Trouble in Malta: Interpreting Services are Vanishing

As you all know, I pay close attention to the daily news coming out of Malta, the small island off the southern coast of Sicily. (Okay, that’s a joke. But click here for a map if you don’t know where Malta is.) And the big news recently is that interpreting services are nearly going away as a result of the lack of government funds for interpreters – or a lack of will of the government to fund interpreting services. It’s always so hard to tell, isn’t it?

Is a Malta a microcosm of the coming collapse of interpreting services? Or is it specific to the island economy of this small, Mediterranean land? (And honestly, if interpreting was going south, wouldn’t you rather lose your job on a beautiful island than in rural Ohio? And is there an old colonial bias in the phrase “going south”, as if “going south” implies that things are getting worse? After the last economic meltdown started squarely in northern housing economies, maybe we should say “going north” to mean that something is tanking.)

In any case, here’s your news of the day. (Click headline to see full article.)

Malta Deaf Association warns of collapse of sign language interpreting services

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.

Why May Day Matters for Interpreters


May Day is a unique international celebration of labor rights movements. On recent discussion boards, interpreters have been discussing the detrimental impact that comprehensive interpreting agencies have been having on sign language interpreting services. However, much of the discussion continues to view this problem within the potentially limited framework of what is best for the Deaf consumer or best for the interpreting field. On May Day, I think it’s important to remember that worker rights – including the right of interpreters to provide quality services – is an international struggle within the economic system known as capitalism. To understand what’s happening in the interpreting field, we have to understand labor and capital more broadly and recognize that no efforts to improve the quality of interpreting services will be possible without organizing across professions. Unfortunately, a countervailing trend in the interpreting profession is to view interpreting as a unique and often solitary profession. I hope that we can reflect on these problems on May Day.


Why is ASL so important to Deaf culture?



This post cannot answer the title question thoroughly. Nor is this a “study” of Deaf individuals’ narrative frameworks for understanding ASL and culture. (Interestingly, no such research exists.) Rather, this is an attempt to understand how ASL and Deaf culture have been conceptually linked, and how this particular link between language and culture is a double-edged sword.

In his 2005 article on “Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World”, Harlan Lane provides a well-argued critique of applying the term disability to Deaf individuals. Lane suggests that hearing people should view the Deaf community as an ethnicity, and he provides long list of properties which are intended to demonstrate that Deaf people are an “ethnicity”: language, kinship, “the arts”, social structure, values, knowledge, customs, etc. In the short paragraph describing language, Lane quotes well-known linguist, Joshua Fishman, in defense of language as a primary ethnic marker. I’ll quote the entire paragraph:

“‘The mother tongue is an aspect of the soul of a people. It is their achievement par excellence. Language is the surest way for individuals to safeguard or recover the authenticity they inherited from their ancestors as well as to hand it on to generations yet unborn’ (Fishman, 1989, p. 276). Competence in ASL is a hallmark of Deaf ethnicity in the United States and some other parts of North America. A language not based on sound is the primary element that sharply demarcates the Deaf-World from the engulfing hearing society.” (Lane 2005)

Anyone with a week of experience in the Deaf community will grasp the common sense of this statement. As Mindess quotes in an epigraph on page 110 (a quote from Schein 1989) of Reading Between the Signs, “For many members of the Deaf community, they and ASL are indistinguishable. Their self-concept is based on being Deaf and being Deaf to them means using ASL.” Interpreting students learn this simple fact from Stewart, Schein, and Cartwright (1998), too: “ASL is the language of the Deaf community.” (134) Minor quibbles aside, these are rather incontestable observations as far as I can tell. And they are – or should be – foundational knowledge of sign language interpreters.

But there is something missing for me.

Something is Missing

What’s missing for me is a history of the ideas that make the Deaf community a community – or ethnicity, or culture, or linguistic minority – and which therefore make interpreting a profession in the first place. I hope the following illustration explains what I think is missing from our current literature and creates an opening for further discussion within interpreting in the future. (See post What Do Interpreters Need to Accomplish?)

If we could summarize the above quotes in a brief assertion that sounds like anthropology 101, it would go something like this: “Language is one of the primary markers of distinct social groups.” This has been true for as far back as the historical record shows. But there’s a twist. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that language took on a particularly powerful role in defining social groups in the sense that we think of it today.

What is language and culture?

