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Re-codified languages in a post-conflict context: credentials, practice and attitudes amongst translators and interpreters of the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian languages. Dr Jim Hlavac Translation & Interpreting Studies Monash University [email protected]

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Re-codified languages in a post-conflict context: credentials, practice and attitudes amongst translators and interpreters of the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian languages

Dr Jim Hlavac

Translation & Interpreting Studies

Monash University

[email protected]

Third IATIS Regional Workshop – Western Balkans

25-26 September 2014

University of Novi Sad

summary of paper
Summary of paper

Language designations – corpus- and language-planning

Conflict – language as a salient feature of groups

Norms in Translation Studies

Norms extended to macro-pragmatic features

Features examined here

Informants and sample

Data (statistics and quotes)


corpus planning language planning
Corpus planning & language planning

For the purposes of corpus planning in forming a standard languagea group (usually led by lexicographers) decide on the variant/dialect basis, vocabulary, orthography, grammatical conventions, stylistics.

Form Symbolism

Language planningrefers to the regulation of which language/s enjoy official/sanctioned use in which areas/regions/countries.


Application of Toury’soperational norms to relate to ‘the typical practices of T&Is’ in adhering to or disregarding distinctions in the designation and form of closely-related languages.

Toury’spreliminary norms with respect to ‘translation policy’ to refer here to ‘macro-level or group attributes as well’.


(Re-) establishment of shifting norms

How do T&Is translators of closely-related languages, previously encompassed by a linguistic hypernym, deal with a changed, post-conflict linguistic situation, and how their negotiation of reconfigured standard languages and language designations bears regularities that can be considered professional norms.

This paper examines homogeneity (and heterogeneity) of groups of T&Is who ‘actually implement the norms’, and the reported interactions with consumers of T&I services who also contribute to the negotiation of regularities.

research questions
Research questions

Re-configured regularities of practice represent instances of T&Is exercising their own power, submitting to the requirements of other stakeholders and/or negotiating mutually-agreed practices.

This paper examines these practices in social (intra-group, inter-group), role-relationship (ideographic vs. nomothetic) and occupationally-focussed (‘principled / ‘code of ethics’-based or ‘situational/pragmatic’) situations to extend the scope of the notion of professional norms to include macro-pragmatic features.

features examined in data sample
Features examined in data sample

How do T&Is negotiate interactions with the following features:

  • general, ie. ‘non-work-related’ communication with someone who speaks/uses a language different from your own
  • when a speaker speaks a language or when a text is written in a language different to the language specified upon acceptance of the assignment
  • how to negotiate requests with former, or unofficial designations, eg. ‘Serbo-Croatian’, ‘Yugoslav’.
  • questions from clients about one’s nationality
  • questions from clients about one’s ‘native language’
  • future developments in the similarity/divergence of the three languages


When you are not interpreting or translating, but communicating with someone who speaks a language different from your own, how do you speak?

Do you change your speech or expect the other person to change their speech in any way?



You have been booked for a particular language but after you commence interpreting for the client, you realise that the client is speaking another language.

You have accepted a translation task for a text but after you receive the text, you discover that the language of the text is different from the one agreed to, or the language into which it is supposed to be translated is different to the one agreed to.

What do you do?


Some interpreters accommodate to their clients:

I have lived in Serbia and later in Bosnia, so I don’t find it difficult to change my language to my client’s language..(INT. 23, Cro.+Bos.+Ser.)

Others state that there can be a two-way negotiation of how to proceed:

I negotiate with the client on what the best way is for us to be able to understand each other well. (INT. 22, Cro.+Bos.+Ser.)

I explain that I don’t have accreditation for the language that they’re speaking but if they accept that I speak my language then we can continue. (INT. 7, Cro.)


If working for an agency I inform the agency that the language in actual fact is not Croatian, if that is the case, and then leave it up to them whether they want to proceed. Especially if the document is older, the official language was then Serbo-Croatian no matter which republic, and personally I have no problem with translating that, except if the alphabet is Cyrillic which I find harder and usually decline.

(TRA. 21, Bos.+Cro.)

I contact the agency that arranged the assignment.

(INT. 14, Ser.)

One translator mentions that only exceptional circumstances justify him/her acceding to a client’s request:

If it is an emergency and it is a simple text, then yes, as I am proficient in Serbian and the Cyrillic alphabet.

(TRA. 12. Cro.)


I am accredited as a professional translator Croatian into English and I am reluctant to translate anything not strictly Croatian if I have to certify it, not because I believe I may not have done a good job but because of the certification - but have done so and have not had any adverse repercussions, after consulting the client/agency.

(TRA. 12. Cro.)



An agency says that a client wants an interpreter for, or translator to translate into/from ‘Serbo-Croatian’. Would you accept this request?


An agency says that a client wants an interpreter for, or translator to translate into/from ‘Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian’. Would you accept this request?


An agency says that a client wants an interpreter for, or translator to translate into/from ‘Yugoslav’. Would you accept this request?


The written languages of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia are more different than the spoken word. Translating contracts has to be taken very seriously, as one can not "jump" from one language to other, as may be possible in case of interpreting in between" these languages.

(TRA. 12, Cro.)

You only need to look at the community translations that are produced by practitioners who believe that Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian are all one language. There are orthographical inconsistencies, inappropriate use of register and an irritating habit of mixing up lots of different forms together. They think it’s some kind of hotch-potch. But what their work shows is that they have often never learnt any one standard language properly.

(INT. 5, Cro.)


Q 6.

