Book review: Danica Seleskovitch

Anne-Marie Widlund-Fantini Danica Seleskovitch,  Interprète et témoin du XXe siecle L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, 2007

With this book, her first, Anne-Marie Widlund-Fantini, tells the story of a remarkable life. As the title indicates, Seleskovitch was indeed an interpreter of and witness to the 20th century. Born in Paris in 1921 of a Serbian father and French mother, Seleskovitch spent her childhood and adolescence variously in France, Germany and Yugoslavia.  She died in France in 2001.  At the end of WWII, spent in Belgrade after eight years in Berlin, she returned to Paris on a French government scholarship and completed degrees in both English and German. In 1950, armed with a diploma in conference interpreting, she set off for the USA where she was employed as interpreter/translator within the framework of the Marshall Plan. In 1953 she moved to Luxembourg to work for the European Coal & Steel Community (forerunner to the European Union), returning to Paris at the end of 1955 where she was much in demand as a freelance. In 1956 she joined AIIC and in 1957 began teaching interpreting at ESIT (Ecole Supérieure d'Interprètes et de Traducteurs); two highly significant events both in her life and the professionalisation of the emerging profession of conference interpreter.  Conference interpretation (CI) would not be where it is today without Danica Seleskovitch. This is not to overlook the important contribution made by others, including her brother Zoran.

The early chapters of the book give a fascinating account of the somewhat peripatetic life of the Seleskovitch family, with its joys and tragedies (her mother committed suicide when Danica was barely 4 years old) in which the author very ably sets the events recounted in their historical context.  From Chapter X onwards, the contribution made by Seleskovitch to the profession of conference interpretation (CI) and its establishment as an academic discipline, with a strong theoretical basis, becomes clear. As Executive Secretary of an AIIC in its infancy, she was instrumental in developing the Association's Code of Ethics and laying down professional standards. As a teacher, and very soon head of the Interpreting Section of ESIT, she communicated those ethical principles and standards to generations of students. 

Seleskovitch made an even greater contribution to the profession through her research and development of a theory of interpretation. Although she was not the first conference interpreter to complete a PhD on conference interpretation (this honour belongs to Ingrid (Pinter) Kurz whose 1969 PhD thesis from Vienna University studied the effect of practice and concentration in simultaneous listening and speaking), her 1973 thesis  on note-taking in consecutive interpretation based on a corpus obtained under real life conditions (published by Minard, Paris, in 1974 under the title Langage, Langues et mémoire, étude de la prise de notes en interprétation consécutive), broke new ground and led to the development of the Interpretive Theory of Translation (ITT) as well as to the establishment of the first university doctoral programme devoted to conference interpretation. Seleskovitch was followed in 1978 by Marianne Lederer with a doctoral thesis on simultaneous interpretation. Seleskovitch and Lederer worked closely together for some forty years and the latter's contribution to establishing CI as an academic discipline, both as a theoretician and teacher, has also been of importance.

The great merit of Seleskovitch's work was to provide a coherent and plausible description of how CI works. The essential feature of her model focuses on the comprehension phase of human discourse. The interpreter identifies the intended meaning (or, as she prefers, ‘sense') of the speaker's discourse and reformulates it in the target language. From the start, Seleskovitch was particularly interested in the role of memory (cf. her doctoral thesis) and for some time was member of a multidisciplinary research group studying aspects of memory. In ITT the intermediate phase of identifying meaning is assumed to be non-verbal, i.e. meaning (sense) is independent of words and has recourse to different forms of memory such as linguistic memory, prior knowledge, episodic memory. Once the interpreter has grasped the intended meaning, the words required to reformulate it in the target language find themselves just as they do in normal speech. If the interpreter has difficulty in grasping or reformulating meaning, it is because s/he has an insufficient grasp of either (or both) of the two languages involved or of the subject matter.  Criticism has been voiced, in particular by Gerard Ilg, of the way this model seems to disregard the vehicle whereby meaning is communicated, i.e. words. At times Seleskovitch also seemed to dismiss linguistics as a relevant discipline. To some, including this reviewer, she had a curiously restrictive view of what linguistics covers, apparently believing it to be unconcerned by the construction of meaning.

