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.

RID Response to Fake Interpreter Lacks Urgency, Misses Opportunity? (Updated and Corrected)


This post broadens our analysis of the fake interpreter episode by looking at responses from interpreting organizations, especially RID here in the United States.

I felt devastated and frustrated when I watched the interpreting disaster Mandela’s funeral last week. To me, it symbolized the systemic, global, unequal treatment of Deaf persons. But when I watched RID’s Dawn Whitcher’s response to the interpreter scandal, I felt a disappointment of a different kind. Sort of how I felt to watch the undefeated OSU Buckeyes lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game the other week.

Dawn is the president of RID, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, the organization that represents over 12,000 interpreters in the U.S. She is a talented and passionate interpreter, and I respect her commitment to RID. It takes courage to put yourself online with a public statement. However, the statement that RID released on YouTube and on their website struck me as a missed opportunity. I want to explain why I feel that way, and also present some counter-examples and solutions.

RID Official Statement on Fake Interpreter

Let’s start with the video. Several years of research on undocumented immigration enforcement have made me sensitive to the way that political issues become represented in popular media. Let me remind everyone that sign language interpreters haven’t received this much attention since Marley Matlin won the Oscar for Children of a Lesser God in 1986. This is a crucial moment for RID. Click here for the English statement, and here’s the video statement:

Here’s my impression. I wonder if you feel the same. First, I thought the video was emotionally flat, which contrasts sharply with the utterly outrageous circumstances that RID was responding to. I think this is an outcome of the overly-reflective nature of the content. I understand that we are all trying to be patient and understand exactly what happened. But from an organizational perspective, we need something punchy. Let’s see some passion!

Second, the statement wandered and compromised its own authority. I waited and waited for something specific until the president started signing “…and now RID wants to offer our OPINION, too”. I went livid in my chair. Opinion? RID is supposed to be the premier interpreting organization in the U.S. RID is our organization of representation because they are experts in providing, managing, and certifying interpreting services. RID doesn’t have an “opinion” (in my opinion). RID has an authoritative statement based on 50 years of experience, on behalf of 12,000 (oops, that’s AILA, got my orgs mixed up)  16,000 members, and in support of (about) one million Deaf people who use interpreting services in the U.S. Now is not the time to be circumspect. Be bold!

Third, there didn’t seem to be any direct point to the video. RID says it was “SHOCKED”, but there was nothing substantively shocking about what they had to say in response. The signed version has some thoughtful comments about language as a human right, but even when the statement is signed “VIOLATED THOSE RIGHTS”, it is signed with an uncertain tone, that reads like this: “Well, I guess this guy probably violated the language rights of Deaf people?” (rising intonation at the end). For a good counter-example, see NAD’s YouTube statement on protecting Deaf schools – you really get a sense that we need to respond urgently to the needs of Deaf student now! I’ve also searched RID’s English translation for a single strong affirmative statement. Instead, it’s filled with waffling, equivocating, pensive sentences that reads like a meditation on some minor insult from the distant past.

[Added: As Zizek claims in the Guardian, this depoliticized appropriation of Mandela is symptomatic of the act of ignoring the ongoing crisis around the world and in South Africa today: growing inequality, ongoing racism, environmental degradation, etc.. In other words, drawing on Mandela’s quotes in isolation without drawing on his fervent activism is the central contradiction of the politics of Mandela’s memorialization.]

Most important, RID’s statement announces a big question, How can we prevent this unfortunate and oppressive situation from happening again? Exactly what we all want to know. But the statement itself can’t seem to identify the problem or a point towards a tangible solution. [Added: Again, just to be clear: this is not a fault of RID or of Dawn. But it is an indication of the crisis of meaning in late capitalism. See my posts on Judith Butler and Gramsci for related material.]


I don’t intend for my comments to be harsh. My criticism is out of my deep desire to see RID wildly succeed as the collective face of interpreters in the U.S. The stakes are high and the opportunity is unique. It’s important for all of us – not just RID – to be ready to respond to moments like this.

We can do better

Someone once told me that pointing out a problem without identifying a solution is complaining. I wouldn’t write this critical public statement about an organization I love without pointing out what we can do better. Let’s start by looking at statements from other organizations similar to RID.

