Interpreters are language professionals that sell their unique skill set to customers who need to meet their communication needs. Interpreters are certainly knowledge workers, although we are a peculiar kind in that our work is not captured in easily defined “products”.
This means that it’s all the more important for interpreters, many of whom are independent contractors or freelancers, to put a face on their work. To have an online presence and perhaps a portfolio.
Not a blog, like this one. A real website that sells your image as a professional and allows people to hire you.
But after a quick internet search last night, I noticed that unlike other knowledge workers, I can’t find any ASL interpreters who have their own professional websites.
Do you know of any interpreters with professional websites?
Do you think interpreters should have professional websites?
Why are they so rare in our field?
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I did not expect to love the film Julie and Julia so much. But there’s something I love about a pudgy expat woman in her 40s sticking it to the publishing industry, French aristocracy, and TV culture.
Julie Child is famous for saying “cook with the courage of your convictions.” And although I have no idea if she actually said this, I like it.
And here’s why I thought of it. Just this week I started teaching an online course for 15 working interpreters from around Ohio. To start the course, I spoke with each participant on the phone to hear more about what moves them.
I loved hearing their stories of struggle and success. Interpreters who, despite being misunderstood by virtually everyone in the school system, have found bold, creative ways to empower mainstreamed deaf students against all odds.
These interpreters don’t check their job description before caring for others. They don’t start by saying, “that’s not my job.” They don’t assume that someone else will solve these problems. They jump in. They find a way. They make things happen.
Despite the educational industry. Despite the interpreting aristocracy. Despite the culture that tells them to do the minimum work possible to collect a paycheck.
“Bravo!” Julie Child applauds you.
In 1981, the year I was born, Sharon Neumann Solow published a book through RID press called Sign Language Interpreting: a Basic Resource Book.
The small, brown book predates most of what is available now, include the Baker-Shenk and Cokely green book of ASL linguistics. Sharon’s simple and direct language provides practical guidance to working interpreters on matters of interpreter placement, ethics, and special situations. I loved the fact that she included a list of discussion questions and citations at the end of each chapter. But perhaps my favorite part is the series of sketched images that appear throughout the text, such as the following:
I especially love the “fabric background” idea. I imagine interpreters carrying around black smocks, fabric backgrounds, and foldable partitions.
Even though some of the suggestions in the book appear dated 34 (!) years later, I’m moved by how relevant and current the format is. For instance:
- The chapters are short and uncomplicated, which means people might actually read it. The entire book barely cross 100 pages, perfect for interpreters on the move.
- The book actually contains citations – a crucial part of tracing the development of thought over time.
- Most of the suggestions are nuanced and still accurate, such as: “[Sign-to-voice interpreting] is probably no harder than voice-to-sign interpreting, but hearing audiences, being generally less exposed to interpreters, rely differently on the interpreter than the average deaf audience.” (51)
- The typesetting and hand-sketched images is simple but effective, especially when compared to the design catastrophe that is So You Want to Be an Interpreter?
Ideas do not necessarily get better over time, nor do the quality of books improve with technology. Sharon’s book is a great example of this.
Robyn Dean has her demand-control schema. But most of us have also used a less researched approach to interpreting: the demanding control schema.
The demanding control schema only works in cases where communication between clients has imploded to an irreparable level of chaos. Not because anyone is being nasty. Not because you’ve interpreting anything inaccurately. But just because the linguistic differences have subtly accumulated to the point where everyone is frustrated and no one knows why.
The demanding control schema says that interpreters with the right use of emotional intelligence and cultural capital can call a time-out and take a moment to explain the massive miscommunication to both sets of participants.
Demand control. For just a moment. In a patient, assertive way. Just long enough to get things on track.
(Sure, I’m just playing on the “demand control” language. There’s nothing actually “demanding” about this approach. But who says I can’t play on words just to have fun?)
I’ve seen this done. I’ve done it. It works well. Much better than when I’ve seen interpreters try to pretend that they can’t speak up. And they watch the communication ship crash on a reef and sink without ever shouting ‘ahoy!’
