A Polemic on the History of Interpreters


It has become fashionable in interpreting circles to reminisce about the history of interpreting. The two-fold causes of this are undoubtably the 50th anniversary of RID, and the internal politics of authenticity among interpreters. Such reminiscence is colored, as reminiscence always is, by an unacknowledged blindness with the contemporary, not by a commitment to recover the past. These trends result in the repetition of earlier miscalculations, the main one being overlooking the historical conditions of interpreter professionalization. If U.S. Deaf history goes back to 1817, why, then, do interpreters not formally emerge until the 1960’s?

The professional interpreter emerges at a point in history when language had been emptied of all metaphysical and religious usefulness and reduced to its mere technical utility. Today language is constantly subjected to empirical analysis to determine its usefulness in marketing, its efficacy in political speeches, its ability to stimulate sexual attraction, its pedagogical efficiency, its timely acquisition by children. The widely accepted formal equivalence of human language to programming languages is testimony to the valuelessness of language itself, and it is therefore no accident that computer programmers are priests in the new economy. The interpreting professional only emerged in the middle of the last century, at a moment when language being thus emptied of its metaphysical quality could be integrated into market capitalism through the commodification of language-work.

As much as interpreters love to trace their history to individuals (Lou Fant) and events (Ball State conference), we would do as well to recognize that the structural conditions played at least as important a role in making interpreting possible.

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2 thoughts on “A Polemic on the History of Interpreters”

  1. Interesting … I find the history of interpreting fascinating.

    In many ways, I guess we europeanos see the emergence at an earlier date… The first person that I’ve found really identified as a ‘professional’ interpreter (ie. it was part of his job) was in the 17th century in France. He was only employed because the Deaf person in question could write French, but the hearing people around him couldn’t… so it was hearing ‘lack’ that motivated the profession at that point.

    The whole entanglement between interpreting and ‘authority/knowledge’ thing picked up in the UK in a big way in the early 20th century with the missioners, who were a mixed group… but well known in UK history for using their position to mediate between the Deaf community and the hearing world, for good, and for ill.

    I guess, when you serve a moral imperative then what you do takes on a different flavour… so it’s interesting that while our interpreters have evolved ‘from’ a morally loaded period, the US interpreter appears to emerge ‘clean’, into a purely professional space.

    At least that’s the way it appears… I think it’s still just as political, even if it’s not quite as clear what political agendas are on the table.

    Thanks Austin, thought provoking.

    1. Mike, great to hear from you. Nick thinks the world of you, by the way, as he should. 🙂

      What you add is really valuable. I have been thinking about the “pre-history” of interpreting, which in the U.S. is basically pre-1964. There’s a general sense that people were interpreting for each other. But we don’t get any “thick” descriptions of it. I’m glad you made me think about interpreters in the U.K. and France, too. There’s a huge project there that no one has touched yet.

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