The main figure in this evolution is Johann Gottfried von Herder (according to Peter Watson in The German Genius). Locke claimed that language was a natural phenomenon, not a divine gift – a transformation in thought that interpreters should certainly revisit. But it was Herder who gave language a new power it didn’t have before. It’s worth quoting from Watson’s book at length:

“Language identifies a Volk or nationality, and this, the historico-psychological entity of the common language, is for him ‘the most natural and organic basis for political organisation… Without its own language a Volk is an absurdity (Unding). … A Volk, on this theory, is the natural division of the human race, endowed with its own language, which it must preserve as its most distinctive and sacred possession.”

Herder should also be known for his advocacy a rather new idea at the time: culture. For Herder, “whatever the ‘collective consciousness’ of a Volk was at any particular time, was its culture.” (The term Zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – was Herder’s neologism.) For Herder, these concepts of Volk, language, culture, and nation are all intertwined. Ultimately, all of these features reach their height in the establishment of a nation-state, a political organization which has the authority to represent the political will of the people – in fact, the state itself is the political will of the people.

Why does this matter?

First, I think Herder’s original writings are more philosophically robust than most of what we find in interpreting literature today. This is not a criticism of books about interpreting, but it suggests that there is much to be gained from reading the original texts of thinkers who we often think of as old and irrelevant. This may not interest most working interpreters. But working interpreters deserve to know that it hasn’t interested scholars in Deaf studies and interpreting either. In other words, despite about 50 years of scholarship in our field, we still don’t know where our ideas came from. This is no small matter. And it would be a great topic for a MA thesis is anyone out there is thinking of going back to school. (See post All Interpreters are Philosophers.)

Second, I think we can detect in these excerpts the double-edged sword that is about to fall on Western civilization. This is a bit more complex, but it is very important. When Herder argues that language is the most natural, authentic characteristic of social groups, he is lending support to the idea that “natural divisions of the human race” exist, and therefore can’t be challenged. This is known today as essentialism. And he is lending support for the newly-formed nation-states of Europe. By 1945, these European states and their many counterparts in the Third World will have experienced a century of nearly unending conflict and war precisely on the basis of these “natural” human divisions. Horkheimer and Adorno will later call this the “triumphant calamity” of the enlightenment. (See The Culture Bargain post.)

Third, this is the time (late 1700s, early 1800s) that what we now call the Deaf community was beginning to take its modern form in Europe and the U.S. Notably, early texts written by Deaf individuals refer to themselves as a “nation”, not as a culture. Culture didn’t take on its modern meaning in English until the 1860s, and didn’t fall into common use until the 20th century. Interestingly, when it did enter English in the 1860s, it was introduced by German-trained anthropologists who were trying to identify and categorize Herder’s “natural divisions of the human race”. In other words, the term culture has a particularly colonial ring to it. Culture, like Herder’s theory of language, is going to but both ways against the emerging Deaf community. The Deaf community will see itself as a “nation” during the 1800s, and by the late 1960s, see itself as a “culture” (with the aid of hearing academics, no small matter, indeed). But culture and language are also going to be the tools of oppression. Deaf people do not have Herder’s nation-state to back them up. Quite the contrary, it will be the ASL users themselves who will later be seen as deviating from the national cultural model. (See Anthropology’s Culture Problem post.)

Our ideas using us more than we are using our ideas

Lane was right: ASL matters to Deaf culture. But when we claim, as we often do, that language and culture are inseparable, it can make it seem as if this is how it has always been since the beginning of time. Or it seems that this way of thinking is “natural”. In fact, this idea is relatively recent. And this idea has cut both ways, sometimes hurting the Deaf community, sometimes empowering the Deaf community. Without attention to where these ideas came from, I can’t help but think that we are captive to these ideas. When we are captive to our ideas, it becomes hard to imagine a different world and our options for advocacy are stunted, hampered, restricted. Our ideas using us more than we are using our ideas. It is worth our time to excavate these ideas and enrich our ability to be excellent interpreters and strong advocates.

This is not a definitive answer to the question, “Why Does ASL Matter to the Deaf community?”. But it is an often-overlooked part of a larger answer.

List of references:

  • Lane, H. L. (2005). Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 10(3), 291–310. doi:10.1093/deafed/eni030
  • Mindess, A. (1999). Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. Intercultural Press.
  • Stewart, D. A., Schein, J. D., & Cartwright, B. E. (1998). Sign language interpreting: Exploring its art and science.
  • Watson, P. (2011). The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century. HarperCollins.

