What is an interpreter? (The U.S. Department of Labor Can Tell You)


In the course of becoming a recognized profession, interpreting has undergone a number of largely unrecognized transformations. This is the basic thesis of my inquiry into the economics of interpreting.

My driving motivation is not “how have interpreters betrayed the deaf community”, which seems to be Dennis Cokely’s focus in his post on “Sign Language Interpreters – Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?” on StreetLeverage. Interpreting discourse today seems most defined by public melancholy and myopic nostalgia. (Is there ever a nostalgia that isn’t myopic?, Nietzsche might say.) It’s not for me to say whether this is appropriate or not. I only wish to focus my attention on understanding  precisely what has happened, whether it could have happened any differently, and what – if anything – might be done. [End commentary.]

What follows is an incomplete parody of the Department of Labor’s classification of interpreters within O*NET. This isn’t the usual quality of post: it’s longer and less edited than I am typically willing to share publicly. But that’s the internet for you. In all seriousness, the O*NET classification is just one example of how previously unrecognized labor becomes integrated into the complex relationship between state and economy. It is this complex development that I’m interested in, not just the individual-centered narratives that drive most stories about interpreting history. In the 18th Brumaire, Marx said:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

This is my pathetically simple claim in short: interpreters did not make interpreting history by themselves. Interpreters are the product of history, and what we encounter is not each other or even “Deaf people” so much as the political and economic world which we create and in which we are created. My hope is that future analyses of interpreting take this as the starting point rather than trying to locate causality and agency within parochial concepts such as Deaf-heart or relative measures of authenticity, such as having Deaf parents. The point is not to undermine these ideas, but to situate them within a broader framework.

*     *     *

What does it take to become an interpreter?

Answering this question is a perennial passion of working interpreters and the life’s work of interpreter trainers. We are not at a loss for thoughtful answers. But despite many excellent suggestions by leaders in our field, I believe we have overlooked a source of collected wisdom and practical answers: the Occupational Information Network, or O*NET for short.

What is O*NET, you ask? O*NET (pronounced “oh-net” in spoken English or O-STAR-N-E-T in ASL) is an online database of job descriptions developed by the U.S. Department of Labor to replace the outmoded Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). Yet when one reads the the exhaustively thorough descriptions of job positions in the O*NET database, one suspects that it was designed to flummox guidance counselors in their attempts to point high school seniors towards college or employment. Thinking of becoming a musician? One look at the 300-plus tasks, knowledge, and skill requirements for job 34051 “musicians, instrumental” and a desk job starts to sound pretty attractive. Regardless, O*NET provides complete job descriptions for every imaginable position, and it breaks each job into the following helpful, bullet-point elucidated sub-sections: tasks, knowledge, skills, abilities, work activities, work context, interests, and work values.

Which brings us to job number 39999A, “interpreters and translators”. What does it take to become an interpreter? The gates of Emerald City (or Mordor) open with backlit anticipation.

First, a definition of interpreters and translators: “Translate and interpret written or spoken communications from one language to another or from spoken to manual (sign language) used by hearing-impaired.” I’m glad we cleared that up. So interpreters either interpret between two languages, or between “spoken” and “manual”. Hmm. I don’t think either “spoken” or “manual” is recognized by the Modern Language Association as a language. I would be fine with the “from one language to another” part. But the “comma-or” implies that sign language interpreters don’t interpret between two languages. This is no minor quibble, but we must keep moving. More gems await us.

Tasks. It’s always good for future interpreters to know what to expect in daily work. Task one: “translates approximate or exact message of speaker into specified language, orally or by using hand signs for hearing impaired”. Future students be warned: you will be required to translate as least the approximate message of the speaker. We understand that during difficult assignments, you can’t catch everything. Do you best to more or less interpret what was generally implied by the interlocutors. And if you are translating into “manual”, please be sure to use “hand signs”, as this is the way that the “hearing impaired” communicate.

Knowledge. I rather like this section, all jokes aside. Each of the knowledge requirements are rated out of 100 with measure of importance. “Knowledge of foreign language” (or of “manual”, one presumes) receives a 100/100. Self-explanatory. English language: 96/100. It’s somewhat less important that you know English. (You’re only translating approximately, after all.) You should know geography (25/100), that is: “various methods for describing the location and distribution of land, sea, and air masses including their physical locations, relationships, and characteristics”. I couldn’t have said it better myself, actually. But keep in mind that law, government, and jurisprudence will be somewhat important, as will mathematics, history and archeology, and economics and accounting. Indeed, interpreting is a field of life-time learning.

Skills. Also carefully ranked by importance. Active listening is the top requirement (100/100), as it probably should be for spoken language interpreters. But I would prefer “receptive proficiency” to be inclusive of Deaf interpreters working between sign languages. Information gathering (54/100) and information organizing (54/100) make an appearance here, which I highly commend. But with a 21/100 product inspection (inspecting and evaluating the quality of products) ranks higher than most. This includes checking auditorium steps for that loose snag of carpet which you will surely trip on during the graduation ceremony. An unlikely winner in this category for me is visioning (“developing an image of how a system should work under ideal conditions”), which receives only an 8/100, even though I am very good imagining how various consumers ought to behave. Finally, interpreting-related skills abound: operations analysis, idea creation, judgement and decision making, and (again) mathematics.

Abilities. The first several are oral and speech related, dismissing half of our work out of hand (literally). I linger on “selective attention” (75/100), which explains why I have to keep calling my agency to clarify assignment details. Happily, there are many visual abilities included in the list: near vision (what did I just trip over?), far vision (is that my consumer over there?), night vision (did the electricity just go out in the new wing of our high school?), visualization (I can visualize this presenter actually making sense), visual color discrimination (I thought that was illegal), and peripheral vision (I can see that student copying my signs from sex ed class but I refuse to look at him). And of course, mathematical reasoning.

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One thought on “What is an interpreter? (The U.S. Department of Labor Can Tell You)”

  1. One – I’m staggered that the US has a directory of all jobs… No wonder some people there don’t like the idea of big government. That’s phenomenal! What happens if you do a job that’s not in it… do you blink out of existence? Is the O*NET list writer down there as a job?

    Two – I love the Marx quote… and it’s so true. In management studies there’s a saying that we don’t relate to people, we relate to the stories that we’ve told ourselves about people. The thing with backstories is that no-one really gives a stuff whether they are true or not – they are true, just because they *are*… Foucault anyone?

    So, combine two and one – and you have a situation where whatever you do as an interpreter, you will (in the eyes of those who matter – government, for example) only be one thing, and they won’t care a jot whether its true or not.

    We don’t have O*NET – we have the Daily Mail newspaper. Same principal I guess.

    Again Austin, a really valuable post – thank you.

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