Linguistic quality and its development in the Finnish parliamentary verbatim reporting

By Eero Voutilainen
La resocontazione parlamentare coinvolge l’oggetto del resoconto, il resocontista, il resoconto. La qualità linguistica è influenzata da vari fattori: il contesto, le aspettative del destinatario, il genere del resoconto, gli ideali, gli obiettivi e le linee guida dell’ufficio di resocontazione, la cultura della resocontazione parlamentare e le preferenze personali del resocontista.
Una resocontazione di qualità richiede alcune alterazioni linguistiche, affinché il testo scritto mantenga il contenuto, la retorica e lo stile del testo orale. Le regolamentazioni linguistiche dipendono dalla cultura e sono sia generali (dall’alto) che situazionali (dal basso).
La resocontazione parlamentare finlandese applica i seguenti principi di qualità linguistica: coerenza, completezza, flessibilità, ampia comprensione della normatività linguistica. L’ufficio si avvale dei seguenti strumenti: manuale editoriale, banca dati terminologica, team di linguisti, incontri editoriali, formazione interna, processo di lavoro. Attualmente l’ufficio ha lanciato un progetto per la semplificazione del post-editing e l’organizzazione di un sistema di feedback.
1. Quality and language regulation

Verbatim reports in the parliament are, among other things, written texts. This means that, when we examine the quality of parliamentary reporting, linguistic principles and practices are particularly important. Here I shall discuss the linguistic quality Finnish parliamentary reports. I show how linguistic quality is seen and consciously developed in the Finnish parliamentary reporting office.[1]

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) defines quality as ”the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics of an object fulfills requirements”. Modifying this definition, we can describe the linguistic quality of verbatim reports as a degree to which a set of inherent linguistic characteristics fulfills the requirements that are assigned to the report by the people who are associated with it. This kind of definition is useful, because it is simple, and it acknowledges the importance of different stakeholders with different expectations and requirements. The quality of parliamentary reporting is not an objective notion: it depends on what is required of the report.

Actions to modify language are often named with a term language regulation. Sociolinguist Niina Hynninen has divided it further into two separate phenomena: top-down language regulation is in principle general, institutional and explicit (such as written guidelines), whereas bottom-up language regulation is situational, non-institutional and usually implicit (such as modifying language based on what feels suitable in the situation). Top-down regulation is easier to detect, but bottom-up regulation is also important, because it affects greatly how language is used and treated in everyday situations. The principles of language regulation are, naturally, highly subjective and dependent on the situation and culture. Practically, this means that there is no fit-for-all solution that would be suitable for all cultures, languages and parliaments.


2. On the nature of parliamentary reporting

The basic elements of parliamentary reporting are, in principle, quite simple:

  • the reportee: parliamentary session
  • the reporter: parliamentary stenographer with his or her tools, techniques, and ideals (such as ’authenticity’ and ’readability’) that guide the writing of the report
  • the reported: parliamentary report that aims to give a reliable written account on what happened in the parliamentary session.

The interaction of these three elements is the home of linguistic and other aspects of quality. As has been showed in many studies, the communicative resources of spoken and written language are in many cases very different. Also, even the same linguistic features are often interpreted differently in spoken and written discourse. For example, if speech is reported in writing without any editing, some important properties of spoken face-to-face interaction (such as intonation, emphasis, pauses and gestures) are erased and replaced with visual means (such as typography and layout). This might cause the readers of the report to experience the speech as less organized, harder to comprehend and stylistically less dignified than the audience or participants of the original interaction (”failing down”). On the other hand, if the report is heavily edited, for example transformed mechanically into written standard language, the reported speech will appear much more formal and decorous than the original one (”failing up”). The latter might not be a problem with all verbatim reporting, such as speech-to-text interpreting. It might even be what the client wants. But in the field of parliamentary reporting it has been often pointed out that there should not be unnecessary changes to the content or style of the original speech. Otherwise, the rhetorical and stylistic integrity of the speech is compromised, and the reader might get a false impression of the MPs public behaviour and political identity.

One key challenge from the perspective of linguistic quality in parliamentary reporting, then, is to make the right linguistic and editorial alterations to mediate the original speech reliably from spoken to written form. Here lies the paradox of verbatim reporting: something must be changed to keep things as they are. In other words, the reporter has to make some carefully chosen linguistic changes in the report, so that the parliamentary session is not changed too much in terms of content, rhetorics or style. This is caused by the fact that in reporting there is always a shift between two modes of communication that have partially different interactional resources. In sociolinguistics, applied linguistics and linguistic anthropology, this phenomenon has been described by concepts such as intermodal and intralingual translation, transcription, entextualization and recontextualization. These terms are used to describe what happens when a text is taken out of one communicative channel, genre and situation etc., and put into another that has different linguistic norms and expectations. This phenomenon is also familiar in other types of verbatim reporting, such as subtitling, speech-to-text interpreting and automatic speech recognition.