Sorenson Files for Bankruptcy

Thanks to Street Leverage, I just found out that Sorenson has filed for bankruptcy (Reuters). On this blog, I have tried to emphasize the need for interpreters to think beyond the everyday. We need to understand interpreting within a broader philosophical landscape. And we need to recognize the structural – economic, political, legislative – conditions that make interpreting possible and drive the profession. (No, the Deaf community doesn’t drive the profession – we don’t have to like it, but we should recognize it if we want to change it.)

Sorenson’s bankruptcy is no small matter. They have been a huge funder for Gallaudet and for interpreting workshops (our field’s main way for advancing knowledge). While the press release claims that employees won’t be affected, I find that hard to believe. So I guess we’ll just have to see. There’s so much room for a good economic and political analysis of these circumstances. Unfortunately, we will probably have to settle for polemics.


Introduction to Politics for Interpreters

Python Witch
“How do you know she’s a witch?” — “She looks like one!”

Today we are going to deal with how interpreters can and perhaps should think about politics – the politics of our own field and political action in practice.

Let’s start with one prompt and two interrelated problems. First, the prompt. The unqualified interpreter as Mandela’s ceremony has stimulated public attention on interpreters. The details of the incident are in many ways secondary. The real impact of the incident was to create a flash-bulb which illuminated the amazing, professional work that the majority of interpreters do everyday. But it also illuminated some central problems in our field.

Now, the interrelated problems. The first problem is that interpreters seem generally unprepared to respond to public attention with urgency and coordination. The second problem is that the interpreting field itself of marred by hostile politics. Neither of these problems are judgements of individual interpreters, but they are symptoms of the marginality of the field and the lack of strong leadership and collaborative discipline that marginalization engenders.

For instance, I posted a review of RID’s response to the events in Jo’burg as a way of applying discourse analysis (a common technique in our field) to political texts produced by our own organization. The RID statement is an important text which I  understand as an indication of both of the problems I outlined above. First, it indicates our struggle to respond effectively to an event that became politicized in the media. (By “politicized”, I mean that the event was turned into an object of political discourse.) Second, RID’s response was not, for me, an indication of the organization’s inherent moral worth or (in)competence, as many on blogs and Facebook took great pleasure in denouncing. Rather, RID’s response itself is an indication of the destructive horizontal violence that permeates the field of interpreting. The ability of RID to respond effectively was dramatically hampered by internal debates within the membership over who gets to speak for interpreters, what kind of ASL gets represented on video, who within the organization can make a statement on behalf of the organization, and on and on. These problems cannot be ignored as being specific to a momentary crisis. Rather, they are the product of years of contests over which various individuals – hearing and Deaf – have argued over the idea of an ideal “Deaf community” to justify particular professional opinions, or to create and defend insular realms of relative authority over other interpreters. This doesn’t automatically disqualify or undermine claims of authenticity. Nor does it mean that the Deaf community is only imaginary and not actually real. Of course the Deaf community exists; it’s just that every real community also has an “imaginary” aspect of it which holds it together.

What worries me is that  it seems like when we try to challenge oppression, the result is that we end up re-internalizing oppression within our professional community. (See crab mentality.)

To emphasize: none of the problems are specific to interpreters or the Deaf community. These problems have analogs in every marginal profession, every minority social group, every shade of political viewpoint. To be sure, there are specific aspects of the problem within the interpreting community which are qualitatively different. But we are mistaken when we think that these problems are the special ownership of specific people or even specific people groups.

What to do? I have some starting points or premises that I’m trying to work from.

1. Be cautious about using vague terms to screen each other. When I started in interpreting it was ATTITUDE. If you had ATTITUDE or make a public confession of the importance of ATTITUDE (often in ASL classes from one hearing student to another) then you gained authenticity. In some parts of the field, the current term is DEAF-HEART.  It’s not that these terms are useless. Often the power of such vague terms is that they provide a way for otherwise powerless groups to screen membership. But this can also become a way to justify  horizontal aggression. But Deaf and CODA interpreters deserve to know that these terms are frequently used by hearing interpreters to belittle each other.

2. Think beyond the level of individuals. Individual subject positions are the product of social and political contradictions, not the immediate cause. We cannot continue to blame underpaid and underrepresented interpreters for the failures of the profession, nor can we pretend that if we only had better leaders that we can resolve the fundamental problems we all care about. (As I often say to may students, “racism doesn’t need racists,” – i.e. racism can be an active social force even if individuals don’t expressly hate each other based on racial classification.)

