The A B C of Retour

Directionality in Interpreting. The ‘Retour’ or the Native?

Godijns, R. and M. Hinderdael (eds.) (2005). Gent: Communication and Cognition.

The question of directionality in conference
interpreting, i.e. whether interpreters should interpret only into
their mother tongues or also into a ‘B’ language, namely practise
what some now call retour interpreting, is one which has been hotly
debated by both professionals and trainers since interpreting has
been recognized as a profession.

In the past, views were polarised
into the Western European camp, which favoured interpreting
exclusively into the mother tongue from several different foreign
languages (in simultaneous, at least) and the Eastern European camp
led by the Soviet Union, where interpreters would interpret in both
directions and where interpreting from the A language into the B
language in both consecutive and simultaneous was

Directionality in Interpreting. The ‘Retour’ or the
Native? edited by Rita Godijns and Michael Hinderdael, presents ten
articles written by academics working in the field of conference
interpreting, which explore the reasons for this polarization and
which, broadly speaking, seek to challenge one or other of the
models. While all the contributors are from universities in Western
Europe and thus might be expected to challenge the Soviet model and
uphold the Western European model this, most interestingly, is not
the case. It is certainly interesting for me, as although I was
trained according to the Western model and therefore deeply
mistrustful of interpreters who claim to be able to inhabit more
than one language booth with ease, I found many of the articles
were able to challenge my views in a convincing
They are convincing because the arguments are based
on solid research and they are cogently argued. The authors,
broadly speaking, are well known for their research in the field.
Daniel Gile, the author of the first article entitled
“Directionality in Conference Interpreting: A cognitive view” is a
professional conference interpreter and Professor at Lyon II
University who has written seminal texts on interpreting. Indeed,
so eminent is he that every single contributor makes reference to
his work. His argument is that “interpreting directionality
preferences are contradictory and based on traditions rather than
research”, a point which is made by almost all the contributors.
The fact that the Soviet school and the Western European school
evolved with such differing views as to the right direction would
seem to support thIs claim. So on what did the two “schools” base
their views?
Olaf-Immanuel Seel explains that the pro retour
camp are concerned primarily with “cultural competence”: an
interpreter is more culturally competent in his mother culture and
therefore more competent to interpret out of his mother tongue, as
understanding is at the root of interpreting (Seel’s article is
concerned with non verbal discourse patterns). Anne Martin explains
that the Soviet model was based on the premise that “no one is
exempt from comprehension problems and as one cannot interpret what
one has not understood, the comprehension phase must be given
priority over production”. Emilia Iglesias Fernandez explains that
Soviet thinking was based on the view that as the most important
phase in interpreting is understanding, its success depends on a
range of cognitive processes which are more easily completed in the
mother tongue. Moreover, it is argued that it is “cognitively more
economical” for the interpreter to have fewer options to choose
from in the expression phase, thus interpreting into a foreign
language, paradoxically, facilitates the interpreting process.
Fernandez also claims that “at the very beginning, simultaneous
interpreting was invariably carried out into the interpreter’s
foreign language” and that it is only since interpreters have been
employed by international organizations that this process has been
reversed. Gile poInts out that many authors who are opposed to
interpreting into the B language in simultaneous nonetheless do so
routinely in consecutive while maintaining that consecutive has a
higher status than simultaneous. For Gile, they are thus guilty of
flawed logic.

Despite these arguments, AIIC, the professional association of conference interpreters,
maintains that interpreters should interpret into their mother
tongue. The theory behind this, known as the théorie du sens, was
developed by Seleskovitch and Lederer of the Paris school ESIT.
Seleskovitch maintained that interpretation into the interpreter’s
A language is always of higher quality. As Clare Donovan points out
“a B language is by definition less versatile and flexible than an
A language” and interpreters working out of their mother tongue
find the process more tiring and stressful than into their mother
tongue as they do not have the same intuition and confidence of
expression. Her research demonstrates that recordings of
interpretations into B show a “greater tendency to break down or
become unusable”. Déjean Le Féal refers to the “intrinsic
weaknesses” of retour and cites her own research which shows that
it is “more subject to destabilization than interpretation into the
mother tongue”.
Whichever camp you belong to, the fact remains that
interpreters have to adapt to changes in global markets and take a
pragmatic approach to such factors as supply and demand. Although
interpretation into the mother tongue remains the norm in the
international organizations (with the exception of the Chinese
booth), interpreting out of the mother tongue is common on the
private market, although it should be pointed out that it seems
much more common and accepted in some countries than in others (the
Spanish find interpreting into B wholly acceptable but the French
do not and it would be a brave interpreter indeed who dared
encroach on the territory of the French booth). But offering an
interpreting service is a costly exercise and private sector
organizers can reduce their costs by insisting interpreters work in
two directions. Furthermore, the accession of new member states to
the EU with minority languages has meant that interpreters with
minority languages as mother tongue are now required to perform
retour even within an international organization.
The editors of the book point out that “their “goal was to present readers with
some interesting and fresh viewpoints, which will […] stimulate
debate on this very controversial issue and lead to further
research”. I believe readers of Directionality in Interpreting will
indeed be encouraged to carry out further research, as entrenched
as interpreters seem to be in favouring either the retour or the
native, it is a book which will make them keener than ever to prove
their view is the right one. And any book aimed at academics which
sparks an enthusiasm for pursuing more research must surely be a
good thing.

Jacqueline Page
Roehampton University,

3 thoughts on “The A B C of Retour

  1. Pingback: Weekly favorites (July 8-14) | Lingua Greca Translations

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