Interview with Roda P. Roberts
Erika Gonzalez, Iñigo Errasti


Professor Roda P. Roberts gained a degree in Philosophy and the Arts at the University of Bombay. Then, she continued her studies in Canada and gained her doctorate at Laval University (Quebec). She's taught translation and interpreting in many Canadian, United States and Indian universities. She's also trained Translation lecturers in Canada, the United States and Mexico. In her articles she's discussed subjects such as Translation Theory, the training of translators and interpreters, terminology/lexicography, and community interpreting. She's currently a lecturer at the University of Ottawa and is Project Manager of the Bilingual Canadian Dictionary.

Professor Roberts was a guest lecturer at the Faculty of Philology, Geography and History in Gasteiz last April. She conducted a seminar about the Linguistic Corpus attended by doctorate students in the field of translation. We thought it a matchless opportunity to interview this woman who has dedicated her whole life to translation and interpreting.

Canada can be compared with the Basque Country to some extent, in terms of bilingualism. So, could you describe us, please, which is the linguistic situation of Canada right now?

Well, as you probably know Canada is an officially bilingual country. What that means is that government services have to be provided to Canadians in both English and French. Of course, that's the theory. In reality what happens is that there are areas in Canada where services in the minority language, which is French, are not really required and, therefore, there are areas where there are less services in one language than in the other. But officially, anyone can require services in either one of the official languages. Now, there's no doubt that English dominates. Why does English dominate? It's because of the number of English speakers as opposed to the number of French speakers. The number of French speakers are, approximately, 25% of the total, whereas the number of English speakers are, let say, an average of perhaps 75%, but 70%. And then we must not forget that Canada also has a number of other languages which are not official languages but for which services are provided to some extent. So, although officially a bilingual country, it is a multilingual country in that, unlike the United States, we do not oblige people to all learn English. People are encouraged to keep their native languages, even if their native language is other than English and French.

And what about aboriginal people or the so called First Nations, do they have their own languages? How do you manage their language situation?

That situation is very complex. For instance, in the North West Territories there are about ten official languages, ok? So, in addition to English and French, there's always Inuit, which is the language of the Inuit people, what the Americans call the Eskimos, and then there are literally, dozens of Indian languages. Now, not all of them are official, but of these, about seven or eight are official in the North. And the problem is complicated by the fact that the Indian languages in particular are spoken only by very small groups of people: 300, 500 people in some cases. And yet these Indian languages, are official in the North West Territories.

And does the Canadian Government promote these languages?

Yes, the Government of the North West Territories, for instance, has received a lot of funding from the Federal Government to promote languages in the North.

**You said that Canada is a multilingual country, and maybe that's why you got such good community translation and interpreting services. I think you are one of the leader countries in community interpreting and translation. How did they start promoting this kind of services? Why? **

Well, I've got to say that the beginning of community interpreting was very much the same in Canada as elsewhere. There was a need, people just started doing it, for many, many years it was done by volunteers, or by family members, or by a nurse in the hospital. So community interpreting only became a little more organized or developed when people started realizing that interpreting provided by a family member or a staff member, who was not an interpreter, did not give good results. So, then slowly certain governments, such as, in the case of Ontario, the Ministry of Citizenship and Culture, started organizing special training sessions and started giving some help to organizations such as CISOC (Cultural Interpretation Services of Ottawa Carleton), for instance, in Ottawa.

**Now, we'll continue talking about bilingualism. Does the government promote bilingualism, or just in some provinces local policies are stronger than in some other provinces. For example, are there differences between Ontario and Vancouver? **

Oh, there are always differences from one province to another. Does the Federal Government promote bilingualism? Yes, it does. It promotes bilingualism by providing services in both languages; by providing translations; by providing funding for interpreting at conferences, you can apply for special funding if you need interpreters. So it does promote that. Different provinces have their own policies, for instance, Ontario. Because there's a reasonable French speaking population in Ontario, the Ontario Government gives special funding to universities, such as the University of Ottawa, where courses are given in both languages, all right? Also, individual provincial governments support what we call Immersion programs, which are basically programs at the Elementary School level to teach children... basically it's French, there are no Immersion programs in English for some reason. And the idea is that from the beginning they start learning everything in French, ok? So, Immersion programs are strongly supported in Ontario by the Government, the Ontario Government, the Provincial Government. In BC, in Alberta, the parents are demanding this. So there it depends very much on the province, as well.