In 1974 Seleskovitch was appointed professor and ESIT was authorised to award doctorates. By the end of her life she had supervised some twenty five dissertations. In 1982 she was appointed director of ESIT and her reputation worldwide was well established, as evidenced by the award of an honorary doctorate from Herriott Watt University in Edinburgh and invitations to lecture around the world. In 1990 she reached retirement age but continued to supervise her doctoral students and hold tutorials and seminars to the end of her life.

The chapter on research and theory is a little sketchy and contrary to the practice adopted by the author with regard to other aspects of Seleskovitch's life, little attempt is made to relate the theoretical work being done at ESIT to what was going on elsewhere. From the mid-70s onwards, increasing interest was taken in the study of CI, universities across Europe and North America were awarding doctorates for studies of aspects of conference interpretation; international seminars were organised, at which Seleskovitch was frequently a keynote speaker; journals dedicated to CI were founded and a healthy debate was developing as to the merits of different theoretical approaches, a debate with which ESIT at times appeared disinclined to engage, believing other approaches to be of little interest.  Whatever the degree of theoretical difference, the importance of Seleskovitch's contribution was and remains widely recognised.

The final chapters of the book are marked by the tragedy of the war in Yugoslavia. Throughout her life Seleskovitch had remained loyal to her childhood friends and Serbia. She had spent WWII in Belgrade, experiencing, along with the rest of the population, considerable hardship and, under Tito, had seen her father excluded from the university. His death in 1950 was a great blow. The chorus of international criticism that the Serbs faced in the 1990s was felt by Seleskovitch to be grossly unfair and evidence of an international bias against a people with whom she identified closely. In May 1997, she visited the ‘Republique Serbe de Bosnie' to distribute relief for an association she had founded and see for herself the situation of the inhabitants. This was two years after the events in Srebrenica. Seleskovitch, a woman of strongly held beliefs and devotion to the causes in which she believed, wrote an account of her trip which is reproduced in Chapter XIII. It is perhaps understandable that at the time, appalled by what had happened and what she was seeing, she made assertions which appear extreme in their ferocity. I believe that the author would have rendered a service to the memory of a woman she so evidently admires, if she had qualified statements such as the claim that Kohl and Genscher, by recognising Croatia, had exacted their revenge for the defeat of 1945 and achieved what Hitler had failed to do (p. 221). The siege of Srebrenica is seen in terms which are very much at odds with both the evidence known at the time and that later presented to the Yugoslav Tribunal (ICTY) and International Court of Justice in The Hague. There are few who believe, as Seleskovitch asserts (p. 227), that General Mladic's actions in that tragic city in July 1995 constituted liberation.

While Seleskovitch did not live to see the outcome of the trials of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks for war crimes, the international community has shown itself more even-handed than she expected and this chapter would have benefited had this part of Seleskovitch's narrative been placed in a broader context.

Seleskovitch had many admirers, the author even refers to the ‘inconditionnels de Danica', and on her retirement in 1990 a group of them set up the Danica Seleskovitch prize to reward a person who had contributed the profession in some significant manner. An example of her wide-ranging interests is provided by the second laureate, Philippe Sero-Guillaume, the first head of the ESIT Sign Language (SL) Interpreter's course, set up by Seleskovitch in 1993. This woman of vision and fierce intellect saw how SL interpretation was, in ITT terms, no different to CI. Such insights have been and will continue to be of benefit not just to conference interpreters but to all those interested in cross-lingual communication. Her contribution to the professionalisation of CI was immense.  She laid the basis for its recognition as an academic discipline in its own right and as Executive Secretary in AIIC's early years, she was instrumental in setting ethical and professional standards that remain unchanged to this day.

In writing this book and in researching it so diligently, Widlund-Fantini has enabled Danica Seleskovitch to take her rightful place well beyond the confines of ESIT, where she is rightly revered. It ends with a comprehensive bibliography of Selekovitch's publications, a total of sixty-five entries, covering the years from 1968 to 2004, which is a fine tribute to a remarkable woman and will be of great assistance to anybody eager to learn about her work and better understand the mental processes involved in conference interpretation.

Recommended citation format:
Jennifer MACKINTOSH. "Book review: Danica Seleskovitch". April 17, 2007. Accessed April 21, 2018. <>.

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