EFSLI (European Forum for Sign Language Interpreters) opened up their snappy, one-paragraph statement with this sentence. Think about how it contrasts to RID’s statement, and how EFSLI prioritize a major point from the beginning.

“The world is at last taking notice that untrained and, as in this case, incompetent interpreters are denying Deaf people access to important events that the rest of us take for granted.”

Slam! A reporter can easily put that into a column. No beating around the bush, no hedging, no waffling, no pensive meditations on a quote by Mandela. And whose fault is this “scandal”? EFSLI answers:

“…it is the fault of the policy makers who often don’t think it is important that those who work to give Deaf people access to the essential services we take for granted are properly trained.”

Ouch! Heads up elected leaders – we expect you to do better. And EFSLI is doing better. They wrote their statement alongside the “the European Parliament launching its ‘Learning Outcomes’ for interpreter training programmes. The initiative, which has been fully supported by the European Commission, is just the latest example of EFLSI’s commitment to raising the standards of interpreting across Europe and, with it, the ideal of full citizenship for Deaf people.”  Knockout! EFSLI is doing something about this problem as we read the statement. We need to learn from this. We need to have a short, snappy statement that is backed up by meaningful, direct action.

Let’s turn to ASLI (Association of Sign Language Interpreters), our sister organization in the UK. They quote from the WASLI/WFD statement (which I think is a little soft, too). But then open up with this:

ASLI strongly advocates the use of appropriately qualified interpreters in all domains. The sad incident at the Mandela memorial is not a one off occurrence. In the UK unqualified or inappropriate individuals are often used in place of trained and qualified interpreters. This has been central to many of our campaign messages.

There are two examples here that could be incorporated in the the RID statement. First, they have a clear statement of what they advocate for, and what they advocate against. Second, they bring it back to how ASLI is creating programs right now to solve this problem. The ASLI statement goes on to mention a specific program they are working on now to make sure that “only appropriately trained and NRCPD registered interpreters are used in health care domains.” In contrast, RID’s statement doesn’t take a clear stand for and against, and doesn’t mention any of its own programs by name. It might leave the reader wondering, is RID doing anything to improve the quality of interpreting in the U.S.?

Why does this matter? I mean, it’s just a little public statement, right? Wrong. We interpreters should know better than anyone how important it is to say things accurately and powerfully. Press releases may seem irrelevant. But press releases are often what drive news articles, get cited in academic research, and preserve the history of the profession in the permanent record. Especially at a time when interpreters have more public attention, we need to get this right.

How Would You Rewrite RID’s Public Statement?

Here’s my attempt to rewrite the statement. It’s not perfect. But I hope that it provides an example of a more assertive, powerful statement – the kind of statement I would have liked to see from RID. It’s not too late. RID could edit their statement to make it stronger.

“The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) strongly condemns the disgraceful quality of sign language interpreting services provided at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg, South Africa on December 10, 2013. Mandela’s life-long fight for justice should have been commemorated by being accessible to the South African Deaf community as a linguistic and cultural minority. Instead, allies and members of the Deaf community suffered an injustice at the hands of an unqualified and unvetted interpreter who failed to provide even a minimum level of access for sign language users. Yet we recognize that this unfortunate event is not the result of one individual, nor is this an isolated incident. Unqualified interpreters are frequently hired out of convenience rather than based on professional credentials. We hope that this raises the public awareness of the systemic injustice to the Deaf community and the detrimental effect this has on businesses and federal agencies who mistakenly or willfully hire unqualified interpreters. RID has worked hard for 50 years to raise the quality of sign language interpreting services. Today we administer the most widely recognized professional interpreter credential, the National Interpreter Certification, in partnership with the National Association for the Deaf. We stand with our over-12,000 U.S. members and the global Deaf community in this moment of disappointment. We call on our elected leaders, leaders in the business community, and the wider concerned public to work with us to make sure this situation doesn’t happen again.”

Update (12/17/2013): I noticed that RID was mentioned in a news report was today on the PBS “Lost in Translation” article, and the this NYT article. I’m glad to see coverage.

More Problems with Fake Sign Language Interpreter

When the news that the interpreter at Mandela’s memorial service came out yesterday, I tried to write up a quick analysis that pointed out the systemic problems that led to the now-famous incident in Johannesburg. Today, more information has come out about the interpreter.