And you come from the University of Ottawa, so, what is the profile of your students?. Do they after work for the Federal Government or do they work in the private bilingual market?. Because I know that you also have many international students. So, what kind of students do you prepare at the University of Ottawa?

It depends on what program we are talking about. The undergraduate program is the program where we train professional translators. So, those who get a BA, the undergraduate degree, normally go on to work, mainly, for governments, as translators. But occasionally for private companies and also as freelance now more and more. Those who complete our graduate program: some of them go on to higher government jobs as revisers or managers, but some of them just do the MA, for instance, as a steppingstone to the PhD. Obviously, if they are going for a PhD, they are thinking about a job in teaching at the university level. I would say the most of our foreign students at that graduate level come for professional training anyway and then go back to their country. For instance, I had a Mexican student who came and did some work here, did a degree in terminology and went back to Mexico City to work as a translator. On the other hand, some of them come hoping to stay on and do the PhD.

And what about the translation and interpreting market in Canada? You work mainly with French and English, I suppose, but what other languages are demanded most?

Basically if you can do French and English you've got work for the rest of your life. I'd say the third most important language is Spanish, and there's a little bit of Portuguese. It's slightly different in interpreting and in translation as well. And when I say the third most important language is Spanish, I'm talking about translation. In interpreting, especially in community interpreting, it varies depending on the area. So, in certain cases it may be Portuguese, in other areas it may be Italian, and in many areas now it's Arabic.

And what about conference interpreting?

In conference interpreting the third language is always Spanish.

Because when I was in Ottawa, I heard that sometimes Canada has to hire interpreters from Mexico and Latin American countries because there are not enough interpreters in Canada.

Yes, we have brought people up from Mexico suddenly. And that's normally for big international conferences. There you have three completely separated booths: the English booth, the French booth and the Spanish booth. We can normally manage a conference where there's the occasionally speaker in Spanish, but if everything has to be done in Spanish, that's why we have problems finding enough people.

At the University of Ottawa you are working with a very important project, which is the Bilingual Canadian Dictionary. So, could you tell us about the importance of this dictionary in the country, and its use for translators, and when did you start working in this project?

I started working with the project in the late nineteen eighties, so, I have been now working on it for over fifteen years. The project obviously is important to Canada simply because right now we have no bilingual dictionary that represents English and French as they are used in Canada. Now, obviously, the English in Canada, and the same thing is for French in Canada, each language shares a lot with English or French as spoken elsewhere, so there are all kind of commonalities. But there also are differences, and there's no bilingual dictionary right now for Canadian users. So, that explains the importance of our dictionary.

**Roda, now we'll change the subject. You are a very experienced professor, you have supervised like forty theses, you have supervised students from all around the world. Was it a good personal experience? What about working with people from so many countries, with so different educational backgrounds? Because it must be difficult in some cases. Could you talk us about that? **

Yes, it's always a challenge to work with people who come from different backgrounds, simply because their educational background is different and, so, in every case you've got to find out exactly what they know and, then, take them from what they know to what you think they should know. So, that's always a challenge. In a way, I've been very lucky, because I have a reputation of being very demanding with students. So, the students who come and ask me to supervise their theses are very hardworking students. Anyone who's a little bit lazy or doesn't want to work, they don't even come and ask me to supervise their theses, because even if they don't know me personally, people have already told them: "Oh, no, no, if you're not gonna work, you better not go and see her". I'm very lucky, the ones I get, there's a few exceptions, but they are normally very prepared to work hard. If a student is prepared to work hard, then you can adapt to their background and there's no problem. It's when we have students who come with a poor background and are lazy, where the problems start.