to interpret for three events of the international docent training program at National Taiwan Museum. It was a memorable experience: not only was it a great way to start the summer, it was also the perfect opportunity to put into practice what our teachers taught us in a separately organized professional ethics class.

The first dilemma appeared when I realized the events were part of the docent program I impulsively signed up for. It did feel slightly unsettling to assume a different role and interpret for my peers in the program, since at that stage we had yet to go through two rounds of qualification to become docents for the Museum. Whether providing interpreting services would make the program coordinator grade me more favorably in the qualification exams would be a valid concern from the other docent trainees’ perspective. Fortunately, this was only volunteer work, and the program coordinator also impartially compartmentalized the two different roles I assumed over the course of the docent training program.
The three sessions were very different: the first was a remote consecutive session on a brief history of Taipei’s urban development through maps; the second was an onsite videomaking workshop, also consecutive; and the third was a talk given by an indigenous artist followed by a Q&A session, which was interpreted simultaneously with Boon Yee as my partner.

The first event was quite a shock—to put it mildly. The speaker said that he had worked with interpreters before, and reassured me that he understands he has to stop for the interpreter. I did not question him too much on that, because he is indeed quite well-known in his field. What followed was a 2-hours of short consecutive on a very niche subject, with plenty of numbers and figures, and information not on the slides. By the one-hour mark I was visibly exhausted(I regretted turning on the webcam) and sweating profusely because I had to come up with something every time he paused for the interpretation. Looking back, I realized I could have been more assertive, and instead asked or encouraged the speaker to deliver larger chunks of information. Servicing others does not imply a complete surrender of control and unconditional compliance. Lesson learned.

The second and third sessions went much more smoothly, especially the second. However, since it was a workshop, the speaker also demonstrated onsite. Therefore, the surroundings must therefore also be taken into account—it was no longer the words he spoke that solely mattered. His actions must also be taken into account and integrated into the interpretation. This is something we had not experienced in the classroom, highlighting the importance of real-world experiences.

As for the third session, the difficulties mainly arose from a lack of background knowledge. Given the speaker’s indigenous identity and the subject matter, there was an acute and even uncomfortable cultural gap between us. This experience also testified some of the things we discussed in a virtual fireside chat organized by Professor Damien Fan and his colleague at MIIS back in June—questions including whether Han privilege exists, and that which challenges the notion of cultural homogeneity of Mandarin Chinese, especially in the 21st century where it is now an increasingly popular choice for language learners the world over.

The discomfort was due to my Han privilege so glaringly highlighted in this encounter. In all honesty, I did not fully understand all the indigenous cultural references then, yet I was allowed to interpret and thereby give the less privileged an inevitably incomplete voice. I had always been more at ease interpreting from Mandarin into English, as it was an opportunity to level out the power imbalance between the two languages and cultures, brief the moment may be. However, I now realize this only applies when the interpreter can rightly represent the disadvantaged voice. Perhaps this is a question worth exploring in the future.