Why not speak up? Interpreters are hired because people need to communicate. We are language specialists. The idea that we “only interpret” and never speak as an independent professional is something we’ve invented for ourselves, not something clients are asking of us.
That’s the demanding control schema of interpreting.
There’s lots of discussion among interpreters today about who should be interpreting.
Should uncertified interpreters be allowed to work? Should every assignment have a Deaf interpreter? Are non-CODAs qualified to do difficult assignments? (Or any assignments?) What about a white interpreter working at a black cultural event? What about a woman interpreting for a man’s physical?
These are all very good questions. Important questions. Questions that need to be thought through and discussed as a community.
But these questions can also paralyze us, steal our courage. Because when we hear these questions. our mind starts racing to invent a thousand reasons why we are the wrong person. We shouldn’t have accepted this assignment. We aren’t good enough. Others will find out and judge us. Deaf consumers will tell their friends and I’ll never work again.
Let’s short-circuit that.
You are the right interpreter for the job.
You showed up. You’re here. You got the assignment and not someone else. You’ve worked hard to get here. Now do the best job you can. Be generous with your skills and your personality. And go home proud. Proud doesn’t mean that you can’t learn more. Proud means: I put myself out there, I survived, and I’m a better person for it.
“It is easy to be brave from a safe distance.” –Aesop
One of the best things I learned as an interpreter was the importance of being there.
Interpreters help people who can’t communicate with each other to communicated with each other. Bilingualism is a scarce resource, and when communication is important – in a doctor’s office, between teachers and students, in a job safety training – interpreters make a difference.
But you can’t make a difference if you’re not there. No one can do the job of an interpreter except the interpreter.
In jobs where you specialize in a task that is part of a larger project, other team members often know more or less how to do your task. It’s just that you might do it a little better or spend more time on it than they do.
Not true for interpreters. There is no winging – I mean really winging it – it when it comes to whether you know two languages and can negotiate a productive conversation.
All this means that interpreters need to show up and be present. It’s the hallmark of the profession. Every interpreter has stories about how one ran the last mile to their assignment after her car broke down, or how another sprained their ankle but went to their assignment before going to the ER.
I’d like to think that everyone, not just interpreters, has this responsibility to show up. To take our own being-present as important interpreters do. But even if everyone doesn’t, I try to. That’s one of the lessons I learned from being an interpreter: interpreters show up.
My recent pet peeve is introductions.
You know, the introductions that delay the start of a really good talk for five, ten, or even fifteen minutes. The ones where someone who is not the speaker you came to see has taken over the podium for several minutes. It gets even worse when there’s a host who introduces a dignitary speaker who then introduces the headlining speaker. Yes. This happens all the time.
We need to stop.
We need to stop because it’s not fair to audience participants. Audiences did not come to hear attention-starved administrators bait-and-switch us into providing them with a few moments of gratification.
We need to stop because its not fair to speakers who prepared great talks, and who are invited for a reason. And if someone is giving a talk, then they’re probably important enough that they are known in their specialty for what they do. That’s the whole point of inviting a speaker.
We need to stop because it takes an opportunity away from speakers to sell their ideas and hook us with what they have to say. If we really want us to know about someone’s credentials, pass out a CV, point us to a website, or even tell us at the end, which is when we are most likely to want to know more about who this person is with this great idea.
We definitely need to stop this bad habit in the academic world because its creating a culture of intellectual laziness.
What do I mean?
I mean that if academic work has any value, it’s because academics create new ideas and understandings that are useful for thinking about the world. So start the talk with the big idea, and if the idea is valuable, then I’ll want to know who they are. Don’t try to compensate for a useless idea by telling me how they had a great idea ten years ago. I don’t care. I want to know how the speaker is creating intellectual value now. If they’re not creating value, there’s no reason to give a talk. That’s not an insult, that’s just a reasonable threshold to cross if you’re asking for 90 minutes of my time.
The only people worth listening to are people who need no introduction. So don’t waste our time giving them one.
I love seeing how TV shows portray the shenanigans of having an interpreter. Here’s one from Friends, where Phoebe dates a guy who doesn’t speak English and who brings an interpreter along on a date.