While interpreting or translating, has a client or other party ever refused to work with you because they believe that you are not a native speaker of their language?


No. I clearly state I am Croatian and speak only Croatian. (INT. 1, Cro.)

One informant mentions that attributes other than proficiency can be questioned:

No. They just sometimes questioned my ethnicity/religion. (INT. 23, Cro.+Bos.+Ser.)

Two informants imply that some clients may register that they are not native-speakers of one of their languages. This does not give rise to problems:

No. We show flexibility and mutual respect. (INT. 17, Cro.+Bos.)

No. Most of them did not mind. I make sure first that it’s okay by them. (INT 18, Cro.+Ser.)


I believe that the professional quality of an interpreter overrides the client\'s unwillingness to accept "the other language" interpreter. The client may at first question the language of the interpreter but accepts him or her during the professional session if the job is done well.

(INT. 16, Bos.+Ser.)

And another informant reminds us of an old truth:

A good translator/interpreter is not necessarily a native speaker! (Inf. 5, Cro.)



While interpreting or translating, has a client or other party ever refused to work with you because they believe that you are of a different ethnicity to their own?


Once a client objected that I wasn\'t a real Bosnian but accepted my service. (Inf. 21, Cro.+Bos.+Ser)

Yes, twice they questioned my ethnicity, but eventually they agreed and it went fine. (Inf. 23, Bos.+Cro.+Ser.)

One further informant reports instances of refusal:

Occasionally a Croat would refuse my services because I’m not Croatian, even though I’ve lived in Croatia. (Inf. 15, Cro.+Ser.)


No. I never hide my ethnicity. Clients never refuse me. (INT. 17, Bos.+Cro.)

No. As they are happy with the quality of work, there is no need to question the translator\'s origins. (TRA. 20, Bos.+Cro.)

Yes. I’ve been asked many times, but out of curiosity, not with hostility (TRA. 13, Bos.)

Usually in the health care area of interpreting for clients from Serbia, Bosnia or Croatia, clients do not pose a great problem with accepting/refusing interpreters not of “their” “origin”. They are usually very accommodating. Although, how they react to an interpreter not of their “origin” is very individual. (INT. 19, Cro.+Ser. Original punctuation.)



Do you think that in the future, the differences between Croatian and the closely-related languages, Bosnian and Serbian will continue to increase, decrease or stay as they are now?


Five groups of T&Is whose behaviour indicates the following:

1. T&Is who consider the three languages separate and distinct and who do not accommodate to others’ languages because they view communication between speakers of other languages to be non-felicitous and/or problematic ethically. These practitioners generally decline requests for assignments for other languages, accept them only in exceptional circumstances, and work in their ‘own’ language only. (19 informants)

2. T&Is who consider the three languages separate and distinct and who accommodate to others’ varieties to facilitate communication across the linguistic boundaries and who believe that this is a felicitous strategy in interactions. T&I with one accreditation may negotiate and accept assignments for other languages. Interpreters with multiple accreditations accommodate to others’ languages as a matter of course. (17 informants)


3. T&I who consider the three languages separate and distinct and who have an active and native command of at least two, if not all three of the languages, therefore circumventing the need to accommodate across linguistic boundaries because they have multiple-group membership as co-native-speakers of all three languages. These interpreters are likely to have multiple accreditations and to work at the same level of expertise in each language community. Clients’ questions of their ethnicity or proficiency are responded to with information about their professional and linguistic credentials. (7 informants)

4. T&Is who consider the three languages to be different but not separate and distinct. They do not think that accommodation is generally necessary due to the high level of mutual intelligibility. These T&Is may have one accreditation but readily accept assignments in other languages; these interpreters may have multiple accreditations and advocate mutual non-accommodation as a negotiated strategy when speaking with interlocutors not of their own primary language. (3 informants)


5. T&Is who consider all three languages to be one language with different varieties. Some accommodation is desirable but complete adoption of another’s variety is undesirable as it amounts to unnecessary servility and negation of one’s own ‘primary variety’. T&Is with one accreditation only accept assignments for other languages where they are able to negotiate ‘incomplete’ accommodation as an acceptable strategy. Interpreters with multiple accreditations may also seek to negotiate ‘incomplete’ accommodation with other interlocutors but risk possible non-co-operation or refusal from some clients. (2 informants)

  • (Non-)Accommodation not an indicator of other forms of behaviour.
  • Different speech/text language requires clarification
  • Where engagement occurs for unaccredited language/s, this occurs on the basis of requests or urgent circumstances, not as a habitual occurrence
  • Ethical, then linguistic reasons, discourage T&Is from looking for/taking on work in other langs.
  • ‘Serbo-Croatian’ is accepted as a designation by some, ‘B-C-S’, and ‘Yugoslav’ less so.
  • Non-native speaker proficiency and nationality are rarely grounds for refusal from clients.
  • Over 50% believe that Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian will continue to develop separately from each other.

T&Is’ changing practices are a reflection of the socio-political and (linguistic and legislative) regulatory changes in the source and/or target culture(s) which they work in.

Thus, translation ‘norms’ can be conceptualised as regulatory mechanisms that underpin not only textual, literary-theoretical or operational-environmental features of translation but, as this paper has shown, the concept of ‘translation policy’ can be extended to apply to the designation and form of codes that practitioners work with.

This extension of norms to refer also to regularities of a reconfigured ‘language policy’ that translators adhere to is an example of the dynamic, non-static nature of norms. Norms, reflecting the circumstances which determine them, may be re-shaped, over time and across different situations, according to changing macro-socio-political and ethno-political features.