Additionally, parliamentary verbatim reporting is always affected by several background factors. Modifying the categories that linguist Lauri Haapanen has presented in his analysis of the construction of newspaper quotations, some of the key factors can be identified as follows:

  • Expected needs of the target audience(s) – There are always one or more audiences that the parliamentary report is explicitly or implicitly directed to, such as the public (whatever is assumed of it), media, MPs, administrators and researchers in different fields.
  • Genre of parliamentary report – Parliamentary report is a distinct communicational genre with its typical linguistic features, structural characteristics and socio-rhetorical functions that differ much from, say, other administrative texts that do not report spoken language.
  • Values and aims of the reporting office – Parliamentary report has always some official or unofficial aims, purposes and values attached to it by the reporting office, whether these are consciously decided or not.
  • The office guidelines – The office guidelines are explicit top-down norms, regulations and guidelines that guide verbatim reporting in a parliamentary reporting office.
  • Parliamentary reporting culture – Many reporting offices have a long tradition of writing verbatim reports, and many unofficial norms have been passed from generation to another.
  • Personal preferences and ideals – Whether we like it or not, personal preferences and ideals of individual reporters always affect the verbatim report. Because of this, the reporter should be conscious about his or her preferences to be able to control their impact.

All these and other factors vary accross countries, languages, parliaments and political cultures. This means that there will, most likely, always be different conceptions of linguistic quality in parliamentary reporting. Similarly, there will always be different editorial practices to ensure this quality both within and accross parliaments.

3. Principles of linguistic quality in Finnish parliamentary reporting

In Finnish parliamentary reporting, the main principle is to mediate the speech of the MP reliably into readable form with as few and subtle alterations as possible. This governing principle has lead to four premises that form the foundation of linguistic guidelines in the office. First, Finnish parliamentary reporting follows a wide understanding of linguistic normativity. It consciously resists what linguist Per Linell has called ”the written language bias”, and does not treat the features of spontaneous spoken language automatically as ”chaotic”, ”illogical” or ”ungrammatical” just because they differ from the grammar of written standard language. This also means a certain sensitivity towards the rhetorical and stylistic functions of linguistic variation in political interaction. Additionally, Finnish parliamentary reporting aims to be as consistent as possible, so that all MPs speeches are treated systematically and equally in the editing process, regardless of the reporter. Finnish linguistic and editorial guidelines have also been designed to be comprehensive and flexible in order to reduce the need of individual ad hoc decisions, to make the guidelines easily applicable to varying situations, and to keep the linguistic principles in balance with changing parliamentary culture and linguistic attitudes.

These premises have resulted to a number of linguistic and other editorial norms that guide Finnish parliamentary reporting on a daily basis. These language-regulatory practices include, for example, standardization of many dialectal phonological features and certain structural characteristics of spoken language, as well as omission of self-corrections, planning expressions, studderings, minor blunders and slips-of-tongue.[2] The main reason for these changes is that these linguistic details often attract more attention, can harm readability and may activate different interpretations in the written report than in the original spoken discussion. For example, minor studderings and planning expressions (’kind of’, ’like’) are often not even noticed in spoken interaction, but they might make the report harder to follow and be interpreted as signs of insecurity or incompetence in the written report. Also, the so-called technical remarks (for example about the inactivity of the microphone) and routine turns by the chairman (such as giving the floor to each MP) are edited out, because the focus of the report has traditionally been on the official speeches and not on the administrative or technical talk. Additionally, some essential information is added to the report in brackets, such as gestures, movements, interruptions and events that are not captured by the microphone.

The editorial principles of Finnish parliamentary reporting also discuss features that are usually not changed in the report. These include regionally and socially marked words, wrong facts, incorrect citations, inappropriate conduct, and complex and obscure style. Main reason for this is that, at the end, the MP is responsible for his or her speech in the session, not the reporter. Also, the omission and stylization of such features could be considered as decreasing the openness and reliability of the verbatim report. Additionally, low-register words, incorrect facts and citations, and inappropriate conduct, for example, do not harm the readability or understandability of the report. Some carefully chosen structural features are edited to protect readability, but complex and obscure style are not edited out to make the report clearer or more pleasant than the original, because doing so would change the overall appearance of the speech. This is sometimes playfully called the truth before beauty principle: a complicated and confusing speech should not appear clear and simple in writing.

It is important to note, however, that all guidelines are meant only as general practices. They are not to be followed, for example, if a doing so would mean losing an important rhetorical or stylistic meaning in an expression, or making the report especially hard to read.

