Interpreting po-chelovecheski (Russia)

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Interpreting po-chelovecheski 🇷🇺
Russia map.png
Location: Russia
Definition: Approaching someone in an empathic/humane/warm way, to construct or continue an interpersonal trust relationship based on a feeling of closeness, and willingness to bend the rules or turn matters to someone’s advantage
Keywords: Russia FSU Care Empathy Personal connections Community Interpreting Translation Problem-solving
Clusters: Solidarity Intermediation
Author: Eline Helmer
Affiliation: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

By Eline Helmer, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

Podoiti po-chelovecheski (lit. ‘to approach someone in a humane way’) refers to exercising empathy and a willingness to be flexible in relations with others. The opposite of treating someone po-chelovecheski (lit. chelovek is a human) is the performance of a machine or robot, associated with a ‘dehumanized’ bureaucracy, where the relationship between parties is impersonal and based on objectivity, compliance with formal rules, and distance (Weber et al. 2009: 216). The impartiality associated with ‘professionalism’ and formal relations more generally is often viewed as a characteristic of good governance (Rothstein 2011: 24). In practice, however, practices of building selective, particularistic, delicate relationships in order to help others can be seen as right in some situations (Blau 1952).

Hendley describes behaving po-chelovecheski as ‘conduct[ing] oneself in a civilised manner’ with ‘a commitment to fairness’ (2017: 59). It is ‘a way of working out problems on an interpersonal level without involving [outsiders]’ (83).’ According to Barsukova, it directly opposes formal ways of problem-solving, since ‘language-wise, in Russia one can either act according to the law, or po-chelovecheski (Moskalenko 2016).’ This approach can be analysed in the context of the interpreting (oral translation) market. Its largely unregulated character, driven by personal client-interpreter relations, results in practices deviating from the formal protocol of oral translation.

‘Interpreter-mediated encounters’ are situations of heightened mutual dependency (Wadensjö 1998: 3). Participants are, in the words of a male interpreter in his mid-fourties from Moscow, in some way ‘each other’s hostages (Helmer, in progress).’ In such situations, when people find themselves in ‘a condition of helplessness,’ trust becomes most relevant (Sztompka 1999: 21). In linguistic contexts, trust is seen as based on impartiality: the more objective, distant and invisible the interpreter, the better and more professional he or she will be. Although this everyday image of an interpreter as an unbiased mediator who ‘just translates’ has been challenged in recent years, it is still prevalent in both academic and public discourse. According to Wadensjö (1998: 240), ‘[n]eutrality, detachment and impartiality are key notions in the professional ethics of interpreters.’ They constitute ‘the professional ideal’ (Rudvin 2006).

In practice, however, the relationship of trust between a client and an interpreter can be based on closeness and personal interdependence. Interpreting ‘po-chelovecheski’ is a colloquial way to describe a human and warm approach to oral translation, where it is common to smoothen (sgladitʹ) and soften (smiagchitʹ), to use interpreters’ own terminology, in order to bring people together. This article is based on ongoing research with interpreters working in St Petersburg, Moscow and Pskov. Interviews with 34 interpreters have been recorded and transcribed and are supplemented with participant observation, documented in fieldnotes (Helmer, in progress).

The idea that any deviation between the source language and the recipient language is a threat to neutrality, and therefore a failure, is not unique to Soviet or post-Soviet Russia. Just as in many Western European countries, the standard of successful interpreting in Russia today is defined in terms of ‘invisibility’: interpreters perform in such a way that nobody notices their presence. Negotiating this professional detachment with the human character of interpersonal interaction is a challenge for interpreters around the globe.

What makes trust especially important in Russia today is the unregulated character of the translation market. The Russian word for interpreter, perevodchik, refers to both ‘interpreter’ and ‘translator.’ In practice, these two roles overlap, as most perevodchiki practise both written and oral translation. Most interpreters are not registred as an IP (individualʹnyi predprinimatelʹ, self-employed) and a register of ‘sworn interpreters’ as a separate formal status does not exist. Instead, the status of the university degree and a record of uninterrupted practice are what separate ‘professional’ from ‘unprofessional’ interpreters. Since many interpreters work on a freelance basis, they need to find and keep their own clients. Personal networks are key, as a male interpreter in his mid-thirties from St Petersburg illustrates:

The Russian translation market is anarchy. Every man for himself. There is no code of ethics, there is no professional standard for written translation, not for oral translation, not for anything. There is no document regulating the market. It is a complete Wild West situation. Seriously. It all depends on personal networks between interpreters. Only on that (Helmer, in progress).

These networks are made up of interpreters who pass assignments on to their colleagues through closed groups and chats on online social networks such as VK and Facebook. Often university cohorts form the basis of these networks. It is in the interpreter’s direct interest to ensure the satisfaction of the client, so that he/she will contact them again next time. This means that interpreters are inclined to foster informal, personal relations with their clients by working long hours and doing much more than ‘just interpreting.’ Respondents mentioned tasks ranging from installing microphones to cleaning windows.

