Fragmentation of (Interpreter) Knowledge

This is an installment of my recent presentation on “Making Research County” from the 2014 OCRID conference in Columbus, Ohio.

Making Research Count (Recovered)

We cannot avoid the problem of fragmentation when we think about the history of interpreting. I have tried to advocate for a less individualist view of the history of interpreting, i.e. less focus on person A did B or law X was passed, then things got better/worse/stayed the same. Instead, I like to think about the “conditions of possibility” for interpreting becoming  a profession.

One condition is that an educational system had to exist which allowed for specialized, technical training. Most interpreter training programs began (and remain) in two-year technical and community colleges. This institutional situation cannot be easily ignored. Yes, it is common to recognize this as a problem in training duration. As in, “There’s no way we can train someone in a language and also in interpreting skills in two year.” Absolutely true. (Although in my recollection, the teachers who complained about this most often also seemed the least organized, least committed to developing a strong curriculum, and wasted the most time during class.)

But there’s another aspect to specializing in two-year programs. Although I am glad that education has been, to some degree, more democratized, it has also become less about education and more about training. Education provides you with a broad skill set for reasoning that one uses to interpret constantly changing worldly experience, while training teaches you to perform a particular skill set with the boundaries of a professional position. Yes, there is plenty of overlap. But there are also important gaps in what training can provide, especially when it comes to answering important question such as, “why is there poverty, and how does poverty impact the Deaf community?”, “how should interpreters think about sexism?”, and so on.

Most importantly, the move towards economic specialization through technical training should be seen as a product of changes in 20th century capitalism, in particular the movement toward service economies that preceded alongside outsourcing labor to the developing/third world.

Antonio Gramsci made such an observation long before interpreting was a profession. It’s important for us to ponder how this change has impacted us.


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