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.