Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Aiming for rudeness

By Magdalena Bartłomiejczyk

In Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, the Swedish protagonist, Allan Karlsson, ends up in Moscow having dinner with Stalin. As well as the dictator, his two cronies and Allan, at the table sits “a little, almost invisible young man without a name and without anything either to eat or to drink”: the interpreter. During the dinner, the amicable mood suddenly collapses as Allan quotes an inappropriate, imperialist poet, and Stalin flies into a fury. A long tirade results, which ends as follows:

‘I’ve been thinking,’ said Allan.

‘What,’ said Stalin angrily.

‘Why don’t you shave off that moustache?’

With that the dinner was over, because the interpreter fainted.

Why should the interpreter have fainted? After all, this insolent suggestion was not his own – he was ‘only’ supposed to transfer it to Stalin from the real author. Surely he had no reason to feel responsible for the offensive content? Or had he? This episode illustrates the main question I tried to answer in my study of interpreting in the European Parliament: what can the interpreter do when they are required to voice a statement that is likely to offend the recipient and is, in fact, intended to do just that?

In order to obtain instances of impoliteness, I set out to investigate more than four years of plenary speeches by three members of the British political party UKIP: Nigel Farage, John Bufton and Godfrey Bloom. This amounted to five hours and 13 minutes of material in English, plus the interpretations into Polish. The material proved unparliamentary enough, featuring 293 ‘impoliteness events’ – on average one every 64 seconds.

A typical impoliteness event contains several face-threatening acts with a specific target: the audience at the European Parliament (possibly excluding the speaker’s supporters), a high European Union (EU) official, an institution such as the European Commission, or even a whole country. For instance, when Herman Van Rompuy was elected as the first ever permanent President of the European Council in 2009, Farage “welcomed” him, saying that he had “the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk”. In a second impoliteness event, with a different target, Farage described the president’s native Belgium as “pretty much a non-country”.

Each impoliteness event in English was compared with its counterpart in Polish to assess whether the pragmatic effect was the same or somehow modified by the interpreter. The detected modifications fell into three categories: strengthening, attenuation and elimination. Both attenuation and elimination mitigate the original impoliteness; the former weakens it and the latter removes it entirely.

If we ascribe to the conduit model of interpreting, which assumes that the interpreter should transfer the speaker’s intent accurately and completely under all circumstances, preservation of the pragmatic effect would be the only acceptable option. However, only 22.87% of impoliteness events were rendered in this way (which does not always involve adhering very closely to the form of the original message). The modifications introduced by Polish interpreters gravitate very strongly towards mitigation: 62.46% of impoliteness events were attenuated while 10.24% were eliminated. Strengthening accounts for only 4.44% of interpreting solutions, and seems to appear almost exclusively as compensation for impoliteness that was mitigated elsewhere in the same speech.

Mitigation is achieved through a wide range of interpreting strategies, the most common of which are illustrated in this table:

English original

Back-translation of the Polish


1. Yes, I want you sacked, Mr Schulz, as well – I want you all fired!


1a. Yes, Mr Schulz will lose his job at all, too, well, we all will.


2. I have no intention of apologising, I have no intention of leaving this Chamber: you must have me escorted out, sir!


2a. I have no intention of apologising

and I have no intention of leaving this Chamber, one will have to escort me out.


3. If this was a company, the directors, or in this case the Commission, would all be in prison.



4. Now they are gonna be, it would appear, subsumed by some sort of EU overseer, consisting no doubt of ignorant bureaucrats, Scandinavian housewives, Bulgarian mafia and Romanian peg-makers.


4a. And now it appears that a regulator or a European overseer is to take over its tasks and, as a matter of fact, these will only be halfwits, housewives and I don’t know who else.


5. I saw for the first time even your own supporters shaking their heads. They don’t believe in what you’re saying. The European people don’t believe in what you’re saying, and I don’t really think even you now believe in what you’re saying.


5a. I even had the impression that

actually even your supporters did not particularly believe in what you were saying. Actually nobody believed in what you were saying. I even don’t know if you yourself believe it.


6. I don’t trust this place, which gives a veneer of democracy, which is largely made up of placemen.


6a. I believe in real democracy.


Deictic shifts are frequent. If a target is addressed directly with ‘you’, this is likely to be transformed into the third person (1a) or impersonalised (2a). By the same token, the plural ‘you’ may be replaced by the inclusive ‘we’ (1a). Euphemisation is common, whereby a strong word is rendered by a milder one, so ‘be sacked’ becomes ‘lose one’s job’ (1a).

Omission is probably the most popular interpreting strategy. A whole fragment may be deleted (3a), or only some of the offensive elements (4a). The opposite strategy, i.e. addition, may also serve as mitigation when what is added are some hedges (5a).

Certainly, some mitigating shifts are not introduced intentionally, but appear to be a side effect of problems the interpreter is experiencing. For instance, when we compare 6 and 6a, practically the only common denominator is the word ‘democracy’. We might suppose that this was the only element the interpreter caught from the sentence, and they were trying to reconstruct the rest from the context, which unfortunately failed. In 4a, by contrast, the omissions seem to be more strategic: note how the interpreter takes care not to mention any nationalities and resorts to a skilful generalisation: ‘I don’t know who else’.

A need for guidelines

Mitigating shifts related to impoliteness are certainly too common to attribute them all to the interpreter’s cognitive overload, resulting from factors such as the speaker’s strong accent or excessive speaking speed (which are ubiquitous during plenary debates). So what else might lie behind them?

Conference interpreting lacks clearly formulated performance norms. The interpreter may well feel justified in reducing impoliteness for the sake of good rapport among the participants, in line with their envisaged role as a peacemaker and facilitator of international dialogue. After all, Jean Herbert, a famous interpreter and interpreter trainer, argued in his handbook, published in the 1950s: “Certain offensive phrases which may go further than the speaker intended or realised should preferably be attenuated. An interpreter who fails to do so does not fulfil his real mission.”

In the absence of relevant guidelines in codes of professional ethics, handling impoliteness is left to the interpreter’s judgement on a case-by-case basis. This allows them a lot of leeway, but may also lead to doubts and confusion.

Self-censorship may also play a prominent role. As Allan and Burridge note, “by default we are polite, euphemistic, orthophemistic and inoffensive”.1 It might be very difficult to reject this attitude, on the spot, while speaking on someone else’s behalf. Consequently, mitigation might stem from the interpreter’s desire (possibly even subconscious) to bring the message closer to their own standards of politeness, as well as the general standards of what is acceptable in parliamentary discourse.

In any case, users of conference interpreting, both speakers and listeners, should realise that offensive remarks tend to fall flat in interpretation. At the same time, there is no way to predict what will happen to any individual impolite statement.

When assessing such findings, we should consider the impact of a speaker’s cooperativeness or lack thereof (e.g. their willingness to adjust their speaking speed or submit a written statement in advance). Instead of instantly blaming the interpreter for a failure to be ‘faithful’, it is important to take a realistic look at what is possible under the constraints of simultaneous interpreting.


1 Allan, K and Burridge, K (2006) Forbidden Words: Taboo and the censorship of language, CUP: Cambridge