Nelson Mandela's memorial service


In an interview, Thamsanqa Jantjie (the “fake interpreter”), made several important statements, which I want to think through. (Articles on CNN, Daily News, and USA Today.)

1. He claimed that he is a schizophrenic and he was suffering from a hallucinatory episode on stage, which explain why his interpretation was gibberish.

I am skeptical that Jantjie’s incomprehensible signing can be explained as the result of a psychological event. I don’t believe that hallucinations lead to apraxia (the inability to produce meaningful language). If anything, hallucinations lead to hyperactive language production. Also, a psychological event would likely impair much more than just language production, and I can’t understand how he could continue for so long on stage under these conditions as if nothing were going on. If we remember the case of the reporter who had the stroke on the air, that was a case where language production rapidly disintegrated into apraxia of speech (see video here). But this isn’t something that you can keep up for hours on stage.

2. He claimed that his hallucinatory episode resulted in temporary hearing loss, which effected his ability to interpret.

This explanation contradicts the last one. In this explanation, the hallucination impaired or conflicted with his ability to hear, in which case he couldn’t interpret reliably. As every interpreter knows, you don’t lose your ability to sign fluently just because you can’t hear your source message. Again, even during a hallucination, my understanding is that your language (spoken or signed) might not make logical sense to other people in the room, but that doesn’t mean that it’s grammatical gibberish.

3. He claimed that his he has interpreted often at public events and no one told him his interpretation was wrong.

The news outlets have already found evidence of prior complaints about this interpreter, so this doesn’t seem to hold up on factual grounds. But this explanation also seems to backpedal against the other two. In general, I’m not sure I can even begin to make sense of what happened on stage, how Jantjie ended up there, and if he even recognizes the gravity of the insult to the Deaf community and professional interpreters.

Bigger Problems than Jantjie

Let’s not get too distracted, however. As I stated in my post yesterday, this entire wretched debacle is not really about Jantjie. It’s about the socially acceptable level of ignorance and injury that the Deaf community is forced to live with regularly. How many times does this happen in South Africa when the cameras are off? How many times each day does it happen in the U.S. when a Deaf individuals shows up to school or a doctor’s appointment with an unqualified “interpreter” who took a few classes at a community library? The media will clamor for a few days over the details of Jantjie, government agencies will point fingers at each other until the spotlight shines elsewhere, and we’ll be back in a world where little has changed.

Will our professional organizations find a way to capitalize upon this moment to publicly point out the egregious ignorance about interpreters and the Deaf community? Can we be ready to use a public event like this to send a message here in the U.S. and everywhere in the world?

Sign Language Interpreter at Mandela’s Memorial Services Was a Fake

Despite important gains in public awareness and human rights, many people are still proudly ignorant about sign language and deafness. Homophobic comments are increasingly seen as socially unacceptable, regardless of individual beliefs. Anti-semitism is highlighted and denounced in the news. Racial slurs, such as the ones by Don Imus, are viewed as obviously ridiculous But  broad social consensus indicates that it is still acceptable to be ignorant about the Deaf community and about sign languages.

The most recent and egregious example comes from Johannesburg, South Africa at the memorial service for the great Nelson Mandela. The sign language interpreter at the ceremony was not only unqualified – he was a complete fake. What’s worse, it seems like this isn’t the first time this interpreter has been hired for public events! The Deaf Federation of South Africa has apparently released a comment saying that the interpreter wasn’t signing anything of meaning in South Africa sign language or American Sign Language. As we often say, interpreters only get recognized when things go wrong – we rarely get recognized for being qualified and doing our job.

This particular event may simply be a product of the overall poor organization of the memorial service, as some news sources have commented upon. But it illustrates the point once again that when society has to make tough decisions about who should have access to information and who shouldn’t, the Deaf and signing community gets excluded. Once again, we see that the pejorative view of sign languages lead people to think that they can just “fake it” without the slightest embarrassment. Once again, we see that  ignorance about the field of interpreting leads people to think that interpreting is an irrelevant social “performance”.

Mandela’s own fight for justice should inspire us to push for Deaf rights and demand qualified interpreters.


Click here or the image above to see the video.