As Zizek wrote in his book on violence,

“We should learn how to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible “subjective” violence…”

3. Pick a different starting point. I suggest beginning with understanding the political economy of interpreting. By political economy, I mean the economic position of interpreting services in late capitalism as one tiny part of social relations. This helps us to avoid blaming each other for problems that are endemic to global affairs, thereby lessening the horizontal violence in our field. And it might help us formulate a political agenda that creates practical, effective solutions for working interpreters.

This may prompt new questions:

  • what does it means to act “politically”?
  • what is the “political economy of interpreting” look like? (or should look like?)
  • where should we focus our scarce resources?
  • how radical we can be and still be successful?
  • what strategies and tactics will protect working interpreters and the Deaf community? or such a thing impossible?
  • what ideas should we draw upon to reshape our thinking about interpreting?

Ultimately, there’s more to say about all this. I will give what I have to work in this direction. I hope there are others out there who want to work on this project with me.

ASL Interpreters Among Peers

Much to do has been made about whether sign language interpreters should consider spoken language interpreters partners in the same profession or similarly-titled language workers with vastly different everyday experience. 


The “separate-but-equal” argument has been promoted by people on both side of the isle, from Dennis Cokely to the AIIC (click here to read more about the AIIC). I believe there is good reason to view interpreting as a whole profession regardless of some important differences. I’ll come back to this question in a later post. But for now, I’m back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Basically, I want to know what percent of interpreters nationwide and by state are sign language interpreters. There are two pieces of data. (1) RID membership, which I’m using as a proxy for working interpreters even though I know this is far from true. (2) The total people who identified as a 27-3091, the BLS code for an interpreter or translator. If you look at the numbers below, you can tell just how wonky this approach is. Nationwide, RID members make up about one-third of all reported interpreters and/or translators. Yet in some states, there are more RID members than interpreters/translators!

Here are some plausible explanations for what’s going on. I hope that you will suggest more explanations for the data, and perhaps send better data if you have it. This is a community exercise. We should all know what’s going on in our profession, shouldn’t we?

  1. The BLS data is skewed because not everyone who works as an interpreter is filling out 27-3091 on their IRS paperwork. (That is where the BLS is getting their data, n’est pas?
  2. The RID membership numbers are not entirely working interpreters.
  3. The RID membership numbers represent only a fraction of working ASL interpreters (which fraction, then?)
  4. In many cases, interpreting is so part-time that it’s hard to get accurate data.
  5. Many interpreters aren’t claiming interpreting wages on their taxes.
States RID Members Total Interpreters/Translators (BLS) Percent of Total are RID members
Total 15,617 48050 32.50%
Alabama 174 290 60.00%
Alaska 49 50 98.00%
Arizona 460 1470 31.29%
Arkansas 82 90 91.11%
California 1,762 7860 22.42%
Colorado 343 1200 28.58%
Connecticut 188 280 67.14%
Delaware 36 unk
District of Columbi 147 400 36.75%
Florida 1,064 1930 55.13%
Georgia 420 1410 29.79%
Hawaii 62 190 32.63%
Idaho 83 250 33.20%
Illinois 500 1570 31.85%
Indiana 298 870 34.25%
Iowa 151 420 35.95%
Kansas 88 580 15.17%
Kentucky 273 400 68.25%
Louisiana 150 350 42.86%
Maine 104 150 69.33%
Maryland 565 870 64.94%
Massachusetts 357 1820 19.62%
Michigan 407 690 58.99%
Minnesota 755 1220 61.89%
Mississippi 43 110 39.09%
Missouri 169 680 24.85%
Montana 30 50 60.00%
Nebraska 75 450 16.67%
Nevada 95 310 30.65%
New Hampshire 65 180 36.11%
New Jersey 354 590 60.00%
New Mexico 240 280 85.71%
New York 1,007 3590 28.05%
North Carolina 419 130 322.31%
North Dakota 21 1870 1.12%
Ohio 620 330 187.88%
Oklahoma 106 1030 10.29%
Oregon 280 1470 19.05%
Pennsylvania 546 310 176.13%
Puerto Rico 22 120 18.33%
Rhode Island 34 390 8.72%
South Carolina 96 230 41.74%
South Dakota 81 560 14.46%
Tennessee 237 3860 6.14%
Texas 735 640 114.84%
Utah 206 90 228.89%
Vermont 37 4000 0.93%
Virginia 455 1170 38.89%
Washington 542 110 492.73%
West Virginia 50 1070 4.67%
Wisconsin 371 70 530.00%
Wyoming 14 unk

What do sign language interpreters need to accomplish?