When interpreters enter the market, they discover that ‘being a machine’ is not (always) possible. Recent scholarly literature on interpreting recognises that there is no such thing as a neutral interpreter. Instead, interpreters are rooted in, instead of in-between, two cultures (Angelelli 2004). Furthermore, ‘being a machine’ is not always desirable. Examples of cases where being a ‘machine’ might be undesirable are emotionally loaded events (e.g. adoption procedures), cases of mistrust between the speakers (e.g. business negotiations) or a boring speaker during a lecture or excursion. In such situations, often referred to as ‘psychological moments’ (psikhologicheskie momenty) by interpreters themselves, ‘[t]he last thing they [the clients] need is a person in a suit who is supposedly not there,’ according to a female interpreter in her early forties from St Petersburg. Finally, jokes, swearing or proverbs are a real challenge for the ‘machine interpreter’.

These situations can be solved by taking a step back from the robot-interpreter ideal and shifting to interpreting po-chelovecheski. Interpreters can ‘soften’ and ‘smoothen’ expressions, intonation and behaviour that they deem unfit. This can involve adding explanations to the translation, or (in)formal briefings with the client before and/or after the interpreter-mediated encounter. Interpreters can ‘smoothen difficult situations with a smile,’ frame a mistake of the client as their own, or enforce a break to release tension by going to the bathroom or knocking over a glass of water. These practices are by no means limited to community interpreting: Brezhnev’s words were ‘softened and covered [...] in fog’ by his interpreter Sukhodrev (Sukhodrev 2008: 332) and interpreter Minʹiar-Beloruchev ‘smoothened’ Khrushchev (Minʹiar-Beloruchev 1999: 86).

Interpreting po-chelovecheski are morally ambiguous, since it is not what interpreters were taught, nor what they are ‘supposed to do.’ Although some interpreters are proud of their skills, many tell their stories of ‘smoothening’ and ‘softening’ in an apologetic manner, which the quotation from a female interpreter in her mid-thirties from Moscow below illustrates:

The task [...] of a Russian [...] interpreter is to turn this helpfulness down a little. Because otherwise we will feed everyone, love everyone and interpret everyone, we will explain everything to everyone, we will teach everyone how to live (Helmer, in progress).

Because the interlocutors are by definition limited in understanding what is going on due to a lack of language knowledge, the informal practices that emerge due to the discretion on the part of the intepreter and characterise interpreting po-chelovecheski remain unarticulated. Whether to ‘smoothen’ or ‘soften’ is entirely up to the interpreter; it is context-specific and personal to such an extent that it is difficult to make generalisations. Certain factors that influence interpreters’ decisions can nevertheless be identified.

First of all, the type of interpreting is relevant. Due to the direct personal contact, interpreting po-chelovecheski happens more during ‘face-to-face interpreting’ and less during simultaneous conference interpreting (Wadensjö 1998). Second, the duration of the working relationship matters: the longer the working relationship, the better the interpreter gets a picture of the goals of the client and his/her own role in reaching them. The client, in turn, tends increasingly to involve the interpreter in the process over time, asking questions ranging from ‘Do you think our partner is lying?’ to asking for personal advice on whether or not to adopt a child (Helmer, in progress). Third, the language knowledge of the involved parties has an impact. When none of the parties speaks both languages, the interpreter’s smoothening and softening go unnoticed. This is in contrast to high-level meetings where each side brings their own interpreters, who crosscheck others’ translation. It follows that interpreters working with English can seldom be sure that none of the speakers understands English. Interpreters of more rarely spoken languages do not feel this pressure of being checked upon as much. Fourth, the cultural background of the interpreter plays a role. Next to their own culture, interpreters have gathered an awareness of another one. If this second cultural background coincides with the cultural background of one of the speakers, the interpreter is able to add cultural explanations of words and behaviour. Finally, interpreters learn from practice that gender matters to particular clients. According to one interpreter, certain clients deliberately hire ‘pleasant, beautiful women with good looks [...] capable of smoothening any sharp edges during business negotiations (Helmer, in progress).’

When ‘professional impartiality’ conflicts with ‘professionally distributed care,’ formal rules of professional conduct can be experienced as restricting and undesirable (Rothstein 2011: 24). They are replaced by individual perceptions of rightness, based on particularist interpersonal relations. A closer look at oral translation practices in present-day Russia demonstrates that trust in interpreter-mediated encounters is often based not on a formal and distant, but on a chelovecheskii approach of the interpreter, who skillfully navigates across the shifting borders between nash chelovek and ne nash chelovek. Interpreters share stories demonstrating how their chelovecheskii approach can form an essential contribution towards, for example, companies signing contracts or diplomats reaching agreements. However, since this approach rarely constitutes the professional ideal of the client, nor of the interpreters themselves, most users of interpreting services remain unaware of the conflicts they avoided thanks to their ‘invisible’ companions.

Author's acknowledgements: The present study benefited from the financial support by the CEELBAS CDT, the Sir Richard Stapley Educational Trust and the Center for German and European Studies (St. Petersburg State University - University of Bielefeld).


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