4. The tools of linguistic quality development in Finnish parliamentary verbatim reporting

Many language-regulatory tools have been created in the Finnish parliamentary reporting office to develop the linguistic quality of verbatim reports. Next, I shall give a brief introduction to some of the most essential tools in this repertoire:

First, Finnish parliamentary reporting office has written an editorial manual to give systematic, concrete and detailed guidelines for verbatim reporting. The manual guides into both grammatical principles (for example how to report certain features of spontaneous speech) and other editorial practices (for example how to report parliamentary interruptions and forms of address). It also provides many practical and authentic examples to help the editing process. The reporting office has also built a parliamentary term bank that lists all the relevant and often used terms, names and expressions which have difficult orthography and are in need of standardization in the report. Techically, both the editorial manual (ca. 100 pages) and the term bank (ca. 220 pages) are executed as shared MS Word documents, which is useful in, for example, automatic searching and simultaneous use. They are good examples of top-down language regulation, because they provide general guidelines to be applied in everyday parliamentary reporting. They are also frequently updated during the course of parliamentary year by the language team that leads the development of linguistic principles and guidelines in the Finnish parliamentary reporting office.

In addition to these three practical elements, Finnish parliamentary reporters have also had regular editorial meetings every two or three weeks for several years. These 1–2 hour meetings form a platform where reporters have conversations on linguistic principles and practices of reporting, and make joint decisions based on these conversations. In these meetings, there are also practical problem-solving discussions where linguistically challenging cases are solved together. This adds a useful bottom-up element to the language regulation in the Finnish reporting office – joint sharing and demonstration of situational everyday practices. Editorial meetings have also provided a natural place for a linguistic study circle where relevant linguistic articles and books, such as grammar guides, have been critically assessed from the perspective of verbatim reporting. With a similar function, in-service training is arranged at least once a year by inviting external professionals to give linguistic lectures that are closely related to verbatim reporting. Past topics include, for example, automatic speech recognition, social norms and meanings in language use, illusion of spokenness in literary fiction, construction of quotations in journalism, and the flexibility of standard language. These trainings have also provided an opportunity to invite colleagues from related fields (for example subtitling and speech-to-text interpreting) to discuss professional matters. The language team prepares all the editorial meetings, suggests new and updated linguistic and editorial practices for joint discussion, and plans and arranges in-service training.

Also the work process during session has been organized to support linguistic quality. The reporters work together with typists, which helps concentration on the issues of editing. With very few exceptions, the reporters also work with complete speeches without a fixed time-limit, so that there can be systematic editorial decisions within speeches. Other such decisions include, for example, re-reading the reported speech without audio to notice readability problems before publication, post-editing after initial publication to ensure correctness and consistency of editorial decisions, and consulting colleagues and MPs in problematic cases.

Using these language-regulaory tools, the Finnish reporting office aims to achieve a dynamic cycle of linguistic quality where top-down and bottom-up strategies are combined: On one hand, institutional and explicit top-down regulation (such as outspoken guidelines, editorial manual and parliamentary term bank) are meant to guide everyday reporting practices. On the other hand, situational and implicit bottom-up regulation (such as situational application of existing norms, joint decisions and case excercises) is made visible, and it gives ideas for new and updated guidelines. In this way, the guidelines stay current with respect to the changing parliamentary language and culture.

5. Conclusion

Linguistic quality depends on context and is affected by many different factors, such as the expected needs of the target audience(s), genre of parliamentary report, ideals and aims of the reporting office, office guidelines, parliamentary reporting culture, and the personal preferences of the reporter. The linguistic and editorial guidelines to ensure linguistic quality in Finnish parliamentary reporting office are consciously based on the principles of consistency, comprehensiveness, flexibility, and wide understanding of linguistic normativity. These principles have lead to many concrete guidelines and practices. They have also motivated to create practical tools to develop linguistic quality. These tools include an editorial manual, a parliamentary term-bank, regular editorial meetings, in-service training, and a language team that leads the development of linguistic quality in the office. In addition, many elements in the work-process have been designed to ensure linguistic quality in the reports, such as editing complete speeches, re-reading reports without audio, post-editing, and consulting colleagues during editing.

Naturally, the quality of parliamentary reporting is not restricted only to language. For the duration of this year, the Finnish parliamentary reporting office has launched a quality development project where special attention is focused into, for example, increasing the quality of reporting during session, streamlining the post-editing phase and organizing a system for feedback in the office. All comments and suggestions on these topics are very welcome for us.

[1] For a more detailed and theoretical article on this topic, see Voutilainen, Eero (forthcoming). ”The regulation of linguistic quality in the Finnish parliamentary verbatim reporting”. Academic article manuscript under peer review.

[2] A more detailed description of these practices with practical examples in English has been presented, for example, in Voutilainen, Eero, Maarit Peltola, Teuvo Räty & Niklas Varisto (2013). ”Rules of reporting: The Principles of representing spoken discourse in the Records Office of the Finnish Parliament”, in 49th Intersteno Congress: Intersteno Parliamentary and other professional Reporters Section. Artevelde University College, Gent. 14.7.2013.

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