What do interpreters need to collectively accomplish? (Which is really a way of saying, what do *I* hope to accomplish?)

  1. A History of our Profession: It is popular today for interpreters to claim legitimacy by remembering the good old days, or to give homage to a few senior names in the field. But this is not what I mean. We need to understand the historical circumstances within which interpreting emerged as an increasingly professional practice. This is not a history of individuals, but a history of the knowledge of interpreting. During this 50th anniversary year of the founding of RID, we have an opportunity to do this. But we also risk re-telling our history only through individualistic accounts at the expense of a more holistic analysis of the cultural and political circumstances of our profession.
  2. A Critique of Ourselves: There is too much criticism and too little critique. Criticism is about pointing out faults and trying to correct mistakes through righting wrongs. Critique is the practice of recognizing the conditions of ones own existence, and determining what direction we might move in to create a different future. The moment for critique is always now.
  3. A Class Analysis of Interpreting: Despite the fiery accusations that hearing interpreters take advantage of the Deaf community, we have largely overlooked the fact that interpreters are largely marginal laborers in the post-industrial service economy, have no substantial political representation, and lack (like more and more workers) the basic protections of job security, wage security, and health care. The identity politics of the Deaf-Hearing divide is important, for sure. But it should not keep us from talking about class.
  4. Better Literature: Yes, intellectual production is important, especially if interpreters are getting paid as traditional intellectuals. The current literature on ASL interpreting is (mostly, not entirely) overly-schematic, borrow concepts simplistically and uncritically from other fields, and do little to develop a coherent theoretical and practical framework for understanding interpreting. If the new generation of interpreters stay committed, they might be able to effect some change in this area.
  5. A Good Answer to Why Interpreting Matters: Why should I be an interpreter? Initial answers may include: learn to sign with a friend, make a living doing something I love, help the Deaf community. All of which are totally acceptable answers, in my opinion. But does interpreting have any social value beyond this? Are there concrete benefits of interpreting to the Deaf community, to the hearing community, to businesses, to schools, to the world? And how might we represent those benefits? We need to play the long game.
  6. Concrete Wins: We need interpreters to work together to effect small but concrete changes that benefit the field and the client base. And those wins need to be advertised to the interpreting community at large, and released to the media. We need to believe (and we need others to believe) that interpreting isn’t just some loosey-goosey social club of people who know a little ASL. We need to have the vision to set clear goals and the power to realize those goals.

Those are my goals. What would you add? Take away? Modify?

How Will the Government Shutdown Effect the Deaf Community?

The current stalemate in Congress reminds us that the modern state is more fragile than we often think. And when – not if – the state freezes up, the effects are unevenly distributed throughout society. Not everyone will be effected equally by the shut-down.

This is perhaps a good time to remember that the U.S. federal government is the largest employer of people with disabilities. For employment purposes, this includes sign language users within the Deaf community. And not only does the government employ many individuals who are Deaf, the government employs the largest number of Deaf professionals at salaries that allow for a reasonable standard of living. In Columbus, Ohio, the largest employer is the federal military accounting center on the east side of town. I interpret there often and with great enthusiasm because I love the community of professionals who do an amazing job everyday.

But I can’t help but wonder this evening, How will the shutdown effect them? It’s one thing to watch the news with exasperated sighs and eye-rolling about government inefficiency. It’s another thing to recognize that Washington politics has a very tangible effect on people that I care about. Not to mention several of our best interpreters have highly-coveted full-time positions at the accounting center. What does this mean for their livelihood?

Interpreters and Deaf folks have always been a resilient bunch. However, this should remind us that for centuries sign language peoples have been excluded from education and full employment. When they have gain a relative advantage in the labor market – such as at the Goodyear factory in Ohio during World War I and II – they have always been selectively and tentatively employed. Selectively, because Deaf employees have often been pigeonholed into certain jobs (printers, manual laborers, ASL teachers) with little hope of advancement. Tentatively, because Deaf employees have typically been hired only where hearing workers are lacking and they have been the first to get laid off when industries started to decline. In short, Deaf employees have had to take the jobs benevolently tossed their way, and served at the leisure of employees who see them as expendable.

Back to the government shutdown. I have no doubt that the so-called shutdown is an overblown performance by a few far-right Republicans hoping to profit from the mixed response to the Affordable Care Act. Regardless of the reasoning, the fallout of these performances tends to disproportionately impact vulnerable communities, precisely those communities who, due to structural reasons beyond their control, are the least able to cope with a downturn and successfully recover.

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.